Thursday, August 4, 2011

Stained Glass Windows Can't Be Mirrors

The ongoing tragedy of "black history" as it's conventionally told is that it makes the past defining without acknowledging the past as fluid. A yesterday that's inseparable from the legacy of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement is transformed into something lesser than a yesterday that consists of those events. Whole generations of black history, black achievement, black struggle, cultural evolution and even broader cultural progress stand in thrall to a past that serves to paint the present as nonexistent. When the past is zenith; when the past is rhetorically placed into a seat of unquestioned reverence; when its heroes are written as saints and its events are portrayed as the highlight of our time, where is the place for those that come after?

The frequently ignored underside of making that past defining is that it makes those who were and are unattached to that past "other". It makes the face that did exist more important than the face that does exist. It ostracizes the very people who are tasked with perfecting a progress that's over a century in the making, and it does so without even understanding the modern shape of their obstacles. Racial segregation has evolved into generational segregation, and its character is emotional and intellectual instead of physical.

The surviving luminaries of the civil rights movement have become a force that cherishes their memory, their achievements, their cultural contributions, their ideals and have used the power of a narrative they helped construct to form an enclave of black culture that's in stasis. Generational condescension is human and culturally universal; but never since the so-called "Greatest Generation" has it been backed by so appealing and consequential of a narrative. In most cases, a generation that demonstrates distaste or isolation from succeeding generations can be safely ignored once power inevitably passes to their children and the cultural landscape is formed through the imagination and experiences of fresher eyes. But these people have been anointed by history.

They marched from Selma to Montgomery. They have family members who were lynched by the KKK. They ate with Martin Luther King Jr. They took part in the bus boycotts. They remember when restaurants and bathrooms had "White's only" signs. They saw the I Have A Dream Speech live. They supported the Freedom Riders. They belonged to radicals fighting for racial equality. They were beaten by police, sprayed by hydrants, mauled by dogs and lawlessly confined to prisons. They went to the churches that were bombed. They organized around the NAACP at its most popular and relevant. They resisted, campaigned and struggled against a racist regime that was intent on making a permanent skin-decided caste. To contest them is to disrespect the enormity of what they sacrificed and to diminish the extent of what they accomplished for themselves and for those that came after. Or so many would like you to assume.

Ta-Nehisi Coates comes close - closer than many I've seen - to identifying (or attempting to identify) the rather innocuous problem he has with pondering those who've been sainted by merely belonging to the civil rights movement. I suggest reading his take in full:

A couple of reactions. First, one reason why, as a child, I wasn't much interested in the Civil Rights movement is because it was always presented as a kind of holier than thou moral play. Black history, at least in the schools, existed mainly as clunky "You Can Do It" inspirational rhetoric. I often joke that I know I'm in a hood school because there's a lot of inspirational sloganeering around "success," "achievement," and "winning." At my old middle school they actually organized us into "teams" named after heroes of black history--the Woodson team, the King team, the Garvey team, the Booker T team etc. I was on the Marshall Team. On the rafters of my hall there was a slogan that went something like, "It is by choice not chance, that we choose to enhance, the Marshall Team. We can achieve. We will achieve..." and so on.

The point was to make black history utilitarian, and applicable to our education. The strategy was not wrong, but with it came this sense that we walked in the path of infallible Gods. No one talked about, say, Garvey dismissing the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Or Fannie Lou Hamer talking cracking some Uncle Toms head.

I don't even know that that sort of thing is appropriate for middle school kids, but my point is that the narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.
Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a valuable perspective, and one that warrants more exploration and discussion than this subject ever has and likely ever will receive, but I have a separate contention. The 60's were the first time in American history where there was something resembling an institutional movement that conferred political and cultural power to black people. Through civil rights organizations and black churches particularly, a semi-unofficial apparatus was formed that shaped - and continues to shape - black perception. Through those efforts, a force of mobilization was created that continues to inspire the black population, black intellectual thought and that has some limited influence over what falls within the bounds of permissibility in black culture. Attempting to analyze the enormity of what that means and how that power expresses itself is a near impossible task as long as those involved are seen as "apart" from American culture. Instead, let's ask ourselves a different - but no less important - question: who benefits the most from that?

I find it difficult to mentally escape the sheer convenience of the narratives surrounding the civil rights movement. The mythology, the indomitable innocence and greatness of the people involved, the hushed reverence accorded to its participants, the unquestioned "good" of their tactics, the subtle "look at what we did for you" bribery undergirding its descriptions. Fallible, human and - at times - calculatingly cold figures like Martin Luther King and the NAACP leadership have been transformed into suns. And those who were closest to the light when the movement's power began to wane are now viewed as successors to an unparalleled era of greatness. They've marked their place as angels under a new series of Gods and the mere mortals that have followed don't dare to challenge them.

While the particulars of that narrative are important to grasp, the only way to truly understand it is to understand its utilitarian value. A history has been crafted that's portrayed the Perfect as victors against the Evil to the benefit of All. When your personal grounding is rooted in something surrounded by a hallowed glow, what decent person would or could question you when no one questions that interpretation of history? What decent person would say to them "You, who have suffered much are my equal and are just as capable as anyone of being wrong"? Many of these people are honorable and they've been through much - no one does or should deny that, ever - but the function of this narrative does little to instill pride in black culture or history, it does nothing to solidify the potential black cultural progression, nor does it create a relatable means of outlining black capacity for conventional achievement. In fact, it's portrayed in a light that makes their achievements seem impossible for anyone who decides to follow them. It largely postures that imitating "greatness" is the only means of attaining it. Think about that.

This is a history that makes those involved - and only those involved - completely untouchable on any rhetorical or practical level. And it does so by painting themselves as part of a bizarrely "impeccable" historical picture that makes it automatically immoral to challenge their intellectual positions and institutional authority.
Are we really supposed to believe that largely self-proclaimed "black leaders" had no part in or derive no benefit from shaping how a movement they were apart of is viewed? It would be disastrously naive to think so. And it would be short-sighted to ignore the consequences of having four decades - or, to put it differently, two entire generations - of black thought, black perspective and black expression narrowly confined to and dominated by a single generational demographic and their well-groomed intellectual successors.

A sect of people has selfishly molded an important segment of American history into a generational repository for 60's nostalgia and romanticism. They've wedded black history and black culture to a time and a context that no longer exists and in so doing, they've left no place for what black culture has become. They've decided to freeze the evolution of black thought in amber by saying that this is the only period blacks can and should take lessons on how to proceed from. The meaningless marches, the dry recitation of "Old Negro Spirituals", the empty speeches about long forgotten accomplishments that bear no relation to today's problems, the sad, sad worship of long-dead figures - all of it is an artifact of a cultural segment that's desperately attempting to continue the quasi-historical canon that's integral to their esteem. And all of it is intended to distract you from the problem with the "Look what we did!" framing: the "we" automatically excludes anyone and everyone that had no part in it.

The corny "you can do it", "you can succeed!", "you are winners!" bromides are simply revealing of a deeper generational dismissiveness. Inherent to these assumptions is the belief that those involved are "failing" now. That they have nothing that can be pointed to as an identifiable success, a worthy thought or an experience that warrants sharing and analyzing. Almost collectively, the latest generations of black culture have become viewed as problems to fix instead of genuine perspectives and experiences to incorporate. Their fundamental, culturally-guided differences as products of the civil rights movement has made them pariahs amongst those who claim to be "doing what they can".

Such myopic condescension can be attributed to many things, but the disconnected hands-off approach is simply the final expression of a culture that views at their youth as empty containers for their own dated views instead of new additions to an intellectual culture that's growing and evolving with America as a whole. They've asked its youngest to look at the eldest as the Perfect Example without understanding how impossible it is to see themselves in the face of mythic figures fighting against demons that have no modern parallel. The overstated morphing of gang members, rappers and sports players into "heroes" isn't a symbol of cultural depravity in black youth; it's a forcefully disconnected segment of black culture gravitating toward figures that actually seem like people as they recognize them. "Black leaders" have become so obsessed with deification that they've failed to question whether it has meaning to people who weren't involved or aren't close to those involved in the civil rights movement. They've even failed to question whether the struggles of the period have any relation to the systemic disadvantages that could be pointed to today.

Cultural stagnancy isn't just the result of "forgetting where you come from". It's just as often a byproduct of not knowing what you are and where you want to go. For ages, this conversation has been guided by people whose only vision for black people and black culture rests on addressing and invoking the spirit of issues that have long since been fought against and solved. In keeping with this shortcoming, there's been a cultural unwillingness to address and identify what modernity means for such a successful cultural movement, and unfortunately, this has come with an unwillingness to see what the civil rights movement didn't and couldn't address that participants of this generation could.

By thoughtlessly cleaving to an antiquated basis for institutional relevance, those most capable have foregone the primary requirement for an institution and a movement's longevity: modern applicability. That's something you can't offer by simply looking at a group of young people and dictating what's right and wrong for them. Experience does not bequeath omniscience. It's often a precursor to wisdom, yes, but it's also informed by a time that rarely resembles the time of your children or grandchildren. If you want to speak to the trials of the present, you require people who belong to the present. "Back in my day...", "pull your pants up!" and "go get a job!" speeches do little more than speak to the conceit of people who are arrogant enough to believe that "proper" is solely defined by their preferences. Lost in this patronizing display is the understanding that leadership isn't just motivational, it's transitional.

A generation you're not utilizing is a generation you've perceptually rendered nonexistent. The more successive generations are ignored and kept from the levers of influence, the more whole demographic periods become alien to the people who require them to comprehend the present. What would those oft-discussed civil rights figures say if they knew their supposedly divine shadow was being used as a boundary to limit the broadness of black political, cultural, institutional and generational expression? If they're indifferent, they were never worth praising to begin with. If they'd disagree, then why countenance this rather pernicious usage of their legacy?

The continuing sin of deification lies not only in its ability to transform the human into the unapproachably alien. It's that it is, in its own way, reductive. In the short sighted desire to make quick idols out of the first prominent black leaders, there was a failure to view them in both perspective and context. Their generation has presented those leaders to their children as glimmering towers instead of foundations that they were just as capable of adding to. The true tragedy isn't encapsulated by the loss of something black people had taken away, but by the loss of something its own cultural elements ensured that black people didn't really have the chance to receive.

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