Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jesse Jackson, Jr.: Black or African-American?

Jesse Jackson, Jr., as I recollect him in Massie Hall

African-Americans may be  making a serious mistake in calling themselves black rather than African-American because in doing so they are opting for polarity rather than solidarity, for disparity rather than parity, for denigration rather than elevation. In the next census, the U.S. Census Bureau will be offering African-Americans the choice of identifying themselves as either African-Americans or blacks. (See the ABC news report at the end of this post.) I believe “black: is a mistake  because African-Americans cannot win the black-and-white name game. It is like a game of Scrabble in which they always get screwed. The Black is Beautiful slogan was an attempt to rebrand Negro. While it may have increased self-esteem on an conscious level, on an unconscious level, where the waters run very deep, Black is Beautiful  intensified the association between  blacks and badness.
Blacks are not really black and whites are not really white. We are all to some degree colored and will become increasingly so as racial barriers are further erased in America. By calling themselves black, African-Americans are burdening themselves with blame they don’t deserve. They are helping perpetuate the myth they are the white man’s burden, which too many so-called white Americans, continuing the South’s racist traditions, continue to think is the case.  In the minds of racists, in the North as well as the South, the West as well as the East, and also here in the Midwest, America’s so-called heartland, “blacks” are  associated with indolence, thriftlessness, and chitlins, with illegitimacy, crime, and dependency—dependency on both illegal drugs and the so-called welfare state.
Sometime in the mid-1990’s, in a February Black History Month conference at Shawnee State University, Jesse Jackson spoke to  a small gathering in a Massie Hall classroom. Jackson was in the front of the class, conservatively dressed in suit and tie,  sitting at a desk facing the audience. When he finished with his prepared remarks,  an  African-American  girl, who looked to be of high school age,  asked  him what he thought the appropriate name for people of their race should be.  She didn’t list them, but the options were colored, African-American, black, and, though it had fallen into disfavor,  Negro. The reason the word Negro had fallen into  disfavor was because the racist epithet “nigger” was probably derived from it. Negro  was pronounced “Niggra”  in the slave South and that evolved into  ‘nigger,” with all its hostile, racist connotations. Jackson  answered the  girl’s question without hesitation or qualification. He said he was certain of one thing: he didn’t want to be called black. “Look black up in the dictionary,” I recall him saying.  “Just see what it says—most of it’s bad and negative.”

Blackguards and Blacks

      We are heir to the Judaic-Christian tradition in which darkness is the primary metaphor for  what is undesirable, if not evil.  In Genesis we are told that “darkness was on the face of the deep,” so God said, “Let there be light: and there was light.” And since light was good, “God divided the light from the darkness.” God created a segregated world in which light and darkness were separate and opposite: God and the devil, good and evil, light and darkness.  Calvinists, among the most pessimistic of Christians,  had a frightening sense of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” meaning the  power of evil. For Calvinists, as well as other Christians, the devil was a black. Merriam-Webster includes, among other definitions of black, the following: “dirty, soiled; characterized by the absence of light; thoroughly sinister or evil: wicked; very sad, gloomy or calamitous; marked by the occurrence of disaster; characterized by hostility or angry discontent: sullen; indicative of condemnation or discredit; connected with or invoking the supernatural and especially the devil.”  Could any name they might have chosen for their race be worse than the word black? Invariably, black is bad, either alone or combined with another word. Take the word  blackguard for example. Originally, a blackguard was  lower-class employee in an upper-class  British household who worked “downstairs,” in the kitchen, and guarded, figuratively if not literally,  the blackened instruments—the pots, pans, and ironware of the household. Blackguards were the bottom dwellers, doing the dirty work  in an upstairs-downstairs, class-rigid world. But, though bottom dwellers, they were nevertheless white and of the same race as their masters. But  just as the neutral word Negro evolved into nigger,  blackguard, i.e., a kitchen helper, because of its association with blackness, came to mean a “bad person.” The online dictionary Wordnik, defines blackguard as  “black in color of the skin or dress, or in character.” So, blackguard, which started out as a word reflecting class antagonism became a word reflecting racial antagonism.

Denigration as Defamation

      The word denigrate is also instructive. The Merriam-Webster definition of it is, literally, to blacken and, more figuratively, to defame or belittle. To create a neologism, denigrate means  “to negrify,” though those who use it are rarely aware of this meaning. African-Americans are more likely than whites to be aware of its racist connotations. In responding to a posting by a someone in a thread on Firedoglake, an African-American, objected to someone else’s use of denigration in a thread: “if you’re  black, can you please stop using the term ‘denigrate’ in this discussion?” he wrote. “i’m black too, friend. i say ‘ouch’ every time i read it . . .” The unintended irony in the following examples of the use of the word denigrate, compiled by Wordnik, speak for themselves: “We do not intend to denigrate southern values,” someone claimed. Denigrate  southern values? Negrify southern values? That is not what the user intended but given the racist etymology of the word, that is the absurd meaning of the statement. Here is another example Wordnik provides of the use of denigrate, which is even more absurd than the previous one:  “Some Rousseauean anthropologists protest that reports of cannibalism represent a racist desire to denigrate other cultures . . .” If instead of “to denigrate” the statement had read to defame, degrade, or impugn, then there would be no contradiction.  But to speak of denigrating  dark-skinned cultures by calling them cannibalistic is nonsense. It is like the pot calling the kettle black. These examples suggest that African-Americans cannot escape the stigma of blackness that is built into the English language.
Even a word that has nothing to do with black, such as  “niggardly,” which means parsimonious or stingy, should be avoided,  as the white aide to the  black mayor of the District of Columbia  discovered in 1999 when he characterized a stringent  D.C. budget as “niggardly.” Unlike the word Negro, niggardly has no etymological connection to nigger, but niggardly, a nearly obsolete word, sounds too much like it. There was a protest from blacks (as opposed, say,  from  African-Americans), and the white  aide, who was gay,  was fired but then rehired when the gay community protested on his behalf. The aide took it in stride, saying he had learned an important lesson. “I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind,” he said. “That’s naïve, especially for a white person, because a white person can afford to be colorblind. They don’t have to think about race every day. An African American does.”  In using the term African-American rather than black to refer to people of color, was the gay aide aware  that “black” was the racist equivalent of such sexist words as “queer,” “faggot,” and “fairy ” for the male homosexual?
Unfortunately, Jesse Jackson, Jr., did not practice what he preached in the classroom in Massie Hall. In the end he personified some of  the  negative meanings of the word black. If he didn’t turn out to be “thoroughly sinister or evil,” he did  prove to be deserving  of “condemnation or discredit.” He showed himself to be corrupt, selfish, dishonest, unprincipled, adulterous, hypocritical, conniving, spoiled, and materialistic. Though he didn’t want to be called black, he blackened the reputation of the race he was identified with, reinforcing racist stereotypes.

Blacks and African-Americans 

      But what  Jackson’s career really reflects poorly  on is not any particular race but on politicians in general. Politicians to a large extent are an embarrassment, not just to our nation,  but to our species, as is depressingly evident not only in Chicago and Washington but also in Portsmouth.  In some respects, specifically the degree of audacity, Portsmouth may be worse than Chicago and Washington, in part because the major papers in those cities, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, occasionally do investigative journalism, while The Portsmouth Daily Times has almost always been under the thumb of the crooks who control the city. Not even in Chicago or Washington would  a notorious blackguard, a white  drug-dealing pimp be brazenly appointed to fill a vacated elective office without a peep from anybody, especially not from local law enforcement and  the local media.  At least in Chicago and Washington the crooks occasionally get publicized, arrested, and jailed. In Portsmouth they get away with everything but murder.  In Portsmouth we had not only a drug dealing pimp being appointed to city  council we have a philandering, hypocritical, homophobic unelected mayor who just coincidentally  happens to be black.
Bill Clinton is jokingly said to have been the first black president. There is some truth to the joke, but it is not a flattering truth. Americans should be grateful that in 2008 they elected and in 2012 reelected not the first black—as Jesse Jackson Sr., was grooming Jesse Jackson,Jr., to be—but the  first  African-American president. Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s, father  was speaking not as an African-American but as a black when he was overheard saying  about Obama, on a mike he didn’t realize was on, “I’d like to cut his nuts off.”  Jackson, Sr., was reportedly angry at Obama for speaking down to blacks. But what the president was actually doing was speaking up for African-Americans. 

The form that was used in the last US census.