In these days of polarizing, pulverizing debates that make it almost impossible to describe what it means to be African American anymore, I find myself better off simply describing a day in my life:
I drive to Locke High School to teach a poetry workshop to a group of 10th-graders. Locke is a terribly underperforming, sometimes violent school in a poor, significantly black neighborhood in South Los Angeles, yet it is only 15 minutes from my middle-class, also significantly black neighborhood in Inglewood. The campus is clean, if a bit shabby. The black girls in my group are reserved, though not sullen; they are willing, often eager, to write. The boys tend to speak out of turn, but only in service of poetry--they volunteer ideas, answers, reasons why something is a metaphor or is not. They write, too. Nobody’s grammar or literary analysis is perfect, yet I leave Locke feeling buoyed, connected, hopeful.
I stop at a gas station and switch almost unthinkingly to a grim face because some young black men loitering near the pumps, men who resemble the boys I just left, are looking hard at me and, caught between ethnic fear and familiarity, I go with fear; I learned early that I must survive first and reason later. Back on the road, a black motorist in a gleaming SUV has rap music, foul language and all, turned up to a deafening assault, shivering everything within a four-lane radius from the tires up. I flash on a well-worn anger: Why we got to be like this? On the way into Hollywood I notice that almost every homeless person I pass is black, and the anger flares again, this time with more sorrowful indignation than exasperation: Why we got to be like this?
By the time I get to work--an office in which I am the only black person doing what I’m doing--I’m convinced that what I do at Locke means almost nothing at all, that however willing the students, they will eventually be swallowed whole by the monster that has stalked us from one generation into the next, a ravenous chimera of lesser schools, lack of trust, indifference, idleness, low ambitions and low-hanging pants that sag like still-unrealized freedom dreams. I put myself beyond that monster’s reach decades ago and am relatively safe; many other black people are not. But however prudent it may be to not go back to Locke, to cut ties or close my eyes, I know it’s not possible, because in spite of the miles and sensibilities that separate Hollywood from South L.A. and South L.A. from Inglewood, we--me, the students, the driver, the vagrants and loiterers--are all somehow in the same place. With a mix of weariness and wonder that I can’t characterize at all, I think, for the last time: Why we got to be like this?
So there it is: As often in my writing life as I’ve chronicled being black, I am confounded by it. I was at a particular loss a year ago, when Bill Cosby, in his remarks at an NAACP ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, declared to the well-dressed black audience that it was more or less the black poor and ghetto-dwelling who were holding back--well, holding up--the progress of the race. As everybody now knows, Cosby excoriated “these people” for a dirty-laundry list of things that have become synonymous in many people’s minds with the black condition: bad parenting, bad English, unplanned pregnancies, high incarceration rates, high dropout rates, even fanciful names “like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap” that attempt to reach back to Africa via a certain American inventiveness--more bad English, I suppose.
Taken by surprise, the audience responded as it would to a typical Cosby performance, laughing and applauding. Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who followed Cosby on the program, officially kicked off what has become a yearlong debate when he jettisoned his prepared remarks and instead cautioned against demonizing the black poor by ignoring a bigger picture of racism and neglect. In the immediate media aftermath, many other black notables shouted or mumbled their assent, from conservative columnists such as Thomas Sowell to then-NAACP CEO Kweisi Mfume. And just one said no, in a voice as loud and unequivocal as Cosby’s: Michael Eric Dyson. Far from despairing or keeping silent about black issues that feel to many of us like existential riddles, Dyson savors them. He eats them for lunch. The 46-year-old University of Pennsylvania humanities professor is known for his sharp social and political analyses, his gift of metaphor and quick wit, all of which he deployed as Cosby’s opponent in this new front in an old culture war.
In time came the predictable eruption of amens from the right and disavowals from the left, as well as demurrals from those who staked out a middle ground in deciding that Cosby was right, but overly righteous. Yet everybody black knew this discussion was not about politics, it was about us. What troubled me most was not the iteration of problems--God knows we’ve heard them all before--but how Cosby repeatedly laid them at the feet of “these people,” an ill-defined demographic that he felt free to openly ridicule at points. It was a distinction of class but also a discomfiting echo of age-old racist and paternalistic descriptions of all blacks, a reminder that try as we might, there’s a good number of us--say, 25%--who will never, ever assimilate because we simply don’t have the goods.
This is one reason why a lot of black people, both famous and non-, have had opinions about what Cosby said but have been reluctant to go into details; even the majority who nodded agreement dared not say why, at least not for attribution. The most they would say was that they shared a widespread exasperation with the general brokenness of the race and the failure to fix things, leaving the rest to that vast rhetorical question that blows us apart and binds us together in the same moment: Why we got to be like this?
Michael Eric Dyson is an ace rhetorician--he’s a baptist minister, too--but not in the service of reticence, especially on this issue. The title of his new book is therefore a pair of blunt and distinctly un-rhetorical questions: “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” Dyson says that while he has never had any problems with Cosby or anybody else raising questions or getting mad--indeed, he thinks we ought to do both--he does have a problem with sloppy analyses that waylay discussions about real solutions. Which is why he sat down and began writing almost as soon as Cosby stepped down from the podium last year.
Like me, Dyson was most put off by Cosby’s offhand condemnation of the least-moneyed, least-educated blacks as “these people” and as the primary source of all that’s gone wrong. He says that if we’re going to apportion blame, there’s plenty to go around, starting with a black middle class that’s been busy decoupling its interests from those of the lower class for several decades now and thereby steadily undermining the fortunes of the entire race. And don’t get him started on the broader context of America--why should Cosby vilify blacks as anti-intellectual, he asks, when most of the high school seniors in the country can’t find France on a map? “ ‘These people'--that’s distressing,” Dyson muses in a phone interview from Philadelphia. “If he had said ‘nigga,’ that would have been better. That’s actually kinship. ‘Hey, nigga!’ But ‘these people’ is worse.”
Dyson is eloquent but plain-spoken, a quintessential post-New Negro who uses academic rigor, pop-culture savvy and biblical insight to frame book-length dissections of black issues and the larger meaning of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye. He is the most astute of a growing number of black academics who embrace hip-hop as an extension of many important black traditions and cultural practices, an inherently controversial position that reflects many of the same class tensions he discusses in his latest book. The Cosby incident simply gave him an appropriate moment to explore an intra-racial divide that looks like class on the surface but just underneath is really many divides--generational, psychological, communal, aesthetic. Dyson considers the comedian’s remarks line by line, starting each chapter with extended quotes and holding up their unsparing sentiments to equally unsparing examination. A chapter on “Family Values” looks at the idealized Cosby’s own less-than-ideal upbringing and how it compares with the dynamics of the larger black family. “Speaking of Race--Or Not” lays out the history of Cosby’s triumphant comedy career and how it fits a pattern of racial compromise that black performers have made, or have been forced to make, since the days of ragtime.
By the end of the book--well, halfway through--it’s hard not to conclude that Cosby, for all his righteous anger, was way off the mark. Time and again Dyson cites studies, statistics and surveys that, contrary to Cosby’s dire assessments, reveal poor and working-class blacks to be patriotic, socially conservative, hard-working, optimistic and much less likely to blame the white man or “the system” for their troubles than most people believe. He is careful to laud Cosby for his own role in black history and for his racial philanthropy--he’s given millions over the years to historically black colleges and universities--but insists that philanthropy doesn’t buy him the right or confer on him the expertise to make sweeping statements about black people as if they’re fact and/or gospel. “I admire Cosby--his giving money is peerless,” Dyson says. “We talked for an hour and a half, and I said I embrace and love him. But there’s a non-transferability of genius on this point. I told him I had to oppose him, but it was ideological, not personal.”
Dyson’s new book has not enjoyed the effusive reception of his previous titles, and the reviews have often read more like responses to the latest referendum on race and empowerment. Newsweek’s Ellis Cose cited Dyson’s eloquence, but also chided him for bothering to take apart--in 250 pages, no less--so simplistic a social theory as Cosby’s. The New Republic accused Dyson of falsifying the whole debate by misusing the notion of “elitism,” which reviewer Reihan Salam suggested has been twisted around 180 degrees by newfangled liberals such as Dyson to mean not the black upper-crust or middle class but the black poor, who have been too long miscast and ennobled “as rebels against a deeply corrupt social order.”
For his part, Cosby has taken his ideology on the road, holding town-hall meetings (“call-outs,” he calls them) with black audiences across the country. Dyson calls it Cosby’s “Blame-the-Poor Tour,” and his own media presence in the last year on talk shows and panels--and now on a book tour--is a conscious counteroffensive to what he regards as a campaign of misinformation. "[Cosby is] making all these critical comments about black folk, but he has no self-critique,” Dyson says. “For instance, he complains about the consumerism problem, yet he’s part of it"--as a pitchman for Jell-O, Ford and other companies. “One of the most racist beliefs is because you’re black, you know black. You know everything about slavery, reparations, all that. Not true, but nobody calls you on it because black people don’t rate any further study.” Instead, the nuances of racial debate are left to “experts” such as Cosby.
Yet Dyson knows he is dealing mainly with an emotional, not an intellectual, issue. Cosby snapped, and even the most resolute Afrocentrics among us understood. None of us need to read a single statistic to know that too many African Americans are falling by the wayside and that too little is being done to keep them on track. Cosby’s tirade therefore provoked questions that are not sociological, but spiritual: Who’s responsible, and what should we do? More profoundly, where, and with whom, do we cast our lot?
Ultimately, Dyson’s data, surveys and historical analyses argue not for the reader’s political conversion, but for his or her compassion. The book does that most persuasively in a chapter titled “Classrooms and Cell Blocks,” which, among other things, reprints written evaluations from a group of young black people Dyson once counseled in a detention center and jail. “To me the author change the way I think,” wrote one young man. “When he gave his speech I thought in my mind I need to start doing right and stay out of trouble and stop coming to jail.” Another declared, “I used to think reading was only for entertainment but now I read for inteligents.” Putting human faces and foibles to those whom Cosby derisively called “it” suddenly makes his remarks seem a lot less courageous and the situation a lot more complicated.
The worst thing, Dyson says, is that Cosby understands that, or did once. The book quotes from interviews dating back to the ‘60s in which Cosby acknowledged, if not downright emphasized, ongoing social and historical factors that have contributed to black problems. Not an uncommon view, but remarkable for a man who built a successful career and public image on minimizing race in general, and blackness in particular. “Cosby knows educational inequity and racism,” Dyson says. “He’s too smart not to know. He has culpable ignorance.” So might Cosby simply be a crusader who got mugged by the criminally slow pace of change and flipped orthodoxies in middle age, a black version of David Horowitz? Dyson says maybe, but there’s more to it than that. “He could be deeply conservative, but most of us are conservative,” he says. “But by making his stuff look exceptional"--by deliberately setting himself apart from the rest of us--"he’s not acknowledging that. Why?”
Dyson is not out to name haters or heroes. He appreciates Cosby’s speaking up and empathizes with his sense of frustration, even anguish, about the unsuccessful among us; the problem for him is that Cosby “got angry at them, not with them.” Dyson says he did not want to slam the comedian nearly as much as he wanted to strenuously argue, as he always does, for the complexity of the modern black condition, especially internal struggles over class, character and image that have been simmering since Reconstruction but in 2005 are boiling over, partly because nobody wants those things to matter as much as they still do. Complexities like these are rarely given room in public dialogues about race, a persistent sin of omission that Dyson says is at the heart of American racism.
“Black people are almost never given the benefit of the doubt, because to do so would be presuming complexity and depth that we don’t have, right?” he says a bit testily. “If I can just complexify things"--his term--"that’d be good. I’ve got to keep eroding that stone of monolithism.” To that end, Dyson uses his book to discuss the “simultaneity” of black thought--the embrace of seemingly contradictory ideas that, together, give us the clearest and most honest picture of how things are. The thoroughly mixed messages about race that we’ve gotten over the years require that we do nothing less. Dyson puts it this way: “We say things that are true, but at the same time we say they’re wrong--O.J. did it, but Mark Fuhrman tried to frame a guilty man. There’s always been a lag between the complex reality and the simple conversations about us. I’m just asking black people to honor that.”
I would say that most of us do, even those who say they agree with Cosby in the main. T.D. Jakes, the popular TV preacher who has helped introduce overtly moral themes in mainstream books and film (such as last year’s “Woman, Thou Art Loosed”), concludes in Dyson’s book that “while black introspection is crucial to healing, it is half the solution.” Richard Yarborough, a professor of English and African American studies at UCLA, tells me he is less perturbed by what Cosby said than by what black comics typically say every night of the week. “Cosby didn’t say anything different than what Chris Rock said in his ‘niggers’ monologue"--in which Rock famously detailed the differences between black people and “niggers"--"and they’re both pretty insensitive and brutal to me,” Yarborough says. “But nothing he said was anything I haven’t heard. We should use this as an opportunity to talk about issues, quickly get beyond the occasion and who said it. Class is not the idea that contains us all.”
It doesn’t help that Cosby refuses to expand the boundaries of what he’s really talking about, which isn’t the dereliction of the black poor but something bigger: ghettoism. Ghettoism is about the manners and mores of all black people and how they play to white folks, and it used to be that being deemed “ghetto” was a high insult. But with the explosion and exploitation of hip-hop and thug life, there has been such a mad rush to ghettoism through music, fashion, slang and the like that it has become awfully tough--and more than a little hypocritical--to argue that people living the reality are doing, or being, anything wrong. The promiscuity and materialism that Cosby seems to think are emanating exclusively from the black poor are the raw ore of what I call the American ghetto-industrial complex, a vast array of entertainment-related businesses that includes record labels, movie studios, advertising companies, book publishers and video producers.
And ghettoism is global. Echoing the New Republic’s Reihan Salam, Jonetta Rose Barnes of the Washington Post complained in a Cosby critique that too many poor blacks buy into “defective cultural narratives” that tell them the only way to be authentically black and socially significant is to live poor and in a ghetto. But as Dyson says, that’s a statement that has the benefit of being true without being informative. Let’s be real: The “defective cultural narrative” is not a story that blacks are telling each other, but that the ghetto-industrial complex is telling the world every day. Everybody, it seems, wants to be black. We--and I’m speaking of black folk too--affect the rebel gangsta qualities we attribute to the black poor casually and shamelessly; Simon & Schuster just issued “Hold My Gold: A White Girl’s Guide to the Hip-Hop World,” a sprightly sounding how-to book that is nothing less than old-fashioned, fetishistic racism dressed up in the thin clothes of modern-day irony. As Dyson says, if we are going to parcel out blame for the blase acceptance of the black poor and prison-bound, please, let’s do it fairly. Surely a celebrity such as Cosby, who has played the game of image all his life, can see the role of the media in this mess.
He does--but only a little, and only when pressed. Cosby didn’t want to be quoted for this piece, though we spoke for nearly an hour on the phone in what was doubtless the most intriguing and unsatisfying interview I’ve ever done. It was not really an interview but a lecture fashioned from his original remarks, delivered by Cosby with his publicist on the line, a white man, to ensure that I didn’t misunderstand his edicts about the black experience. At first I was thrilled that Cosby sounded exactly like the lovably ornery uber-dad from TV, the pasha of Jell-O pudding that most of us recall fondly. Then it struck me that this was real life and that Cosby was not interested in a real dialogue or reconciliation, as Cliff Huxtable would have been. He wanted not to talk but to set me straight; I knew that if I disagreed with him more than mildly, the “talk” would be over.
Cosby was wholly disdainful of Dyson in a way I found disheartening, but also illuminating--in the end, Dyson to him is not a compatriot or even a worthy opponent but one of “these people,” not uneducated or ghetto but just the wrong kind of black. I realized, finally, that Cosby is angry not about schisms of class or culture or language, but about blackness itself. He’s angry that it takes up so much of his time, that it does not seem to be self-sustaining and that it needs so much, too much, to grow and prosper and to get right. He’s angry that at the moment blackness, for all its outrageous ubiquity, is declining into a quiet apocalypse. Never a settled matter, blackness now feels horribly inefficient, slippery, not our own, wandering off in a wrong direction the moment we take our eyes off it, falling out of the census here, ballooning to grotesque proportions there. Deep down we’d all love to ignore our color, as we’re increasingly admonished to do. But we can’t. We shouldn’t. The world, and our own consciences--which Cosby has, or else he wouldn’t have bothered to say anything at all--won’t let us.
Dyson says that such vigilance is a good thing, a necessary thing. Yes, there’s racial fatigue. Yes, there are days when we’d all like to be something and somebody else, to shuffle off this marked skin that constantly demands a coherent position and point of view, whether we’ve got one or not. Dyson keeps returning to the difficulties of identity in his book, like the chorus of a song, once in a discussion about degrees of blackness that he categorizes as “accidental,” “incidental” and “intentional.” (Cosby mostly falls into the first group, Dyson says, though not always.) The point is that black people must constantly think about where and who we are, and it’s exhausting. It’s also deeply rewarding when we get it right. “We don’t have a choice in being,” Dyson says. “We have to choose one state of existence or another.”
Dyson and Cosby may be living on different streets right now, but they’re in the same neighborhood. On my best days I dare to believe that’s only a couple of steps away from both of them, from all of us, being home.
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What He Said
From Bill Cosby’s original remarks, May 17, 2004
Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people, they are showing you what’s wrong. People putting their clothes on backwards--isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? [Laughter.] Are you not paying attention? People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? [Laughter and applause.] Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? [Laughter.] We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.
Brown vs. Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. [Applause.] We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. [Laughter.] It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. “Why you ain’t where you is go, ra.” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. [Laughter.] Then I heard the father talk.
This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner, and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “Why you ain’t. . . .” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this? Well, they know they’re not, they’re just hanging out in the same place, five, six generations sitting in the projects when you’re supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.