COMMENTARY : Doing the Wrong Thing : In perpetuating the myth that blacks and whites who marry are misfits, Spike Lee shows in ‘Jungle Fever’ that he remains enslaved by a racist mind-set

<i> Itabari Njeri, a staff writer for The Times, is the winner of the 1990 American Book Award for her family memoir, "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone." Her next book, "The Last Plantation," explores ethnic identity and conflict in America and will be published by Random House next year</i>

Once, I was an infantile black nationalist like Spike Lee. It was the early ‘70s, and I was a very angry teen-ager.

My father had been a classical scholar whose life was circumscribed by race. He died from the cumulative effects of white rejection and alcoholism--the bills from the neighborhood liquor store stuck between the pages of the book he’d spent his life writing: “The Tolono Station and Beyond,” an examination of liberty in the United States.

My grandfather, a doctor, was killed by reckless white youths drag-racing through a Klan town in Georgia. The white boys were never charged with a traffic violation, let alone prosecuted for a greater crime.


My cousin Jeffrey looked like Ricky Nelson and always wanted to be the baddest nigger on the block. He bought into the street life, but because of his looks, the price of admission was made exceedingly high. He looked too much like the enemy and always had to prove how bad he was. When a judge, about to sentence him to prison for robbery, called him white, Jeffrey balked. “I am not white, I am black,” he insisted, and demanded he be treated as such. The judge obliged, adding a year to his sentence.

Eventually, Jeffrey’s bloated, bullet-pierced body was found on a Harlem rooftop, his too-short life blown away because he’d spent it compensating for his white skin, trying to prove how baaaadddd he was in the eyes of other black men.

At the age of 16, it seemed to me that cultural nationalism was the appropriate antidote to the lack of power and myriad forms of self-hate that kept blacks mentally enslaved and, consequently, politically and economically disenfranchised. With its calls for economic and cultural self-determination and Pan-African unity--the latter implicit recognition that despite our disparate physical appearance, we are a multi-genetic people linked by culture and history--I believed cultural nationalism the best way to escape the last plantation: the mind.

Twenty years later, the last plantation is still running, thanks in part to reactionary, pseudo-intellectual overseers like Spike Lee--a “black nationalist with a camera,” he has said of himself.

I, and many others who were affiliated with black nationalist organizations in the ‘60s and ‘70s, eventually realized that nationalism almost inevitably leads to a kind of cultural chauvinism indistinguishable from racism, the very thing we thought we were fighting. Lee, as is obvious from his often brilliantly performed, yet fundamentally flawed new film, “Jungle Fever,” seems doomed to repeat the nationalist errors of the past--he and a whole new generation of Afrocentrics espousing an unreconstructed black nationalism. It’s as if they’ve only read the first chapter of Malcolm X’s life, not the last.

“Spike knows anger,” wrote Kenneth Turan in his review of “Jungle Fever” for The Times. As I’ve trumpeted at the top, I can relate. James Baldwin made it axiomatic long ago; to be black in America is to be in a constant stage of rage. But anger seldom brings clarity. As reflected in “Jungle Fever,” it doesn’t even generate the honest intellectual passion that can create meaningful art.

Instead, as a filmmaker and media-appointed spokesman for black people, Lee seems more interested in the cynical manipulation of sensational topics that impress gullible white critics as “visionary,” “breakthrough,” “revolutionary.”

A film ostensibly about inter-ethnic lust, “Jungle Fever” propagates some of the most distorted and bigoted tenets of black nationalism--rape as the sole reason for the mixed identity of blacks and ethnic sexual exclusivity in the name of black “racial” purity.

On the other hand, while adopting the most backward elements of nationalism, he demonstrates a failure to comprehend a major nationalist imperative worth keeping: self-determination, the capacity to define and speak for ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.

Any film by a black auteur that proclaims “interracial” sex to be its theme, but in no way challenges the concept of “race,” suggests that the filmmaker can neither define himself nor conceive of a social reality outside of the one created by his oppressors.

As most social scientists have acknowledged for years, “race” is a pseudo-scientific category used to justify the political subordination of non-white peoples based on superficial physical differences. There is one race, Homo sapiens, and the physical variations that characterize the species do not amount to fundamental, qualitative differences, as the popular use of the term suggests.

I would never argue that physical appearance is unimportant. It is politically significant and the major distinction used to divide Americans. But any artist trying to understand the dynamics of color conflict in America at the end of the 20th Century should at least challenge what anthropologist Ashley Montague called man’s most dangerous myth.

The cultural and physical variations among humans are best contained within the concept of ethnicity, a term that encompasses shared genetic traits, culture and history--real or perceived.

Among the myths Lee perpetuates, through symbolic image and rhetoric, is that “Jungle Fever’s” African-looking Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a man of unadulterated black ancestry. No ethnic group is pure, and just as my cousin was a product of the African diaspora but looked like one of Ozzie and Harriet’s kids, I know plenty of black men--pretty blue-black-looking men--who were not just generically of mixed heritage (as are African-Americans as a whole) but had one white parent.

I dated a red-headed, blue-eyed, translucently pale-skinned Jewish-American whose son looked like a Senegalese prince. His father’s recessive genetic traits didn’t stand a chance against the dominant traits of the boy’s African-American mother.

But to challenge the conceptual framework and language of racism would be atypical of Lee because one of the signs on the last plantation reads: “Spike’s Place. We Serve Barbecued, Deep-Fried or Oven-Baked Racism Here.” And for entertainment, says a black female editor in New York, Spike would offer what he served in “Jungle Fever,” the current Negro party line, which means the old racist sociology.

That sociology defines blacks and whites who marry as misfits seeking the forbidden fruits of “interracial” sex on a hotbed of eroticism. This view dominated the sociological literature until the 1978 publication of Ernest Porterfield’s book “Black and White Marriages, An Ethnographic Study of Black-White Families.” Porterfield’s scholarship, as well as more recent studies, have successfully debunked the “forbidden fruit” syndrome as the prime factor in interethnic sexual relations--apocrypha that Lee regurgitates through numerous characters in “Fever,” and in his media interviews. But as many critics have noted, the tenderness Annabella Sciorra manages to bring to her role as an Italian-American temp secretary in love with Snipes’ black architect character subverts the filmmaker’s argument.

Based on his study of black-white families, Porterfield asserted that mixed marriages are often more stable than non-inter-ethnic marriages because the couples tend to have been married before, are more mature, know the social ostracism they face, and, because of it, work harder to make their marriages successful.

Another nationalist commandment worth keeping--one Lee got only half of--is the call for economic self-determination. Among many nationalists, this meant cooperative economics, but Lee has apparently opted for the black capitalist model. Former friends and business associates have told the media that he underpays his actors and has done little to help other filmmakers.

My own New York entertainment industry source says Lee offered the extras in the crack palace scene “$10 and a T-shirt” for a day’s work and were told, “Hey, do it for Spike.” Robi Reed, casting director for the film, insists that the 1,000, non-union extras were paid “$20 and a T-shirt.” That scene, by the way, a magnificent cinematic essay depicting the ravages of drugs on a community and an implicit indictment of government indifference, is the best in a film that has more to do with drugs than black-white love.

For nationalists who survived their participation in the movement--many did not, sometimes committing suicide, dropping out of life to wander the streets as one of the homeless or dropping into mental institutions because of the rigid policing of thought and suppression of real human feeling and morality--there were significant insights to be gleaned beyond economic and cultural self-determination.

They were lessons distilled from polemics that yielded a classic synthesis from opposites: the folly of orthodoxy because the orthodox have stopped thinking; the inadequacy of the melting-pot theory because its aim was not the celebration of the hodgepodge that went in the kettle--or, more valuably, the syncretic process that represents the truth of the American experience--but a glorification of an homogenized end product that never was. Rather than becoming a new breed of ethnic chauvinists, we realized that American life is a tapestry and black people are a leitmotif.

Consequently, many of us came to understand that what we needed was the political power to define the mainstream as what it always was, multicultural, and reshape the nation’s institutions accordingly. Former nationalists who went through this process were the fledgling multiculturalists--an incredibly misused term that has become synonymous with its antithesis, tribalism.

But clearly, not everyone made the transition. Those, like Lee, who espouse the most reactionary elements of the old nationalism are the new Afrocentrics. That Afrocentrism has become synonymous with a form of multiculturalism can be largely attributed to the rhetoric of disingenuous conservatives and intellectually bankrupt liberals. The hypocrisy, for example, of right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer, who tags challenges to the cultural status quo as the “New Tribalism,” while being an apologist for the old and extant tribalism: Euro-American particularism masquerading as universalism.

The universal is always rooted in some specific human reality; making that reality black doesn’t mean it’s tribalism. But using a term such as Afrocentrism to describe this shift in perspective is a distortion. It is the compensatory behavior of previously excluded people who now say: We are the center of the universe. It’s a bad word to describe a valid human perspective.

Then, just as guilty, are the patronizing liberal critics who seem to know little about the substance of black life yet think everything they’ve never heard black people talk about is revolutionary, a breakthrough cultural--Afrocentric, if you will--perspective. What Stanley Crouch noted in his critique of Lee’s film “Do The Right Thing” more aptly applies to “Jungle Fever”: “Those white people who would pretend that this film is a comment on racism and not perhaps the real thing itself is proof of what Susan Sontag calls ‘pop sophistication,’ the ability to perceive the actual political meaning as no more than ‘aesthetic excess.’ ”

For example, through the character of The Good Reverend Doctor Purify, Flipper’s black, Bible-touting, defrocked preacher papa, we get fed the brutal history of white masters raping black slave women as the pal-less reason for the miscegenated reality of black identity.

Of course rape was pervasive. My great-great-great granddaddy, an English pirate with a plantation in Barbados, threw his European wife, Bathsheba, in the dungeon regularly while he made the rounds of his favorite slave women, one of them my great-great-great grandmother.

But not every sexual encounter between blacks and whites in the New World was coerced--to think so displays a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.

Further, as I recently lay on the 19th-Century canopied bed that was my great-great-great grandfather’s, I mused over the cruelty of this pirate, Sam Lord--his house now part of a resort in Barbados. I thought then what I’d concluded in the past: It is the perpetrator of the crime, not the victim who bears the shame. And to constantly cast this criminal aspect of New World history as the cruel burden the descendants of slaves must bear is like stigmatizing a contemporary victim of sexual assault.

As far as I am concerned, every black person with white ancestry should, no matter how they came by it, own it. The acknowledgement of our ties by blood and culture puts the lie to the official silence on America’s historically miscegenated identity.

But again, carnal knowledge of each other “across the color line” goes far beyond rape. In America, there was proportionately more interethnic sex and marriage between whites and blacks during the colonial period than any other time in American history, notes Paul Spickard in his 1989 book “Mixed Blood.” The couples were often indentured servants or a free black and indentured white. And in the 19th Century, Jews in New Orleans frequently married black women, according to Spickard.

To riff on this theme further, given the mutual consent that characterizes contemporary black-white unions, it seems cruel and unusual punishment for their offspring to have to hear that their white daddies are lumped with all the rapists of the past.

Mr. Lee also manages to ignore the long contact between American Indians and African-Americans in the United States. Social scientists have estimated that at least 80% of the African-American population has significant Indian ancestry, probably more than they have European blood. Of course, Lee never acknowledges this aspect of “race-mixing” because it would not square with his rigid typecasting of human experience.

As demographers point to the growth of the non-white population and the consequent “browning of America,” the already heterogeneous African-American gene pool will become more so: black, Korean and Hispanic; Japanese, African-American and East Indian, Ethiopian, African-American, Chinese and European. In L.A., I meet people with these and similar backgrounds frequently.

But given the fascistic bent of “Jungle Fever,” with its description of miscegenated blood as a cesspool, will love with other people of color be verboten too?

Yes, if you accept the main thrust of the argument in the movie’s much-heralded scene between a group of black women who fall into a no-holds-barred rap session on black men and “race” mixing, while consoling Flipper’s wife Drew (Lonette McKee) once she’s gotten the 411 on his affair.

Lots of people liked this largely improvised scene for its spontaneity and “real” insights on black female frustration over the surfeit of unsuitable black men and the predatory white women who are snatching all the good ones.

This is old stuff in the black community and the bottom-line conclusion, asserted by McKee’s character, is that she was not an equal-opportunity lover and rainbow sex was not for her.

There’re going to be a lot of lonely black women in America if they take that hard line. And lots of black women take the line only because of peer pressure. I’ve heard many a professional black woman say to me that they’ve met white men that they’ve admired and found attractive but feared ostracism by the black community.

That’s a real tragedy, because finding another human being with whom you connect spiritually, intellectually and sexually is an already tortuous journey; the goal is nearly unobtainable with these often self-imposed barriers. As a black male writer said to me recently: “You know the phrase ‘a spade’s a spade?’ Well, I want to write a story called ‘a heart’s a heart.’ ”

Maybe one day Lee will get past being angry at his widowed daddy for marrying a white woman; perhaps he’ll be born again in the philosophical faith of his ancestors, a faith that dominated the black community I lived in for years, the one surrounding the elementary school in “Jungle Fever,” P.S. 129, from which I graduated.

In that place, at that time, we were taught by word and deed that the worst thing a black person could become was racist. To become one meant that the enemy had won, taken hold of your mind and crushed your capacity to love and live rationally.

As a film dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins, the black youth killed by an Italian-American mob in Bensonhurst because they thought he was dating a white girl, what does “Jungle Fever” do to illuminate the mental and emotional chaos in America over color and culture? Where is the truth of the human condition beyond the righteous anger that Lee may feel? As Voltaire remarked: “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.”