“To put it bluntly, the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné can afford to declare their independence from blackness.”
In April of this year, Pharrell Williams declared the “new Black” in an interview with Oprah Winfrey by saying:
The “new black” doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The “new black” dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.
I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American; I’m an American. I mean, I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go. I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from, but I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person. I don’t label myself. I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with Black, I connect with Indian, I connect with each culture.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Millennium Negro, also known as the New Black.
One hundred years ago, the United States was entering the First World War. It was also the start of the Great Migration–the first time blacks from the South were leaving their new-found homeland searching for “the warmth of other suns” away from what Martin Luther King later termed as “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression.” The Great War ended in 1918 and black soldiers returned from Europe fighting for freedom and democracy abroad but still uniformly denied basic civil and human rights in the country of their birth. Race riots in the country were spawned in the immediate years following the end of the war continuing into the Roaring Twenties, and meanwhile, the community of Harlem at the north of New York City’s Manhattan island was seeing a culture shift that Alain Locke, at the time called the New Negro Movement, but ultimately went down in history as the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance, to put it succinctly, was a way in which Negroes were able to capitalize on their cultural endeavors. Locke’s book The New Negro highlighted works of poetry, verse, songs, essays and other writings touting cultural achievements, namely in the arts. The end result, by the time the country was engrossed in a second world war, was that through this cultural movement, blacks finally had a lens through which they could see themselves as American. I would make the argument that for the past century, blacks have always been forced to pick and choose between their blackness and their Americanity; DuBois clearly saw this duality early as he wrote about it in Souls of Black Folk and in his advocation of the “talented tenth.” Only within the last decade or so have blacks been able to afford themselves to use the language of Americanity: in other words, be post-racial.
One of the tropes of the American brand of capitalism has been “new money.” It’s been played out in countless movies projecting the sentiment that money doesn’t buy happiness and the like, but I think it’s worth noting that money can afford a certain level of blindness to some of the everyday issues that pervade our everyday lives. To put it bluntly, the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné can afford to declare their independence from blackness. It costs to be post-racial. This debt can paid by actual capital net worth or paid for by racial ontological privilege appurtenance, also known as white privilege. However, I think it’s interesting that both Pharrell and Raven chose Oprah Winfrey to disclose this information.
Oprah, over the years has had a relationship with the black community that has seen glorious highs and abysmal lows over the years. As she was moving toward the end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” she had solidly established her net worth with the larger black community. She came under assault from the black community, especially her fellow Chicagoans, when she started the school for girls in South Africa, when just 10 miles south of her schools in the Englewood neighborhood were languishing. Notwithstanding her friendship with Tyler Perry, Oprah far established her rapport with the black community by having a rousing closing episode having students from Morehouse appear on stage with her as a scholarship she began was sending young black men to college.
Oprah has been seen as the embodiment of a post-racial society, some have quipped that if Oprah could make it to where she is, then other blacks can do the same. Aside from the fallacy of that logic, Oprah breathes rarefied air to say the least. There have only been three black billionaires in this country, Bob Johnson, owner of BET broke that barrier first and fell off that list shortly after he sold BET to Viacom entertainment, and Oprah marched on the list shortly thereafter. For the better part of the last decade and then some, Oprah has steadily increased her wealth to just over $2 billion. In other words, Oprah can afford to be independent of her blackness. However, when overseas, Oprah was denied seeing a purse that she wanted to purchase by the sales assistant because it was “too expensive” and Oprah was reminded, along with the rest of the world, that she still occupied blackness in a real sense.
So how is it that the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné don’t see the world through that lens?
Rather than run the list of this duo’s inane ignorance on the issues of blackness as an example of how they simply “don’t get it,” I would rather take this opportunity to explore what does the “New Negro” embody aside from ad hominem attacks, but the problems of occupying that space.
Being post-racial in a racial society doesn’t alleviate racism.
Race is a political and social construct that is entrenched in world history and most of us don’t know it. As nationalistic identities were forged through European global exploration during the European Renaissance era, moving from the Dark Ages, those European civilizations created race as a way to categorize the other humans that they were encountering on these voyages. In this case, history is told by those who wrote it down–Europeans were very much a written culture, whereas civilizations closer to the equator passed down their history orally. Europeans began “discovering” the world, and suddenly by the 16th and 17th centuries, this concept of race as we know it has emerged. Be not deceived, race was created as a means to maintain a power structure.
Following a more recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Freeman responded to a question about the wealth gap and economic inequalities in this country in terms of race. Freeman responded,
“Today? No. You and I, we’re proof. Why would race have anything to do with it?”
“Put your mind to what you want to do and go for that. It’s kind of like religion to me—it’s a good excuse for not getting there.” Freeman ended with a final response, “Making [race] a bigger issue than it needs to be is the problem here.”
Jamelle Bouie from Slate.com remarked after this second interview that “there’s no understanding income inequality—or the disparities in criminal justice, education, health care, and unemployment—without a firm grasp of race, or rather, the economic consequences of past and current racism.” Freeman’s approach is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into the work needed to get to that point. I’ll admit, I have some hope that one day we will be a post-racial society, but in a world with seven billion people and growing, it would take an extinction level event for us to be uniformly on the same page. 9/11 did act as an event where suddenly we were “all Americans” and that sentiment didn’t go unnoticed in many segments of the black community because this was a superficial sentiment that was not seen in policies coming from Congress and under a George W. Bush administration.
Contrary to popular opinion, racism can exist even if you choose to ignore it. Operating as though you don’t see color, or asserting that this is a post-racial society does nothing to disassemble the power structures in place that purport racism. In fact, to operate through color-blind lenses or to declare one as post-racial now gives you a license of complicit ignorance to racism. This false hope of rugged individualism espoused by Morgan Freeman and Pharrell Williams is a check drawn on a bankrupt account for many people of color in this country. This was true historically, and unfortunately is still true today. When institutional and policy barriers still exist to perpetuate a cycle of poverty that overwhelmingly disaffects people of color, the argument of “personal responsibility” is rendered null and void.
Most blacks can’t afford to be post-racial.
Most blacks watching this triune of celebrities declare their independence from blackness and join the melting pot of America haven’t done any ethnographic studies as historians, sociologists or political scientists to be considered remotely an expert on these topics, so sometimes I want to take what they said with a grain of salt. But, it’s hard to do that knowing that they have the economic capital to transcend race and speak from the post-racial land of rainbows with big puffy clouds, and unicorns. Can’t forget unicorns. People probably don’t respond to Morgan Freeman as an older (and probably crotchety) black man–they respond to him as a well known celebrity. People don’t respond to Pharrell as a soon-to-be middle aged black man (who still looks 24 some times), but rather as an incredibly talented guy who’s written and produced numerous hit songs. Despite his lack of live-stage singing skills, he’s very much a modern-day Stevie Wonder as far as the length and number of contributions to the wider music world. They have enough money that they have metaphorically purchased land rights to set up a residence in the Land of Post-Race.
If Morgan Freeman got pulled over for doing 75 mph in a 45 mph zone, either the officer won’t even give him a ticket or he’ll just grumble and pay it more or less showing his driver license from the Land of Post-Race There will never be any question about did the officer somehow mistreat him because he was black, and he won’t have to worry about getting out of the car or face an illegal search by cops because he “fit the profile.” I, on the other hand, do have to worry about these things–I can’t afford property in the Land of Post-Race. My residence seems to be permanently affixed in the Land of Race, better known as the United States. My economic capital doesn’t afford me the privilege to not have to worry about those things.
Even if you don’t have the economic capital to take up residence in the Land of Post-Race, be not dismayed, one’s white privilege is also an accepted currency in this land. Truth be told, this is usually the currency in which most transactions take place. While some people have permanent residences here, there is also a bevy of seasonal homes that can be purchased next to the Lake of Delusion with deeper depths plumbed daily or log cabins in the Mountains of Ignorance with higher peaks scaled continuously.
To live in the Land of Post-Race, regardless of skin color, eschews the lived reality of millions of people in this country and the billions of people worldwide. It’s a direct insult to the validity and existence of those who have been forced to espouse their blackness as pride when the vast majority of American history it was seen as something to be shamed. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time here on these shores that blackness, as a whole was seen as something to be celebrated, not just by whites, but by blacks as well! The psychological chains of slavery weighed heavy on people who had been kissed by nature’s sun, where the systemic pedagogy of slavery taught blacks to be ashamed of their skin color and their very essence. To that point, parents and grandmothers till this day tell their children not to play or sit in the sun too long because they will get darker.
The irony is that what blacks may consider post-racial and what white consider post-racial could very much mean two very different things. If you don’t believe me, check out the BBC article on Orania, an Afrikaaner-only settlement.
Being post-racial ignores the need for reparations.
While Ta-Nehesi Coates article did momentarily reignite the conversation about reparations, with the Ferguson moment trying to transmogrify into a movement, aside from Obama’s path to the White House, this might be the longest time that race has sustained itself in the national media and conscience since CNN’s “Black in America,” but I digress. Domiciling in the Land of Post-Race absolves all oppressive parties from any responsibility for their past actions and from their current complicity in current policies in place that have adverse effects on people of color in this country.
Reparations, as Coates noted implicitly, does not mean that a check is cut to the descendants of slaves, but rather that injurious practices that resulted in horrible intercultural and interracial relationships that disproportionately maligned people of color–especially those who are still alive–are repaired. Those reparations, namely, can come from the changing of policies and practices in our institutions and in our halls of justice. We have the numbers, the data and the statistics to prove it; we know where these people are; we have the power to fix it. Yet, as a society, we don’t.
The former Chicago police office, John Burge, was released from after serving slightly less than four years in a minimum security prison. Burge was brought up on charges amounting to lying to a prosecutor about the abuse, because the statute of limitation for the actual abuse itself had passed. Victims of Burge were convicted under torturous conditions and violent and physical coercion. Many of his victims sat in prison for upwards of 30 years–and have not seen one red cent from the state, the county or the city. Yet, Burge still collects $4,000 a month in pension benefits from the Chicago Police Department, and legally there’s nothing, not even the Illinois Attorney General can do to stop it.
A post-racial mentality wouldn’t see that at the center of this relationship between a domestic terrorist and torturer by the name of John Burge and a long list of male inmates is the very simple, and problematic issue: Burge did what he did because he knew he could get away with it because he was white and the victims were black.
For fear of being called a racist, many whites stay out of the politics surrounding blackness lacking the knowledge, the vocabulary, and maybe even the empathy to relate, and many blacks grow weary of always being the one to have to bring up the subject and unpacking all of the nuances that go along with it. Honestly, does anyone have time to publish a 2,700 word think-piece about this every time the subject comes up at the water cooler or in a classroom setting? I’ll admit, if the millennial Negro is the one who absolves their blackness, declaring independence from race ontological labels, I’ll pass. If the “New Negro” c. 2014 is one who distances themselves, or attempts to procure enough capital to buy their independence from blackness and escape to whites only plantations in the Land of Post-Race, I’ll pass.
The contemporary black intellectuals of our day (postmodern black intellectualism?) are wrestling with this basic issue of blackness as did our predecessors in the Harlem Renaissance. Moving away from touting the cultural aspects of blackness as blackness itself, many are wading into those murky waters of whiteness and determining what their blackness will be. History has shown that DuBois assertion about the number one problem facing the 20th century will be the color line was prophetic in the least, yet one hundred years later, we’re not that much closer to truly solving that problem.
There’s always hope, maybe this will be the generation that finds the beauty in our differences, explore the joy of intersectionality celebrate what makes us unique to one another. From there, move forward, repairing the wrongs so that all of us can walk together into the future.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL