Meet Jam Donaldson, a provocateur of the most entertaining kind. Funny, sad, angry, and refreshingly honest, Conversate Is Not a Word offers food for thought, encouraging people to improve their lives as well as the culture overall. Weaving her own warring viewpoints into the discussion, Donaldson provides not only comic relief but a window into the complex, contradictory perspectives existing within every member of the black community.
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Conversate Is Not a Word
Getting Away from Ghetto
By Jam Donaldson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Jam Donaldson
All rights reserved.
DUALITY. THE WAR WITHIN
"One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
— W. E. B. DuBois
Funny how you go from dorm-room revolutionary your freshman year, loudly singing the praises of Frances Cress Welsing and Anthony Browder until the wee hours of every morning, to "Can I just get the fuck out of here and get a job?" Black Power revisited as capitalist reality. Hear me out ...
College is something like your mother's advice: you don't realize until you are well into adulthood that she was generally right about everything. The same with college — you don't actually realize how much you learned until well after the graduation ceremony. I never appreciated the life lessons that college taught me until much later in my adulthood.
In every African American studies class in every college in the country, you are required to read a litany of black classics. We read DuBois, Woodson, Achebe, Wright, Ellison — you know, the standard who's who of prolific black writers. So like most students in the class, I struggled to stay awake, read the CliffsNotes, cut and pasted together some paper about symbolism at the end of the semester, and prayed to pass the final. (And I had the nerve to proudly declare to anyone who would listen that I was an African American studies major.) It's actually pretty pathetic.
However, 10 years later (OK, maybe 15), as I try to navigate the complicated world of being black in the second decade of the 21st century, after being buried somewhere deep in my subconscious, the words of W. E. B. DuBois have begun to resurface. The concept of duality that he articulated, which once was only a vague, unrelatable theory, has suddenly become my reality. It's a force so strong in my life now, I cannot believe I ever ignored or dismissed it. I used to see it as a distant sentiment, irrelevant. Now, it's all I know.
I am a walking, talking, blogging personification of that duality. Everything for me is a struggle with that duality, that Negro, that American. The conflict between the two guides my life, surreptitiously informing my views and decisions and every move. Those fierce dueling beings — boy, are they a pain in the ass.
Every day I am forced to navigate the netherworld between being an American and being a Negro. And sometimes those views are at absolute odds with each other. Diametrically opposed. A philosophical stalemate. That's where I exist, and I'm not afraid to admit it. For example, this is one of my daily internal dialogues:
JAM THE NEGRO
Are you gonna try to bring the great W. E. B. DuBois into this to try to justify your self-hatred? Do you think he would approve of what you do? That's what all you confused bourgeois blacks do, try to justify your elitism by picking and choosing a few carefully selected theories so you won't feel so bad about selling your entire race down the river. Any black person that chooses to speak out against his or her community can suck it, as far as I'm concerned. This country has put us in a position of being a permanent underclass by limiting our educational and professional opportunities and manipulating our image to the world so that across the globe we are all seen as rappers and hoochies. And you want to blame us for that? We don't control the media. The media are determined to make us look like a bunch of fools and coons. You must have lost your cotton-picking mind. No pun intended.
And gurus and Web sites that pretend to be helping us, like hotghettomess.com? They are misguided tools of The Man or the products of self-deluded, self-hating fools. Chris Rock talking about the difference between black folks and niggas? He may have gotten a few laughs with that nonsense, but it was embarrassing and no doubt set black folks AND niggas back 30 years. When will we see that making fun of ourselves isn't cathartic and isn't productive — it's just plain stupid.
It's outrageous for someone to come out and embrace this "blaming the victim" mentality. Just like Bill Cosby and his wild, reckless generalizations. Him and Shelby Steele and their fancy degrees and educations and big words and uppity attitudes. Who do they think they are? Don't they realize their successes are the exception and not the rule? How dare they speak to lower-income communities and suggest that they are responsible for their own conditions after years of inequality of opportunity? There are so many forces out there that denigrate the black image and portray the black community in a negative light, why should our own brothers and sisters add to the oppression we already face in this country? Why perpetuate these stereotypes? Why hold black men and women up for ridicule and chastisement when they are just victims of an exploitive society that holds their lives in low regard? Shouldn't their brethren be a source of support and encouragement? They are denied equality of opportunity in education and health care. The community that should be reaching back to help its brothers and sisters just looks back and points and laughs and says, "Get off your black asses and get a job!" It's outrageous. Institutional racism is alive and well. I don't care if we do have a black president; there is bias and prejudice in every aspect of our lives. To act like all of a sudden someone waved a magic wand and "poof!" we're in a color-blind society is ridiculous and dangerous. You and people like you are just self-righteous wannabes who clearly have an issue with self-esteem. Perhaps your mission should be to study your history and gain some knowledge of self instead of telling everyone else what they should be doing.
JAM THE AMERICAN
Look, I'm as black as they come, but sometimes I'm "Power to the people, Free Mumia, Reparations now, and Love, peace, and soul," and other times I'm like, "Slavery is over, stop whining, stop begging, master capitalism, raise your kids, and keep it moving."
All I'm saying is that I want all of us to be the very best we can be, and some of that starts by taking a long look at the man in the mirror and figuring out how we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us. You can have your media and government and Illuminati conspiracy bullshit, but, if we buy into that, outside of some armed, black folk revolution, we are buying into a permanent state of victimhood. I just don't buy it. In fact, that type of thinking is so destructive. It gives everyone a reason not to even try because the deck is so stacked against them by the global anti- blackness conspiracy that any effort to improve conditions is futile. No, I just don't buy it.
Why is it so hard to believe that a person can want progress and prosperity for her community and let her people have it at the same time? We are so obsessed with this "what will white people think" mentality that we are willing to stand by silently and allow all types of destructive behavior to pervade our communities. As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for us?"
Unlike the generation that preceded us, this generation sits idly by and complains. We complain that we get fired because we're black, when perhaps it was that we were late every day. We complain about substandard schools yet have little involvement in our own children's education.
Meanwhile, our families are in shambles, we are vapid consumers of bullshit, our work ethic is in the toilet, and then we want to blame everyone else when our lives fall apart.
The days of the benevolent white man are over — the cavalry is not gonna rush in and save us from ourselves. The new civil rights movement will come from within the black community because all we got is us. And, after the success of Barack Obama, white people ain't gonna wanna hear shit about what we can't do and why. Newsflash: no one cares anymore. The white man didn't give you three different fathers for your children. It's the 21st century, and now's the time to take advantage of opportunities, embrace excellence, and dedicate yourself to success. So I absolutely agree with the likes of Bill Cosby and Juan Williams — it's about time someone from within has the balls to challenge the black-thought PC police and tell it like it is. Yes, the truth hurts, but the truth is exactly what we need right now. A little dose of reality, a challenge. Someone to say that the world is ours for the taking if we just believe in ourselves and our abilities. So stop being helpless, begging babies and go out into the world and kick some ass. Stop holding up the very worst of ourselves as culture, as something to revere, to be proud of. We portray ourselves as pimps, hos, and thugs, so why are we surprised when someone characterizes us as such? Lil Wayne and 50 Cent can call our women hos, but Don Imus can't? What sense does that make? Let's stop protesting random slurs and random epithets and random nooses and start marching against our kids dropping out of school, our black men killing each other, and our women exploiting themselves. Would Harriet Tubman want us all standing around waiting on a check? Would Charles Hamilton Houston, who sacrificed his life so we could have equal access to education, want us all dropping out of the schools he fought to desegregate? Sure, there's racism, but those things in our lives we CAN control, we SHOULD control and then excel. No excuses. Fighting injustice and racism is not incompatible with getting a job and acting like you got some damn sense. How about we do both?
See what I mean? It's like that every day. Jam the Negro takes on Jam the American in a battle of the wills. So sue me; that's the reality for so many African Americans today who have been made to feel like heretics for asking for us to be accountable to ourselves first, to our communities first.
I happen to be one of those crazy wack jobs who believes the answer to our problems isn't in a piece of legislation or a law or a check or a new policy. It's within ourselves. Does that make me less black? I'm also tired of the fact that the primary measures of my blackness are whether I agree with Tavis Smiley or attend the Jena Six marches or celebrate Kwanzaa (which, by the way, is some bullshit). And my journey through the black cyberworld has shown me that I am not alone.
There are so many of us who feel this way. We are not the liberal elite; we are not nationalist ex-revolutionaries; we are not trust-fund babies or great scholars. We are simply a broad contingent of men and women who love our communities and want them to flourish. And as quiet as it's kept, there are a lot more of us than you think. Instead of denying the duality as an elitist dilemma of those who really aren't DOWN, we should work together and figure things out and acknowledge that at times we do feel distant from some of our brothers and sisters.
Though I am often conflicted, I refuse to be a slave to the lockstep of the black thought police who march together in a synchronicity not unlike the North Korean army, ready to silence the opposition. If only they'd realize the opposition wants the same thing. The opposition is their biggest champion.
Why can't you be black and act like you have some damn sense without being vilified for challenging others to do the same? Should I just stand by while teenagers disrespect the elderly (and everybody else) on the bus, parents buy kids more clothes than books, and young women go to school looking like they just came from the ho stroll? But if I talk about it publicly and denigrate it on the Internet, I'm a sell-out Uncle Tom exploiting my people.
For example: I get really pissed off when some of my neighbors incessantly throw chicken bones and other trash in front of their homes and have no regard for maintaining the neighborhood. And when my white neighbors mention it, I am embarrassed and uncomfortable and don't quite know what to say. I feel like I can't agree with them without betraying some clandestine Black Chicken Bone Brotherhood and perpetuating the Negro/chicken stereotype.
But on the other hand, why should folks get a pass on littering up the neighborhood just because they are black? Isn't that expecting less? Isn't that insulting? It's like some admission that they really don't know better, and I just don't buy that. Everyone should have pride in where they live and have a responsibility to maintain the neighborhood. So, in the end, I usually punk out and give some vague nod and start talking about my dog's runny bowels.
Frankly, the worst thing I believe we all can do is be silent. If I can't talk to the white guy about the chicken bones strewn about the neighborhood without being some elitist, self-hating Uncle Tom, aren't we all then just doomed to live in a sea of wings and drumstick bones? I know DuBois is probably spinning in his grave at his duality concept being applied to chicken bones and awkward hood conversations, but the bottom line remains the same. Being black can often be fraught with conflict and contradiction. Duality is a bitch. And then you blog.
Being a real, live, thinking black person in the beginning of the 21st century is a hard row to hoe. You can't say anything negative about welfare, Barack Obama, single mothers, Tupac, or affirmative action. If you do you, you may be labeled a sell-out or (gasp) a Republican. But the reality is that we are so much more complicated than these "blackness" litmus tests. There are lots of us who love Jay-Z but hate our country's welfare policies. We may support Barack Obama but are perhaps starting to have doubts about affirmative action and its place in the 21st century. We like Juan Williams and Louis Farrakhan, but Tavis Smiley gets on our nerves and we think Michael Baisden is an idiot.
It's a path filled with conflict and self-doubt, but I think if we ever are to evolve as a community, we must acknowledge the differences and mine them for their value instead of immediately castigating those who think outside of the proverbial box. There are too many knee-jerk, emotional reactions to differences of opinion rather than careful thought and consideration as to how different philosophies borne by different experiences can actually complement one another and act as an agent that unifies us.
Consider the book by Dambisa Moyo. Moyo is a Harvard- and Oxford-educated native of Zambia who wrote a book called Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. The book is about her views on many African countries' increasing reliance on aid from the West. Over the years she has seen poverty increase and conditions worsen. She feels many African nations have developed an overreliance on aid, which traps them in a cycle of corruption, dependence, and poverty.
She believes the answer to long-term growth for African nations lies in bond issues, trade, microfinance, and foreign investment. Aid keeps these governments in an eternal position of reliance when the goal should be forming self-sufficient governments. She believes aid to Africa should stop within the next 10 years. She wants the future of African nations to be put back into the hands of African leaders, not in the hands of foreign aid organizations.
Moyo's views have been called controversial, and she has angered many in the Aid-for-Africa community. Even Africa's own honorary native son, Bono, vehemently disagrees. His organization, One, calls it a "poor polemic." My point, and I do have one, is that this is a woman who is clearly a champion for her native continent, who wants to present new ideas and fresh alternatives to the problems of poverty and dependence in Africa. However, her views are so against the paradigm many hold in their heads about Africa and its supplicant role in the world that she is immediately dismissed by some as an off-base wack job. She wants to change the paradigm of dependence and foster self-sufficiency for the continent. But that kind of "radical" perspective seems to threaten those who devoted their lives to either organizing aid or receiving it.
Often views on social issues are so myopic that any challenge to the status quo brings about instant protest. It seems we often have an aversion to looking at problems in a different way. Is there any doubt she wants Africa to thrive? So why not start a meaningful dialogue with her and together create new solutions and proposals and put forth new ideas. Perhaps in the midst of the old and the new, we can forge successful policies. Uganda's Bead for Life program, which focuses on entrepreneurship, can peacefully coexist with Feed the Children. It's not always either/or; sometimes it's both/and.
We are often forced by our communities to be this or that. While it was a very entertaining song by Black Sheep when I was in college, it is in no way a productive strategy for advancing the race. For so long, you had to be DuBois or Booker T., Malcolm or Martin, a revolutionary or an Uncle Tom, a thug or an oreo. There is so much gray area between these extremes that we never explore. And the irony is that most black folks exist in this gray area.
Excerpted from Conversate Is Not a Word by Jam Donaldson. Copyright © 2010 Jam Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: I'm No Revolutionary — Ha-ha Damn,
1 Duality: The War Within,
2 C Is for Crap: standards, Schmandards,
3 They Don't Know Any Better?,
4 Call the Mayor, Then Pick Up the Trash Yourself: Trash as Caste?,
5 If You're Gonna Hang on the Corner All Day, Take a Book (Mitigate Your Damages),
6 It Takes a Village, My Ass,
7 "Ghetto Fabulous" Is an Oxymoron,
8 Growing Pains: Where Are the Leaders?,
9 The Talented Tenth Has Let Us Down,
10 Doing the Best I Can with What I Got,