Monday, May 22, 2006

Black in the Box: The Color-line is a Cage

I was just reading an article in the Boston Globe about the furor that has erupted at Boston College over Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice serving as commencement speaker.

Though the objections to Rice's speaking at BC are mostly focused on people's ire regarding the Iraq war, it made me think of something that has been on my mind for say, 31 years now. One of the frequent and most vicious criticisms made of Secretary Rice is that she is an "uncle Tom" and a "race traitor", a servile ally of the "white man". Such criticisms are frequently leveled at other black Americans who I respect (though often disagree with) such as Lashawn Barber, or Shelby Steele. The unforgiveable crime which such people stand accused of is daring to offend the orthodoxy of racial identity politics as adhered to by many in the black community and actively promoted by those considered to be our "leaders". These "uppity Negroes" actually have the nerve to (gasp!) think for themselves! Orthodoxy demands obedience and the boundaries of "blackness" are rigorously policed by those who have the privilege of deciding who is "black enough" and who is not. I've known such people my whole life and have been frequently stopped at the color-line and asked "Papers please!" Sadly, what is considered "black enough" often closely resembles those very dehumanizing stereotypes hatched in the minds of our former slave masters. Ironically, folks who are not black seem to have no problem recognizing that I am a black man without subjecting me to an ethnic litmus test to see if I measure up to their imagination. What is so scary about the possibility that there might be more than one way to live out one's blackness in the world and to understand who we are, where we've been, and where we need to go? I believe that the essence of the "who's black/who's not" mentality is about power, the power to define your own reality and then impose that on others. Such a mentality is not unusual among enslaved, colonized and oppressed people throughout the world and reflects a psychospiritual internalization of the very worldview that such people are struggling against. This is why so often when people manage to free themselves from oppression, they immediately recreate the very relationships and social order they claimed to be fighting against. I find it hard to believe that my ancestors struggled so hard for the freedom to define themselves and determine their own destiny so that today some black person who doesn't even know me gets to decide how I think, how I talk, how I dress, what music I listen to, who I can marry and on and on! Black people need to stop calling each other names and focus on our healing and moral and spiritual empowerment to contribute as equals to the building of a just, free and united America.

"...America, is, in the eyes of the one true God, the land wherein the splendors of His light shall be revealed, where the mysteries of His Faith shall be unveiled, where the righteous will abide, and the free assemble."
('Abdu'l-Baha, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 6)