greatest struggle of any oppressed group in a racist society is the struggle to
reclaim collective memory and identity. At the level of culture, racism seeks to
deny people of African, American Indian, Asian and Latino descent their own
voices, histories and traditions. From the vantagepoint of racism, black people
have no "story" worth telling; that the master narrative woven into
the national hierarchy of white prejudice, privilege and power represents the
only legitimate experience worth knowing.
Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks makes the observation that the greatest triumph
of racism is when black people lose touch with their own culture and identity,
seeking to transcend their oppressed condition as the Other by becoming
something they are not. Under colonialism and Jim Crow segregation, people of
African descent were constantly pressured to conform to the racist stereotypes
held of them by the dominant society. Some succumbed to this pressure, assuming
the mask of "Sambo" in order to survive, or to ensure that their
children’s lives would go forward. Others sacrificed themselves to achieve a
higher ideal, the struggle to claim their own humanity and cultural traditions,
and to build communities grounded in the integrity of one’s own truths. The
knowledge of blackness is not found in genetics, and only indirectly in the
color of one’s skin. It is found in that connection to symbols, living
traditions and histories of collective resistance, renewal and transformation.
now live in a time when legal segregation, colonialism and even apartheid have
been dismantled. The "white" and "colored" signs across the
South that I remember so vividly in my childhood have been taken down for over a
generation. Perhaps it is not surprising that a growing number of our people
casually take for granted the democratic victories achieved-the right to vote
and hold elective office, access to fair employment, the abolition of racially
segregated public accommodations, opportunities in higher education through
affirmative action-failing to recognize that what has been won over centuries of
struggle can be taken away. Although they are the prime beneficiaries of the
freedom struggle, they distance themselves from it. They have come to the false
conclusion that what they have accomplished was by their own individual talents
and effort. And they actively attack the thesis that blackness, in and of
itself, has any cultural value, outside of the uplifting affects of whiteness.
Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is one example of this
unfortunate trend. She’s the author of a new book, An American Story, that
argues, "it’s long past time blacks opted out of blackness." In an
op-ed essay several months ago appearing in the Washington Post, Dickerson
criticizes Howard University’s African DNA database project for attempting to
link black Americans to African ancestors. For Dickerson, the DNA research only
has value because "we who were swindled out of every link to the past
except skin color will be able to find out more about our (European)
has no patience for African Americans who identify themselves as part of the
African diaspora. "A Nigerian who immigrates to America in 2000 has
virtually nothing in common with the descendants of American slaves, but we’re
both conceptually freeze-dried down to that one aspect of our selves."
Besides, she notes, "there are few black families who don’t brag about the
whites and Indians (all chiefs) in their lineage and lie about how hard it was
to make their hair stand up ‘like that’ during the reign of the Afro."
the end of Dickerson’s essay, in a passage that is both confused and outrageous,
she claims that black Americans should not "despise" the white men who
raped their foremothers. "Without slavery, there would be no Jesse
Jackson," she insists, "no Leontyne Price," "Tiger
Woods," "jazz or gospel," and "no me." Should the NAACP
halt its campaign against the Confederate battle flag, because its part of
"our" heritage, too? Should the descendants of those who were raped
find identity and meaning for themselves by coming to a new appreciation of the
rapists? Dickerson confuses genetics with culture. We may share a genetic tie to
the slaveholders, but their only vital contribution to our historical identity
was the struggle we waged against them. We share no morals, and no common
history. We owe them nothing except contempt.
academic in style, but no less self-hating, is the recent book, Losing the Race:
Self-Sabotage in Black America, by University of California linguistics
professor John H. McWhorter. Losing the Race argues that affirmative action
cripples African-American students contributing to a spirit of black
"anti-intellectualism" and to a "deep-reaching inferiority
complex" that discourages learning. "In my years of teaching,"
McWhorter declares, "I have never had a student disappear without
explanation, or turn in a test that made me wonder how she could have attended
class and done so badly, who was not African American . . ."
central point is that black people as a group are unprepared and unworthy of
being admitted to elite white institutions. Black Berkeley students, however,
aren’t a total loss. None of them "would be uncomfortable in a nice
restaurant" and most "probably do know what wine goes with
chicken." Nevertheless, they clearly cannot compete with their white
counterparts and are trapped by their "defeatist thought patterns."
does admit that his race helped him to win academic fellowships, and to achieve
his faculty positions at Cornell and now at Berkeley. But like the proverbial
man who escapes from a pit and pulls up the ladder behind him, trapping others
at the bottom, McWhorter desperately wants to distance himself from his
oppressed sisters and brothers. The price for admission into the white
establishment is to denounce blacks in stereotypical terms. And in fact, Abigail
and Stephan Thernstrom, who viciously attacked affirmative action in America in
Black and White, praise McWhorter’s book as "brilliant."
and McWhorter are cultural casualties in the centuries-old struggle against
racism. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they are aberrations. The
death of legal segregation, and the explosion in the size of the black
professional-managerial class, creates the political space for the emergence of
blacks who want to escape their blackness. They may be prepared to denounce
their own people in order to advance their careers, but we should not permit
them to go unnoticed or unchallenged. To uproot racism, we must constantly
remember that the first step is in appreciating our history and culture.
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the
Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia
University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to
over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s
column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.