Irkin' me from the left and right
This is why I can't seriously do politics: most of the time, it seems that people are so entrenched in their opinions that they refuse to acknowledge that there are other legitimate options and thought processes. In both of these pieces, I'm just like, come on! In reading over some of the headlines at Black Electorate, I was particularly struck by the article about the woman who seems to want some type of remuneration from Brown University because of some dealings they may have had in slavery. What's the point in that, really? Brown is an Ivy League university. I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that many of the Black students there are being held back or otherwise systematically discriminated against. If you're Black and communicate well, and have even a modicum of intellegence, a university is almost like a utopia. Sure, there may be an individual incident here and there, but I don't think that those situations represent the total experience. Those are just some bumps in an otherwise smooth road. Let's say that the panel finds that the founders of Brown University did have some dealings in slavery and that they did profit substantially. Nothing in the article indicates that this is so, but just for the sake of argument, let's say it happened like that. What happens now? Do they cut a check to all the Black students at Brown? If that's the case, let me transfer right now! But seriously, one of the difficulties I have with reparations is the question of who gets them. Would they go to all Black alumni of Brown? Would they go to all Black students who were enrolled at the time of the decision? Would it wind up being a scholarship? And then there's the problem of determining who is actually Black. What's the definition? Who sets it? The NAACP? Situations like this make me really believe in John McWhorter's "Victimology" framework. He says that one of the main things holding Black people back is their embracing of victimhood. This situation with Brown seems to be just that. Let's look at something that happened over 200 years ago and see how somebody took advantage of people who looked like us. I'm not one of those people who believes that everything is okay now, and that racism doesn't exist or anything like that. For that matter, neither does McWhorter. I do think, however, that plumbing history for examples of racism does nothing to make the lives of Black people better today. To be sure, such things should be noted, since they provide a context for what we know and believe about America, but at the end of the day, that stuff happened a long time ago. Whether the founders of Brown made money off slaves or not, I doubt that it has any impact on the Black students who are there now. In the same way, the fact that I probably could not have gone to the U. of Maryland 100 years ago has no bearing on what I do while I am there now. In short, I think that the problems we face in the Black community cannot be solved by looking back at what happened in the past. That old saying about people not knowing their past is true (whichever saying you know, that's the one I meant.) but it's also true that you can't drive forward if you keep your eyes on the rearview mirror. The racist practices of the past are bad, but they have maybe 3% stopping power. Racist practices of today are bad but they have, maybe, 22% stopping power. That other 75%, that's totally in our control. What Nicholas, John, and the rest of the Browns that founded the University, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even George Wallace and Bull Connor did is not keeping kids today from reading and learning mathematics to the appropriate level for their grade. There's a place for discussing the effects of racism, but this is not it. On the other side of the aisle, I read an archived article about Black History Month by Mychal Massie. Overall, I agree with his premise. However, smack dab in the middle of the piece, he writes, "During Black History Month, black children have Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois – all of whom were purveyors of bitterness – force fed to them." I have two problems here: first, I don't think most Black students could identify two of the three. I'm assuming that they would probably be able to pick out Marcus Garvey because of his military-style regalia, but that may be a huge assumption on my part. Second, and more disturbing to me is the way he singlehandedly dismisses them because he disagrees with their politics. If there's anything that bothers me about the discourse of political thought it's the fact that we act like only people who agree with us are worth knowing or learning about. Now, in Massie's defense, he does mention three people whose names I am unfamilar with, James A. Harris, William Lester Jr., William B. Purvis, and Capt. Robert Lawrence Jr., so there is some research for me to do. The contributions of those four men notwithstanding, that a Black intellectual of any stripe can just casually dismiss W.E.B. DuBois or Paul Robeson is unconscionable. This is particularly true when discussing them as people Black students should, or in Massie's case should not, learn about. Marcus Garvey is an important figure too, but he doesn't resonate with me like DuBois or Robeson. Students need to learn about DuBois because they need to understand that Black folks most certainly do have a heritage as intellectuals. And I'm not talking about Black(?) folks way, way back in Africa somewhere, I'm talking about in these United States. Now, I'm not necessarily comfortable with DuBois' embrace of socialism, but I think that it represents a teaching opportunity. The teacher could engage the students on whether they think his ideological responses to the racism that he saw in his day (might the fact that he had to go to Germany to get his PhD because no school in the States would accept a Black PhD candidate have had something to do with his "bitterness"?) were warranted and whether such thoughts are appropriate now. As for Paul Robeson, I am just aghast that anybody could just casually dismiss him. If I had known who he was when I was younger, Paul Robeson would have been my role model. He did everything. Paul Robeson was the 3rd Black student at Rutgers, having earned an academic scholarship. While there, he earned 15 varsity letters and was a 2-time All American in football. In addition to numerous academic awards, he graduated valedictorian. That's just college. That's before he graduated law school or started performing. What more could someone want to point to in one person? He is the perfect example for students that one need not give up in one area to do well in another. Again, while I understand that Massie's objection to Robeson being taught during BHM has to do with Robeson's political positions later in his life, I think that such thinking can short-circuit the learning process. It is every thinking person's right to interrogate Robeson's political actions. Whether one decides that his actions were valid or not is immaterial. All students would do well to learn about and learn from Paul Robeson. As an aside about Robeson, while we all venerate Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed even though it cost him his title, we only celebrate him today because he won his title back. Most people don't know about Paul Robeson because he never got back on top and as such, does not fit the story arc into which we typically cast our historic figures. At least now we're starting to recognize his greatness. He's on a postage stamp...looking like Sidney Poitier.