The New Peculiar Institution

black in america 2

I’m not going to be able to watch this year’s “Black In America, Pt. 2” with America’s favorite Soledad O’Brien.  I did have the opportunity to watch it last year and like most in the black blogosphere ripped it to shreds. Most of us leveled the same charge that the two day special highlighted the problems of being black in America.  As if that wasn’t enough, most of us were aware that very little if any attention was paid to systemic problems that are a direct result of slavery, Jim Crow and what most of us recognize as institutionalized racism.

For those that aren’t aware, institutionalized racism is this peculiar system where racism is exhibited in much more subtle ways rather than the in your face assaults associated with the post-bellum South in the form of Jim Crow laws and police dogs and water hoses.  A form of institutionalized racism would be where an employer perusing job resume’s wouldn’t pay attention to someone with ethnic sounding names such as Lakeishia or Rontreveon for instance.  Aside from the external problems that causes on the level of racist attitudes, internally, African Americans criticize one another for the creativity of these names for the simple fact that Starleshia or Dreshawn won’t be able to get a job when they’re older.  In fact we internalize a public and systemic problem of racism and prejudices which isn’t our fault, and assume the burden ourselves.

I was spurred by an article by the Vernon Mitchell, Jr. aka Negro Intellectual over at yet another new project by the The Black Snob (isn’t she ambitious? Let’s give her a hand clap!!!!) that was designed with the specific purpose of sounding off about the CNN special entitled The Retort.  He suggested that perhaps CNN would have been better off to do a special named after Gunner Myrdal’s famous anthropological study “American Dilemma” and highlight the systemic problems about race in this country rather than, as Mitchell asserted the “Negro Problem.”

Most of us knew why suddenly CNN decided to do a special about race.  For many in America, this idea of a “post-racial” country had really been in operation since the mid-nineties if truth be told.  Once America had climbed the high post of the Reagan years, had seen the institution of the Martin Luther King holiday, and the symbolic replacement of esteemed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas, many in whatI will call a “first” America had thought we had gotten over and had gotten through some issues.  For this segment of the United States, the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots in and, the crisis in Haiti in 1994, the O.J. Simpson trial just to name a few were mere blips on the racial radar screen.  However for those of us who live in a Second America and are forced to operate in the dual consciousness of a First America, the killing of Amadou Diallou and most certainly the events following Hurricane Katrina were more evidence that we still hadn’t come as far as we’d like.

Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency forced this first America to deal with black folk again.  And yes, it comes all the way down to skin color. 

rednecksIf I can park here parenthetically for a moment, it amazes me that much of our issues as humans, pathologically is a difference in mere skin color.  It has nothing to do with eugenics or the science behind the physiognomy or other anatomical difference, but seriously skin color.  When many of us watched yet another CNN expose during the late spring of 2008 and we watched Hillary Clinton give her last ditch efforts to clinch the nomination, most of Generation X and younger who were raised in metropolitan climates were mildly horrified, to say the least, when CNN and other local and individual journalists who had access to a movie camera, went into the hills of West Virginia and Pennsylvania interviewing whites who were quite clear that they didn’t want no black man as the president of this country.

And they weren’t afraid to say it on camera.

So CNN, and Soledad perhaps, felt it was their duty to show America what it meant to be black in America.

Bully good job, I guess.

I think Mitchell was right that much of what was presented could have been entitled “The Black Problem In America” or even “The Problems With Being Black In America.”  From what I can remember, many felt that what was portrayed wasn’t the best cross-section of blacks in America.  Note, not of “what it meant to be black in America” but of simply blacks in America.  For instance, I remember that when it came to the issues of religion that they interviewed a family who was Church of Christ.

Seriously, Church of Christ?

I’m not knocking it as a real denomination because it most certainly is, but in the face of the historic black mainline denominations a few that have their premier inception prior to the Civil War, or the fact that modern-Pentecostal denominations as we know it as a world movement was started on these shores and as a result of a black man from Mississippi, I hardly think that Church of Christ accurately represented blacks in America.

And don’t get me started on the fact that they don’t believe in musical instruments in the church when clearly when one thinks of black churches, an instrumental ensemble is included in that thought.

I wonder what spurred CNN to air the dirty laundry of black America this second time.  From all reports, this second installation is appearing to be more of the same.

 Right.  More of the same.

This seems to be border-lining on exploitation to me.  I can only imagine what has ended up on the cutting room floor when it came to editing these clips.  I think what also is tell-tale to most of us in the black community is who they picked to lead this story: Soledad O’Brien.

Now, I do think it’s interesting as to just how situational blacks are when we pass judgments on people addressing ontological blackness.  

  1. dark skin light skinSkin Color and facial features and hair.  We place emphasis on blackness based on skin color.  On a color spectrum from the “s/he so black he purple” to the “light bright one shade from white.”  The darker the you are the “blacker” you are, the lighter you are the better chance you have of being called “white.”  (And yes, to address the skin color issue, while adults in our community may have treated the light skinned children better in class rooms and what not, it was another world for them out on the playground because of the preferential treatment they received.  Often times the playground or a dorm room played stage to the universal equalizer that many of the darker children meted out on the light skinned ones.)  If one is found to have the right amount of melanin in their skin, usually all judgments cease.  Not to mention if the person has nappy hair with bigger lips and a broader nose  If not, then we go to the next stage.
  2. Do he talk white?  If the person talks black as far as pronunciations and enunciations of words, it’s the end of the ontological blackness continuum.  And yes, there is a certain speech pattern.  Nine times out of ten, I can pick up the phone and tell whether I’m talking to a white person or a black person.  For us, I’m not sure if it’s genetic, or is it something that blacks have just learned to intuit for our own survival, or I could be way off base and maybe everyone can.  Nonetheless, if the person “sounds white” then we go to the third and final stage.
  3. Do s/he act black?  Using a word I don’t like, but since it’s a statement of fact I will, the spectrum goes all the way from “ackin’ like a nigga” all the way to “acting white.”  This includes a myriad of things such as body language to the way one dresses to the what one actually does as far as activities.  Does the person slouch in their chair versus perhaps sitting squarely in a chair?  Do they do weed or snort cocaine?  Do they go to Man Alive at the local mall or go across town to stop in American Eagle or Abercrombie & Fitch?  Do they go to the local crab shop or, to be local since I’m down here in Jacksonville, go to the Chicken Koop or go across town find a Starbucks and a Five Guys.

The interesting thing is that the above spectrum is totally fluid to each individual black person.  Where that may work for some, others would think what I suggested was totally foolish and was “systemic to the problems of racial parity in this country” I’m sure.  On the other hand, maybe many blacks do this subconsciously.  It appears to me that we did that with Soledad O’Brien—the end result was that she wasn’t black enough to give this CNN special enough credence in our community.

We can say to each other “Oh so-and-so isn’t black enough” and we’ll throw up the air quotes when we say “black” and try and cover our tracks, the thing is that generally the other person we’re talking to knows what we’re saying.  Then we’ll offer another person’s blackness as assurance that that person would speak to our needs.  Take Roland Martin for instance.  By all accounts Roland is black.  But damn, he’s too black for the same blogosphere that lambasted Soledad O’Brien.

So, not black enough is not good, but too black is bad as well.

Then someone like T.J. Holmes, to stay in the CNN vein is too….hmmmm, what word should I use….oh yes, too much of a milquetoast Negro to get the job done either.  Now, T.J. Holmes or even his scary older brother look alike Don Lemon apparently don’t possess a strong enough of a black card to trump whatever it is that the black blogosphere or the African American community has played.

But, we won’t want to have the same conversation concerning Michael Jackson in his death.  We turn a blind eye, and even wear a veil ourselves to our own, at times twisted thought patterns.  We’ll question Soledad O’Brien’s blackness and we’ll watch a man literally turn colors before our eyes, change his nose, put weave in his hair that would have made Farrah Fawcett jealous—and whether we like what Bill O’Reilly said, he made sure to have white children.  But because he died, we don’t like or want to talk about that, for whatever reason.

This is truly an American dilemma.

kelly ingram park birmingham water hosesWe, as a collective nation and as equal citizens in this United States find ourselves in throes of a new peculiar institution that we’re even less apt to talk about than the first.  As hard as it was, it was still easier to talk about racial injustices and disparities when the law was clearly unjust; when news reels captured water hoses and dogs sicced on non-violent protesters; when media placed on the front pages of newspapers nationwide when non-violent marchers were attacked on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, Alabama, but now we don’t want to talk about it.  The right-wing media and talking heads have begun to wrest the fair and open discussion about race in America and have begun to moderate the discussion themselves.

This presents us collective with a dilemma as to whether to have the conversation openly and honestly and let both sides speak and listen and begin to understand, or to continue down the path of ignorance and passivity that we’re already traveling.  The decision seems to be taking the path of least resistance, and as a result it’s creating a new peculiar institution governed by a deathly silence that remains mute while in some respects American race relations are on a sinking ship.  When we got a new ship in the 60s (because clearly that old ship had sank and blacks were left looking the people in the movie “Titantic”), we began the construction of this new institution. 

I just wish it wasn’t so peculiar.

If you have any thoughts or reflections to this post, feel free to drop them in the comment section.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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9 responses to “The New Peculiar Institution

  1. Kudos to Soledad for bringing so many black folks together under one roof. We have finally found something that we can all dislike in unison. ha ha ha

    Good points on ontological blackness.

  2. At my core I think I profoundly disagree with everything you’ve said here; but since you said it, I’m sure there’s much intellectual merit to your ideas.

    When you try to quantify ‘blackness’, the crux becomes who is the arbiter of ‘blackness?’ Who, or what, determines how ‘black’ one person is vs. another? Am I less Black because I don’t speak with a discernible dialect or pitch? Am I more ‘black’ because I feel the blues and traditional gospel/negro spirituals? More insidious is our differentiation of each other based on such subjective classifications, which I believe you discussed.

    Dr. King was right: the content of our character should be by which we judge each other vs. culture or color.

    • @ adinasi

      That was my point: who determines it. Clearly we all have different POV’s and I think that’s something that’s worth discussing.

  3. Interesting piece. While I agree that there is often a barometer of “blackness” placed on people by the black community that can change from person to person, I don’t think that’s really the case here. No matter who hosted the documentary — Don Lemon, T.J. Holmes, Soledad O’Brien, whoever –it wasn’t really Soledad’s sense of “blackness” that made it hard to watch. It was the actual programming. It was not well put together and had the takeaway that it sucks to be black, here are a few of the ills in the black community for those who aren’t aware.
    Soledad was most definitely part of the documentary’s problem, but IMO, not because black viewers was busy questioning whether she was “black” enough to be hosting this documentary.
    Before this doc, I had watched CNN’s “Planet in Peril” Part One and Two and actually came away with something, so I was looking forward to see what Black In America would bring. Besides having no real sense of purpose, BIA 1 also offered no new angle or look into topics that have been talked about before on way better documentaries and specials.

  4. To be totally honest, I don’t trust corporate owned media to accurately report on any systemic structural problems, and much less to depict the vast array of human complexity that is the African American community correctly.

    So I’ll watch Black In America like the imperfect media work of art that it is, but certainly not as an authoritative source on the African American experience. What’s scary is some will view it as such.

  5. I think the fundamental problem is that in America “blackness” is often correlated with all things negative. Some of us as black people don’t associate ourselves with anything that is viewed in a positive light. For instance, when some look at a persons vernacular, inflections and overall way of speaking, the more ignorant you sound the more “black” you are to some. If you use words which contain too many syllables and is not used in everyday conversations you are trying to sound “white”

  6. Love this post. First, I agree how people (Black, white, Asian, etc.) simply dismiss the history of our country as if it had nothing to do with how Blacks and other races are perceived. Slavery is a part of American history, but most want to say “Forget it, it’s done – don’t dwell on it.” Slavery lead to our civil war, the fame of Abraham Lincoln, the creation of the Republican party and so much more. It is so important. It’s like trying to forget you were raped then wondering why you don’t like intimacy.

    Second, I am a light skinned girl who “talks white”, blah, blah, blah…Dumbest stuff I ever heard. Funny because I never wanted to be anything but what I am. Discovering and cherishing that has been amazing. Being Black is amazing and to limit what Black people are supposed to do or sound like is insane, stupid and divides us even more.

    Black in America – sounds like a condition. I wonder if they will do a “Female in America?” There still hasn’t been a female president. LOL

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