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