Bringing Down the Hope




C

ondoleeza
Rice was born the year of the landmark decision,


Brown
vs. Board of Education

, ending the legal segregation of public
schools. Nine years later, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” having been imprisoned
for the 13th time for protesting segregation. King had called Birmingham
“the most segregated city in the country.” Police Commissioner
“Bull” Connor promised that before integration was realized,
“blood would run in the streets” and kept his promise.
At the urging of his aides, King made movement history by recruiting
high school and elementary-age students to march, hoping to stir
the moral conscience of the nation. Connor unleashed police dogs
and turned fire hoses on them, blasting many protesters against
concrete that ripped off their clothes and bloodied their skin.
That same year, Condoleezza Rice’s schoolmate Denise McNair
was killed in the bombing of the Black Sixteenth Street Baptist
Church when Ku Klux Klan member Robert Edward Chambliss planted
19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church. 


At
15, Rice began attending classes at the University of Denver with
the goal of becoming a classical pianist, her aspirations changing
soon after to political science. After earning a college degree
at 19 with honors, she continued post-graduate education at the
University of Notre Dame. For six years she served as Stanford’s
provost where she was also a tenured professor. She was on the board
of directors for the Chevron corporation and joined the George H.W.
Bush administration as senior director of Soviet and East European
Affairs in the National Security Council. On December 17, 2000,
Rice was picked to serve as National Security Advisor and stepped
down from her position at Stanford. If confirmed by the Senate in
January 2005, Condoleezza Rice will be the first black female Secretary
of State in the United States. 


Rice
is an unusual black American icon. Refusing to play any of the Hollywood
black glamour tricks, she doesn’t wear a foundation that is
three shades too light for her skin, she isn’t photographed
from strange angles to keen her features, nor does she wear blonde
dye-jobs, flowing shoulder-length extensions, or green contacts.
With her combed-back, straightened hair in a gentle flip, the tiny,
friendly space between her front teeth and her carefully considered
makeup, she recalls a matron of the church or a favorite conservative
aunt; authoritative and adequately fashionable, yet not enough to
make a point of it. 


Which
is the reason why the racism that she represents is so elusive and
that much more maddening. There is no question that Rice’s
achievements will be marked in the annals of black capitalism as
a triumph. She is a talented and successful businessperson, a military
hawk, dedicated and fiercely loyal to her country and her president.
She represents American progress and, specifically, black American
progress. Yet something is deeply wrong. 


The
theme song to the 1970’s black upward-mobility sitcom “The
Jeffersons” cried, “We finally got a piece of the pie.”
My sister and I would jump up and dance to the song when the show
came on. Maybe all black America danced to it. But did anyone stop
to ask what kind of pie it was? 


If
you are a black employee of a U.S. corporation and have decided
to file a complaint about racism, you may be dismayed to find that
the entire human resources department is black (with the exception
of one white supervisor). Having to face this black army you are
immediately disarmed. To have to tell a black face, with your black
face, that you’ve been passed over for a promotion or raise
or that you’re underpaid and you think it is because of your
race, seems more than a little odd. It takes a black bulldozer to
get over the psychological fun-house mirror of seeing blacks “everywhere”
in the human resources metropolis and still argue about black invisibility
within the company (we’re on every other floor as secretaries,
mail-room clerks, and custodians—not as executives). You leave
the confrontation and return to your desk, confused, postponed.



Consider
the human resources department of the United States of America:
Gutierrez, Gonzales, Rice, Powell. What should elicit exuberance
at the progress we as a nation are finally making towards inclusiveness,
instead inspires weariness and cold suspicion. In his

Atlantic
Monthly

article of July 2003, Alan Berlow described how Alberto
Gonzales, legal counsel to then Texas Governor Bush, helped in deciding
the fate of prisoners on death row. (The ACLU estimates that of
the more than 2,000 people on death row virtually all are poor,
a significant number are mentally retarded or otherwise mentally
disabled, more than 40 percent are African American, and a disproportionate
number are Native American, Latino, or Asian.) 


Gonzales
was responsible for creating the summaries that helped determine
whether 57 prisoners lived or died. Clemency was denied in all cases
but one. Berlow notes, “One of the most basic reasons for clemency
is the fact that the justice system makes mistakes. (Yet) during
Bush’s six years as governor, 150 men and two women were executed
in Texas—a record unmatched by any other governor in modern
American history.” 


Gonzales
also wrote a controversial February 2002 memo in which Bush claimed
the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing
protections to prisoners of war; our debacle in Abu Ghraib was arguably
its consequence. 


A
black, a Jew, a Latino, an Asian, a woman, and a homosexual can
be brought to the table of capitalist power, but if they are all
right wing and neo-conservative, if they are determined to maintain
the status quo and erase their unsavory “differences,”
the richness that comes from true diversity—from the exchange
of contrasting cultures, religions, genders, and sexualities—is
compromised. What remain are six variations of a patriarchal and
white supremacist ideology—the same person six times. It’s
this kind of “diversity” that is celebrated in the photographs
of company annual reports and White House press conferences. A black
woman at home watching television knows the people being sworn in
don’t represent her or her community and may actually do her
great harm. She certainly doesn’t trust them, they look too
hollowed out. 


A
president who chooses the birthday of the greatest American civil-rights
icon to express his condemnation of affirmative action, can’t
really care about diversity or about black students at U.S. universities.
Bush’s comments were directed specifically at the University
of Michigan; having gone to school on that campus, I know that as
far as retention of students of color is concerned, U of M, like
most U.S. universities, needs all the help it can get. Affirmative
action goes against our puritanical values: you shouldn’t get
something if you haven’t earned it. However, for the working-class
black student who may come from a community with inferior schools,
inadequate money for materials, and no advanced placement classes;
whose relatives have taken out loans to get her a place to live
on campus; who has to barter at the financial-aid department, filling
out scholarship applications and concentrating this year on how
she’s going to pay for next year; who feels isolated on a predominantly
white college campus and has to guard against the potential racist
epithets uttered by the white person in her dormitory hall or by
her professor under the guise of “intellectual discourse”;
who wants to stay in bed all semester, overwhelmed with the anxiety
of trying to prove to herself and everyone else that she is there
because of her achievements and not a number; by the time this student
sits in a classroom at a U.S. university, believe me, she’s
earned it. 


My
great-grandmother was educated in rural South Carolina through the
sixth grade when racist whites burned her school to the ground.
Several children were still inside. As my family tells it, she went
back to the school and searched the ashes for the charred bones
of her classmates, some of which she kept and placed on a mantlepiece.
My grandmother grew up with those bones as a reminder of what education
means in the U.S. for a black person, what it has sometimes cost. 


Affirmative
action was not meant for colleges to hand out diplomas like flyers
as an apology for past maltreatment or for someone to work three
weeks in a company’s mail room and suddenly be advanced to
CEO. It was a way, however flawed, to rectify the fact that education
for black Americans has been violently discouraged in the United
States through racist legislation, lynching, and murder. The easiest
way, of course, to keep from having to share the American pie is
to make sure certain people are too terrified to come anywhere near
it. 


While
expressing her reservations at a press conference, Rice supported
the president in his criticism of affirmative action and the policies
of the University of Michigan, despite having acknowledged in prior
interviews that her own tenured position at Stanford was based,
in part, on the school’s diversity initiatives. Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas, also a beneficiary of the opportunities
afforded blacks as a result of civil-rights efforts and giddy from
his own stylized brand of black contempt, is famous for his views
against affirmative action as well. Perhaps the determinant factor
in knowing one has reached the pinnacle of black capitalist power
is when one is economically or politically powerful enough to slam
the door of possibility on a set of young black fingers as brutally,
and as finally, as any racist white person ever did or could.






It’s Painful 



I

avoided seeing the Queen Latifah film


Bringing
Down the House

for as long as possible but, so as not to appear
hypocritical for condemning a movie I hadn’t seen, I relented.
Friends had warned me about it, but their choice of words was curious;
not the usual, “It’s bad, but funny,” assigned most
modern black comedies, but, “It’s painful.” I went
anyway. In the movie, Latifah plays Charlene, a black female ex-con
who claims to have been falsely convicted of a crime and who tricks
Steve Martin’s Peter, a tax attorney, into defending her. Martin
attempts to rescue her from a series of humiliations, one involving
an older white client played by Joan Plowright, who recalls at dinner
a black servant from her childhood, (“Our Ivy…we used
to pay her nothing. We would put all the food we hadn’t eaten
from our plates onto one plate just for Ivy”) and sings a happy
“darky” song (entitled “Mama, is Massa Gon’
Sell Us Tomorrow?”) while Latifah serves her in a pink maid’s
uniform. 


Charlene
has no real community in the film except her black “friends”
who “bring down the house” by almost destroying it during
a raucous party. Her ex-boyfriend is a black thug who tries to kill
her. The movie sets up the romantic-comedy expectation of boy gets
girl, but ends instead with Steve Martin going back to his ex-wife
and Charlene sitting on the lap of Peter’s lascivious, white
best friend who has objectified and violated her throughout the
movie with provocative racial and sexual come-ons. Latifah pulls
down the shade and looks at the audience with a smile that promises
a “bootylicious” good time and a secured future for her
character in the sex industry (Charlene to Peter at the end of the
film: “Shaking is what I do best”). Disney meets Mandingo. 


It
is extraordinary, the impact of a tiny, silly movie—I am still
recovering. After watching, I take a moment to imagine a 12-year-old
black girl examining media images for a reflection of herself and
her developing sexuality. She visits a friend who tells her she
has to see the movie because it’s “hilarious.” My
mother told me once, at about the same age, “Be careful what
you expose yourself to. Some things change you in ways you can’t
imagine and it can take a while to get yourself back.” What
I want to shield the child from is not sex-talk or naked bodies,
but the contempt the movie has for her, for humanity. It’s
never the sex in pornography that eats away at us, it’s the
cynicism, the overwhelming psychological burden of despair that
an adult pours into a child’s body and mind. We know how to
protect our kids from the blatancy of obvious sex; what we don’t
protect them from is the blatancy of commercialism. A black girl
or boy who looks to this film for inspiration finds two—the
prostitution on the screen and the prostitution in the movie studio’s
boardroom. 


In

Monster’s Ball

, Halle Berry plays Leticia, another bereft
black female character, with no family or friends, who depends on
the white prison officer in charge of her black husband’s execution
to be her great white savior. Leticia has no on-screen community
either, no black cousin or neighbor to borrow rent money from before
she is evicted from her house or even to sit with at a kitchen table
and cry over a piece of sweet potato pie. Rudderless and adrift,
Leticia has the skin of a black woman, but no visible cultural antecedent
in the movie. Her son, the only family she has, is killed in a way
that serves the plot more than it makes any comment on their lives.
His death, dispensable like her husband’s, doesn’t linger
or provide the viewer with a lasting grief. To keep from being completely
abandoned one night, she offers a monologue about her son’s
obesity and his greediness for fried chicken as she rips open her
blouse and presents her breasts to Billy Bob Thornton’s depressed,
grieving Hank. Through offering sex, she is finally vital and focused,
Hank is guided and redeemed. Order is restored. Latifah and Berry’s
screen characters revisit the old Southern plantation ethic. U.S.
homeland security achieved through a black woman’s vagina.





A
black man or woman who sleeps with white women and/or men may seem
to justify condemnation for engaging in the “ultimate”
act of capitulation to patriarchy, but the judgment against them
is only a crude and limited analysis of the real dynamics of racist
power. Whether we are gay or straight, male or female, liberation
comes not only from defining who one’s sexual partners are
(i.e., loving a white man or woman as an empowered choice and not
the codependency that comes from fearing a loss of power), but also
from resisting the inevitability of the black prostitute archetype
in all its forms; economic, social, artistic, commercial. 


When
I call my friend to commiserate about

Bringing Down the House

,
I’ve already anticipated his response. While we both agree
that the movie is wrong, we can’t even claim that Latifah was
victimized or complain about what “they” did to her—she
executive-produced the film. “Well,” he sighs, “at
least she got paid.” It is the same justification that African
Americans, many Americans, give for Condoleezza Rice: “Well,
I don’t agree with her politics, but you can’t take away
from her achievements. She is the most powerful black woman in America.”
As a leading proponent of the war in Iraq, a war that sends black
and Latino soldiers from economically depressed communities around
the country to untimely and unnecessary deaths, this black female
Secretary of State is not an inspiration, but rather a macabre distraction.
The racism of the war continues to go unchallenged, perhaps not
even considered, because it has a black stamp of approval. Is a
great achievement still great in the service of a great wrong? 


There
were black Americans whose romance with Malcolm X’s fierce
entreaty of the 1960s “by any means necessary” ended with
the increased opportunities for black capitalism on the horizon.
His words became no more than a poetic battle-cry. Malcolm X and
Martin Luther King, Jr. shared visions of world equality for all
black people, but capitalist black “civil rights” may
have been re-defined as the opportunity for black capitalists finally
to exploit poor American blacks and the rest of the world as freely
as whites have been protected at last from the racist reprisals
that led to black business owners’ being lynched in the South.
As Maya Angelou writes, “They don’t want change, they
want exchange.” We are now at war with insurgents who, when
they say “by any means necessary,” mean it. It is deeply
unintelligent to support this war in the unequivocal manner of Donald
“You Go To War With the Army You Have” Rumsfeld or Condoleezza
“Stand By Your Man” Rice. Tennessee Williams couldn’t
have imagined delusions of grandeur this determined. 


A
black right-wing politician can be as adrift and isolated from her
community as any Hollywood representation of a black person on-screen
and as discouraging; an example to the black viewer of the impossibility
of coalition building and political empowerment, which may be the
representation’s cynical intent. She may be black by racial
lineage and cultural heritage, but her complete disregard for her
community’s needs and her unaccountability to them make her
obsolete. She cleaves to her president and appears to have the support
of her party, but she is only allowed through their patronage to
be the most “powerful” black in the U.S. as long as her
power doesn’t shift or threaten anything that matters to them
(their money or real power). If it does, he or she is out faster
than one can say “no weapons of mass destruction” (Colin
Powell). Our Lady of the Black Hope stands at a White House podium
asking us to admire her slave collar from Tiffany & Co., beautifully
encrusted with diamonds. It sparkles, and we may admire its price,
but, in the end, it’s just as tight as ours. 


In
his great speech, delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial
in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live
out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal.” Maybe the right to black capitalism
and to black neo-conservatism is part of that equality, but I believe
that the freedom Dr. King wanted for blacks was also spiritual,
not only economic. Might he question the “freedom” of
a Michael Jordan, no matter how great our admiration for his athletic
skill, who endorses Nike, a company famous for its exploitation
of workers in the Third World, countries whose militaries retaliate
violently against those who fight for fair wages? The “freedom”
of rap-artists like Ice Cube who enjoy contracts with liquor companies
whose advertising is targeted specifically to black communities,
encouraging addiction, drug use, and violent crime? Or a black conservative
like J. Kenneth Blackwell who co-chaired President Bush’s re-election
campaign while serving as the Secretary of State for Ohio; a state
where black voters complained of disenfranchisement and were allegedly
discouraged from voting in many areas in our last presidential election?





If
anything has assassinated King’s dream, long after the assassination
of the man, it is the backlash against what is often referred to
as “political correctness.” In our efforts not to be “politically
correct” and thus hypocritical, we may now call someone a nigger
directly to his face and take satisfaction from the fact that we
have been honest with him. We’ve created a nation of John Waynes—hearty,
swaggering bigots, desperate to be challenged so they can prove
how politically incorrect (racist) they are. All progressive change
is now under the banner of being “politically correct”
and is thus considered too obnoxious to discuss. One feels unhip
or a whiner for demanding equal pay for women, reproductive rights,
anti-racist education, an end to homophobia, anti-Semitism, homelessness,
and poverty. Coming from the University of Michigan where, to some
people’s minds, political correctness was invented, I wonder
why, if all these political ideals are so “correct,” we
haven’t achieved them? How can we hope for change when those
sent in the image of the oppressed are more determined than ever
to ensure nothing changes, that business goes on as usual? 


Our
victory lies in not just seeing any black face or any woman in power,
but in the knowledge that as people of color, as gays, as women,
we aren’t enabling greater crimes against those we represent,
that our faces aren’t used to promote a war or to anesthetize
or disempower or exploit or enslave.  


From
the first black African who refused to get off the boat in Charleston
to Fanny Lou Hamer’s “we didn’t come all this way
for no two seats” lock-out at the 1964 Democratic National
Convention, we have always resisted and must now insist on a definition
of success that is not only financial, an idea of liberation that
is greater than our ability to wield economic or military power.
If that means asking different questions than most Americans, our
legacy—as an enslaved people whose children were sold away
from us so that someone’s company could have a great year—demands
it. 


It
was in Birmingham, Alabama, where Condo- leezza Rice was born and
raised, that King enjoyed perhaps his greatest civil rights victory.
On Sunday, May 5, 1963, 3,000 young people went on a pilgrimage
to Birmingham jail and were confronted by police. They sang and
knelt in prayer. When Police Commissioner Connor, waiting with dogs
and armored cars, gave the command to “turn on the hoses,”
as they had before, the firemen and cops just stood there, disobeying
his command, mesmerized before the crowd—a few even crying.
The crowd marched on. King later said, “It was one of the most
fantastic events of the Birmingham story. I saw there, I felt there,
for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.” 


In
the end, despite her many achievements, I can’t claim Condoleeza
Rice. If she is the realization of Dr. King’s dream, he should
have been more specific.



 





Max Gordon is
a writer and activist. His work is included in the anthologies



Go
the Way Your Blood Beats: an anthology of Lesbian and Gay fiction
by African-American writers



(Henry Holt, 1996) and



Inside Separate Worlds: stories of young Blacks, Jews and Latinos



(University of Michigan Press, 1991). His articles have been published
on OpenDemocracy and Democratic Underground.