Monday, January 29, 2007

The White Doll

Watch this.

During the 1940s psychologists Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Phipps Clark tried to demonstrate the negative effects of segregation on black children. They developed a test using four dolls, identical except for the skin color. When asked which doll they liked best, most of the black children chose the white doll. After the testing was completed, Clark concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" caused African American children to develop a senses of inferiority and self-hatred. The results of the tests were used during court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, to show that segregation damaged the personality development of black children.

17-year old aspiring filmmaker Kiri Davis conducted her own "doll test" as part of her 2005 documentary "A Girl Like Me" in which she explores the problematic standards of beauty that many black women encounter and internalize. Interstingly, her experiement yeilds results similar to those of the Clarks. 15 of the 21 black children interviewed still prefer the white doll, associating it with greater value and beauty than its black counterpart.

60 years of civil right victories and a steady influx of powerful black icons and idols in the public eye have seemingly done little to alter the psychology of our children. Where does that leave us?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How the Black Bourgeoisie Ruined [My] MLK Day: Part 2

My initial response to "Please Don't Tell Martin" was passionate and curt:

i found [the poem] to be very cosby in its short-sighted finger-pointing. very pound cake speech.

i wish our community could be more self-affirming and less divisive when issuing critique and calls for action.

"please don't tell martin" that we're still sponsoring the artless vilification of the black working class and creating paper-thin assessments of the black middle class. and don't tell larry, either.


but after a friend pointed out how some of the newer bruthas on the listserv might experience my email as unnecessarily abrasive, i offered the following explaination:

Poems, speeches and other tirades decrying black folks’ supposed obsession with “diamond clad teeth, 24 inch rims, and designer clothes” are not hard to come by. The “what’s wrong with niggers?” speech is an unfortunate mainstay in American culture.

See also: Bill Cosby’s “pound-cake speech
Chris Rock’s “black people vs. niggers” routine
The widely circulated “KKK Letter to Young Black Men
The infamous letter from “A Disgusted White Woman
And everyone's favorite "They Are Still Our Slaves"

As such, I don't find the "Please Don't Tell Martin" piece to be exceptional, unique or insightful.

Pieces like “Please Don’t Tell Martin” are circulated frequently and widely because they serve an important function in our society: they allow us to lambast the immorality of the black working class. They offer an unsympathetic vilification of the “ghetto people” on the basis of their shiftlessness, inviduous consumption and lascivious nature. They routinely ignore or understate the impact of forces like institutional and systemic racism and classism, and uncritically indict “ghetto people” for their failure to magically, instanteously and single-handedly “rise above” the monoliths of stratification upon which this nation was built.

But why? What is to be gained by black folks creating such divisive constructions? What common thread unites these attempts to classify and penalize large portions of the black community?


To answer this question, I point to the concept of “typing” as outlined in the introduction of Elizabeth Johns’s book “Amercian Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life”.

“As anthropologists and students of popular culture have long known, "typing" is part of the larger process by which human beings assert, parcel out, and deny power to members of their communities.

Typing is often initiated by those who would be at the apex of the society, but it also undertaken by beings in middling situations and at the bottom of societies. People variously distinguish those around them by class, gender, age, intelligence, and manners and set up targets for satire or condescension that satisfy their need for superiority...

In virtually every instance, it seems, is carried out as a harmless, natural activity. That is, persons doing the typing usually do not recognize the interests behind their constructions and at other times pointedly deny them and see the typing as perfectly natural."

I read “Please Don’t Tell Martin” as a clear example of typing. It invites us to shake a disapproving finger at “thugs”, “hoochies” unwed mothers, strippers and other “ghetto” inhabitants without any context whatsoever. And, in so doing, the piece allows those of us who read and circulate it to demonstrate our adherence to and celebration of the moral standards of the “civilized” (read: white upper class) world. To be clear, this is a boat I'm not willing to board.

And none of this is undermined by the piece’s paper-thin treatment of the black middle class. Isn’t it conspicuous that the only qualm that the author can find with the middle class is that they don’t give back to the black community?

In no uncertain terms, I find that the piece’s popularity lies in the fact that it sets up the black working class as targets for satire and condescension in ways that satisfy the need for superiority held by those invested in rising from those ranks as well as those who have no genuine understanding of “ghetto” life.

Further, the piece paints a portrait of black morality that is ahistorical, culturally ignorant and occasionally contradictory. As per the mandate of the poem, one must be a respectably dressed, civically engaged, gainfully employed, church-going, Negro spiritual singing, hood dwelling democrat with a nuclear family, natural hair and no criminal record.


Of course, there’s no mention of the fact that gainful employment isn’t always easily attainable for black and brown folks; that the homophobia and misogyny of the church has failed many of us; that the democratic party has failed even more of us; that the nuclear family structure has never been a reality for Africans in America; that the legal and judicial systems don’t always work in our favor.

And this, my bruthas, is why I found the piece to be very Cosby in its short-sighted finger-pointing. And this is why I wished that our community could be more self-affirming and less divisive when issuing critique and calls for action.

My critique of the artless (and downright trite) vilification of the black working class and the paper-thin assessments of the black middle class stand.

I was compelled to comment on “Please Don’t Tell Martin” because I felt two things.

1. Given Coretta’s life work of bettering the conditions for blacks in general and the working class in particular, that the “poem” (and I use that word loosely) was a irresponsible use of Mrs. King’s name.

2. Remaining silent about the piece’s function as a form of typing would amount to my tacit acceptance of its claims. To see this piece to hit BMAG without someone saying, “Hey, the analysis here is problematic and short-sighted” would cause me to question our collective consciousness.

I offer my voice as a voice of dissent fully believing that I’m not the only brutha on here who saw the nefarious work that emails, poems, speeches and letters of this sort do.

I hope you guys can appreciate that.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How the Black Bourgeoisie Ruined [My] MLK Day: Part 1

It all began with an unassuming email sent out through the Black Men's Awareness Group listserv here at Princeton. One of the bruthas had received the following "poem" and thought he'd share it with the group on MLK day. What harm could it do?

Please Don't Tell Martin

by Bitter B

Thank you Ms. Coretta for the grace, strength, and dignity that you displayed.

Since your wonderful husband was assassinated by the bullets of fear and hate.

You know they killed him because of their ignorance.

Thank you for not allowing bitterness and anger to engulf your very existence.

Now that you are reunited with Martin tell him that they are stripping our rights away, day by day, but his fight was not in vain.

Tell him that although my generation glorifies drugs, debases black women in song, and calls us vulgar names – that his dream still remains.

Our men no longer celebrate our natural black beauty – we have to have long weaves, small waists, and big ole booties.

The videos are so degrading, they mirror soft porn.

Us Blacks own television stations now, but that’s all that’s shown.

Tell Martin that my generation apologizes for its lack of respect for his legacy and the dormancy of our elders, we might as well call this the Civil Rights of Unmovement Era.

Tell him that although we as black people make more than we’ve ever seen, that we squander it on diamond clad teeth, 24 inch rims, and designer clothes due to our sagging self-esteem.

Tell Martin that our babies are growing up without fathers, while the mothers are catching buses just like he remembers.

Our children take to the streets in droves, not to march or proclaim the injustice of this nation, but to pledge their gang affiliation.

I can’t rhyme to this next line. On any night thugs hang out while bullets ring out - not freedom.

And yes we continue to be judged by the color of our skin by America but I wonder most about the lack of the content of our character.

Advise him that the grand-daughters of the Civil Rights era are making their money as strippers.

The Grand-sons of the marchers are ignoring their sons and daughters and hanging and slangin’ on corners.

They’re going to jail in mass numbers, not for protesting, marching, or defying racism, but because they commit illegal acts to gain materialism.

Our children are making babies, ignoring education, committing felonious capers, I’d wish they’d read his Birmingham Jail Papers.

Tell Martin that those in the ghetto are not the only ones forgetting his dream.

There are those who’ve forgotten where they came from because of a little cream.

Who refuse to give back to the community, because their motto is ‘More for me’.

They’ve forgotten how to lend a helping hand, to help their fellow man – all the while thinking, ‘If I can make it, they can’.

Looking down without offering a leg up, getting on elevators with their noses up.

Some of us are even republicans now, but that’s a very exclusive black crowd.

Striving to get to the top of the ladder, to make their pockets fatter – instead of doing something that truly matters.

Leaving the ‘hood’ in droves and only moving back when Whites buy up all of the homes.

Tell Martin that we still like to dance and sing, but not Negro spirituals cuz we’ve got Beyonce grinding and shaking her thing.

Ms. Coretta, this may hurt poor Martin the most – it just may seal the deal, we as a people don’t attend church anymore.

Cuz we’ve gotten a little education and found out that God wasn’t real.

For those of us who still believe, it makes us want to holla, we’ve got a pimp named Bishop and a Bishop named Dollar.

I don’t know Ms. Corretta, maybe you’d better not tell Martin that for all that he’s done to make us free, equal, and just – that we still migrate to the back of the bus. I’ll bet looking down – he doesn’t recognize us.

We’ve forgotten how to march, protest, and vote - but be at the club, standing in line for hours – in the freezing cold.

Sporting the latest gear; stilettos, hoochie clothes, teeth that’s froze, and Tims – driving cars with less tire more rim. Dying to get in so that we can ‘shake it fast’, drop it like it’s hot’ – forgetting the respect and dignity that we were taught.

I neva' thought I’d think this thought, but please don’t eva' give Martin your report.

Ms. Coretta, maybe you should just avoid mentioning my generation all togetha'.

Bitter B

Released: January 31st, 2006