Speak My Name
By Don Belton
Beacon Press Copyright © 1997 Don Belton
All right reserved. ISBN: 0807009377
mouth of a white questioner. No one ever actually came out and asked him to answer them. No one has ever actually come out and asked me, either, yet I know that many are itching to. I know I would be. Black men are this nation's outlaw celebrities. It doesn't matter what other modifiers also describe our individual essences--mechanic, police officer, left-handed, Virginian, kind, gangbanger, tall--"black man" overrides them all and makes us all, equally, desperadoes. My friends and I sometimes take perverse pride in the fear the combination of our sex and skin instills in everyone else--the taxis that bolt past us as our arms wave high over our meticulously coiffed heads, the receptionists who mistake us for suit-wearing bike messengers, the cops who clutch their .45s when they see us saunter out of Haagen-Dazs. Imagine the weird power you'd feel if you were a bank teller, a postal worker, or a postmodern novelist who is able to make a cop quake with fear and call for backup. Unfortunately, these expectations can get to us after a while. Listen to black comedian Franklin Ajaye: "I was walking down the street last night and this old white couple kept looking back at me like I was going to rob them. . . . So I did."
Don't get me wrong. I know that black men commit a disproportionate number of America's crimes. In fact, I need to know that, since murder at the hands of another black man is the leading cause of death in my age group. Ironically, black men have more right than anyone else to run and hide when other black men head our way on the sidewalk. Yet we don't (most of us, anyway), because we bother to separate the few bad from the legion of good.
American society as a whole, however tars us all with the same brush. We have become the international symbol for rape, murder, robbery, and uncontrolled libido. Our faces on the news have become synonymous with anger, ignorance, and poverty.
Increasingly, America seems to be painting us into two corners. In one, we're the monsters they've always said w e were. In the other corner, we're fine but all those other black men are monsters; we are anointed honorary whites so long as we abandon every trace of our ethnicity.
Black conservatives such as Shelby Steele espouse individual liberation through assimilation. In one way, he is absolutely correct. It is irrefutable that if we African Americans abandoned our culture, stopped griping, and joined the melting pot, w e would be better off. The catch is the very real limit to our ambition. If we play by Steele's rules--work hard, scrimp, save, and study--then one day one of us just might become vice president of the United States. Therein lies the rub. In this land of opportunity we can be promised riches, a degree of respect, and respectability, but we know we are still barred from the highest corridors of power. It's a crippling message. How can you expect someone to dedicate his entire life to training for the Olympics if all he can hope for is a silver medal?
Drug dealing and other criminal activities are the only pursuits that offer us unlimited possibilities. Since we are already vilified anyway, goes the twisted logic, at least the sky's the limit in that arena. I'm not making excuses for the black criminal--I despise him for poisoning and shooting more of my people than the cowardly Klan ever did. But we need to understand him as a human being if we're ever going to save him, or at least save his younger brother or his son.
When black folks mention slavery the rest of America yawns. But our country, with its history as the home of the slave, has yet to reconcile that legacy with its reputation as the land of the free. Slavery was as evil an act as ever committed by anyone on the planet. Nazis, the Khmer Rouge--that's not the sort of company Americans like to keep. Slavery may seem like ancient history to whites, but it doesn't to blacks. Today's problems have deep roots, and until we understand the dark side of our history, our nation will never pull itself out of its current racial morass.
If, in American popular culture, black signifies poor, ignorant, and angry, then white signifies upper-middle-class, educated, and moderate. From "Ozzie & Harriet" to "Home Improvement," upper-middle-class white households are passed off as average white families. The lives of white folks are cleaned up and idealized. Popular culture assumes you will attend some sort of college, own a home, and marry the mother of your child. You are defined by the richest, handsomest, smartest, and kindest among you. We are defined by our worst. Although seventy-five percent of black men never have anything to do with the criminal justice system, we are looked on as anomalies, freaks of nature, or, worse, thugs-in-waiting.
Sadly, black people are starting to believe the bad press. If we string two sentences together, other black folks say, "Oh my, how well-spoken he is." If we are married to the mothers of our children, Delores Williams, a black activist in Los Angeles, hands us a certificate and invites us to an awards banquet. So little is expected of us that even our half-efforts are wildly and inappropriately praised.
Finally, and curiously, some of the stereotypes that make us seem the least human--and the most animalistic--also make us seem the most male. We are famous around the world for our physical and sexual potency. And what is more at the essence of stereotypical machismo than bulging muscles and big dangling balls? Although we hate being America's villains, it's not always all bad--in America, villains have always been perversely revered.
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