slaves

“No industry is black-owned. Actually, the (NBA) Player’s Association gets 49 percent of the revenue, since most players are black. That would be the No. 1 black-run organization. It’s the chink in Dr. King’s armor. We marched and did all these things to be a part of something when we should have been trying to get our own thing. It’s like saying. ‘I wanna be in a co-op,’ instead of saying ‘I want my own house.’ So we’re in a co-op and now the building is coming down.” – Chris Rock

Today, there are just over 42 million African Americans in this country. All free agents, relatively speaking. In 1860, there were about 4 million slaves, roughly the current population of Alabama. That seems like progress.

Or how about this: A recent study by a group of University of Maryland (College Park) undergraduate researchers showed a link between slave labor and the building of the college 150 years ago. I’m sure they didn’t have black students in mind when they were building the school; after all, we were only 60 percent human. Today, I am a master’s candidate at said university.

Is that progress?

Progress is a scary word. On one hand, it denotes improved conditions. On the other, it can lull people into a mud of complacency. Take, for example, student test scores in primary schools. A spike one year will have people marveling at improved teacher efficacy, when it could be nothing more than an aberration, or just a brilliant student coterie.

Take another example: President Obama’s election. Racism seemed to have turned for the better a year ago. But there have been numerous incidents of racial overtones, monkey displays, political cartoons, Limbaugh, sustained police brutality accounts, gun rights zealots toting heat in front of the White House on a health care protest, Limbaugh, gun sales rising 400 percent after he was elected (and in a recession nonetheless), Fox News and Limbaugh.

Too often, the term “progress” lacks nuance. The African-American condition has markedly improved since 1860; that’s easy to see. We’re now 100 percent lawful humans. We’re not subject to gratuitous floggings (well, there is the police). We have a choice of what we want to do for a living (though most black millionaires are entertainers). Families can stay together and not worry about being traded off (wait, there is professional sports). We can now be taught to read and write (well, there is Gucci Mane). What was my point again?

Celebrating the freedom of not being a slave is like celebrating a father for taking care of his children: You’re supposed to take care of your children, so why should that be celebrated? To a soul in bondage, however, anything above and beyond basic human rights should be counted a positive. Right?

You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress. – Malcolm X

So what would our ancestors say, given a peek into 2009? Probably a myriad of complex contradictory feelings.

Jealousy:

You’d be jealous too. Don’t flex. Last time I checked, we don’t toil in the sun all day under the threat of violence or dehumanization. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that 20th century black people pay enough homage. If you became a billionaire and your child inherits it, but doesn’t acknowledge you, you wouldn’t like it either. Well, that’s where we are.

Plus, it’s not like black people don’t have a tendency for envy. Jesse Jackson reared his jealous head at President Obama. Spike Lee expressed dismay over the success of Tyler Perry. If Perry wasn’t the most financially successful black movie auteur of this decade, Spike probably even wouldn’t bother to voice his dissent. But such is the nature of human psychology.

Shame:

BET. Reality shows that have “Flavor”, “New York”, “Chance” or “Housewives” in the title. The current status of the NAACP. Kwame Kilpatrick. If you see or read something that would make you cringe, chances are it will embarrass them as well. Well, at least these lyrics provide some saving grace:

“See I wake up in the morning, take a sh–, shower, shave. Stand over the stove and whip it like a slave. OK, new day new yay. Bet I whip it like Kunta Kinte. I’m talkin’ sugar talkin’ dough like a Beignet. I take a brick, karate chop it like a sensei.” – Lil Wayne “Whip It Like A Slave”

It’s not about perfection, it’s about not fulfilling stereotypes for profit.

Disconnect:

There isn’t much recorded on drug use during slavery. According to former slave John W. Fields, it wasn’t until he ran away that he knew “they sold anything but slaves, tobacco or whiskey.” So it’s safe to say drug trafficking is a little new to them. Along with gaudy jewelry. Or laziness. Or a general lack of desire to read and write. Or an aversion to create lasting families. Or descendants making light of flagellation in the pursuit of a rhyme (profit). Or Barack Obama’s eloquence and stature. But then again, Obama isn’t a descendant of a slave. Let’s just move on.

Gratification:

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Douglas said that it wasn’t unusual for slaves not to know their age as much “as horses know of theirs.” Learning to read and write was essential to Douglass seeing himself as human. As he describes it, the acquisition of these skills is inseparable from the dawning of self-consciousness.

Gratification for slaves only comes for those whose consciousness was raised prior to death. When literacy is the spur to self-discovery and awareness of the world around you, procreation takes on a whole new meaning.

What are the biggest indulgences of Black America now? It’s almost impossible to tell because Black America is hardly a monolithic group. There is the crowd who enjoys BET, but there are people, like her, who wish the network would jump off a cliff. There is the unabashed Gucci Mane-Soulja Boy-Plies loving crowd, but there are hordes who would rather intake cyanide than hear them rap/talk.

There are many who fully support the use of “nigga,” and there are more than a few who will never understand its use. There is the racially disengaged crowd, people who choose to live their life only within their circle of influence. There are the conspiracy theorists, those who totally distrust governmental authority and urge everybody else to do the same.

Whatever your philosophies in life are as a black person in America, a uniform look at the starting point is warranted. We are all here under tragic origins, bound by the same prior struggle.

But does that even matter? What good does it do to implore people to remember their history? The whole process seems banal and trite. Excitement, however, is not a requisite for success.

Where there is progress, there can be regress. Maybe a more ancestral focus will prevent the latter.

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  • glenn

    Great article and hopefully it motivates an interest in reading slave narratives or pre-colonial African history but to the writer, don’t sell our history/ancestry short. Ours is the most exciting of stories and each generation must continue to uncover the truth. I would hope Chris Rock would spend as much time researching Dr. King, as he did the fake/real hair industry, before trying to explain the “chink” in his armor. Which speaks to the concern of misinformation or false information or uninformed opinions ruling the conversation.
    You don’t get the same amount of comments on this subject because, ideally, it requires some knowledge about our history and a perspective from which to discuss present day relevance and pop culture does not. I hope some will read Carter G. Woodson’s “Miseducation of the Negro” and Cheikh Anta Diop’s “Precolonial Black Africa” and Randall Robinson’s “The Debt” so you can build up that armament and fully engage future debates. Please keep up the fine work and continued progress.

  • You know what….this article is the TRUTH….
    That Lil’ Wayne lyric pisses me off…..Who the hell does he think he is the refer to Kunta in context of making drugs…….THAT ALONE IS THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF WHETHER OUR ANCESTORS WOULD BE PROUD OF US!
    We gotta do better…We just have to.