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Negro, Redux

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Negro, Redux


‘Negro’ may well be a long-standing term used to classify us colored folk, but we just think it reminds us of a sad period in American history we’d rather not remember.

Shortly after the Woods cover hit newsstands, the term ‘Negro’ made a comeback. First there was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinking he was doing President Obama a solid by complimenting him on the lack of “Negro dialect” in his vocal cadence. Reid rightly took his lumps for such an obtuse observation, but let’s unpack this for a second. 


 


cover art

Beat of a Different Drum: The Untold Stories of African Americans Forging Their Own Paths in Work and Life

Dax-devlon Ross

(Hyperion)

Reid wasn’t the first to seem pleasantly surprised that Obama doesn’t speak like, say, Pookie from the West Side; Joe Biden praised him on the campaign trail for being “clean and articulate”, and he ended up as his Vice President. Let’s not forget Chris Matthews watching Obama’s State of the Union address in January and breathlessly gushing to a live TV audience that he was so enraptured by the speech that he forgot Obama was black (I’m still trying to figure out how that’s possible). Long after all the requisite mea culpas have been offered and accepted, the question remains: why did Reid choose the word ‘Negro’?


After all, as Erin Aubry Kaplan noted in the Los Angeles Times [”The term ‘Negro’? Color it obsolete”), the term is as old-school as your father’s Oldsmobile, and they don’t even make Oldsmobiles any more (8 February 2010)]. Kaplan reviewed the long and winding etymology of what we’ve called ourselves, and notes the place of “Negro” in that evolution, which parallels our own progress in this society, noting that our choices tend to reflect where we stand in American life and how we feel about ourselves at that particular moment. Yet right on top of Reid’s gaffe came the U.S. Census Bureau, including “Negro” on the line that asks people if they’re claiming a black ethnicity this decade. 


Years ago, that designation rang with regality; not for nothing was the precursor to Ebony magazine called Negro Digest. However, black folks haven’t used the term to refer to themselves in nearly half a century, except to deride some other black folks without using that other n-word (unless you count guitarist/songwriter Stew’s former alt-whatever band The Negro Problem). What’s happening here, and possibly in Reid’s mind as well, is that the keepers of official terminology didn’t, or don’t, bother to evolve along with the times.


“Negro” may well be a long-standing term used to classify us colored folk, but we just think it reminds us of a sad period in American history we’d rather not remember. Furthermore, I don’t buy for a second the Census Bureau’s explanation that there are still some elderly blacks who call themselves ‘Negro’; that may be true but I seriously doubt the use of the term is broad enough among those it would describe to justify putting it on an official government document in 2010 A.D.


What’s most revealing about the state of racial awareness in present-day America is the endless whiteness of the Tea Party movement. Now, I can emphasize with their frustration with the state of affairs in our economy and government, even if I don’t share much of their reasoning about how we got here, and I would defend their First Amendment freedoms to express that frustration and act upon it. However, a growing number of commentators on the left are placing the Tea Partiers as only a few steps shy of a Ku Klux Klan rally—and no one from either the movement or the Republican Party, from which many of the movement’s figureheads arose, has raised a voice to rebut them.


Keith Olbermann’s “Special Comment” on Countdown (15 February) ”Beware fear’s racist temptation”, got to the heart of the matter:


If you believe there is merit to your political argument, fine. But ask yourself when you next go to a Tea Party rally, or watch one on television, or listen to a politician or a commentator praise these things or merely treat them as if it was just a coincidence that they are virtually segregated.


Ask yourself: Where are the black faces? Who am I marching with?  What are we afraid of? And if it really is only a president’s policy and not his skin. Ask yourself one final question: Why are you surrounded by the largest crowd you’ll ever again see in your life that consists of nothing but people who look exactly like you?



It would be nice if some Tea Party grown-up politely suggested that putting a Hitler mustache on a black man is no way to signal racial tolerance, even if you’re only trying to comment about his policies and not suggest that he advocates some sort of genocide. It would be nice if someone would press the people who claim they’re only trying to “take my America back” – people who are always white, at a time when America is becoming more diverse by the second – to honestly and openly define what they mean by “my America”, considering that they might be expressing a barely veiled hostility towards those who don’t look like them. 


All that would be nice, but those themes and even worse stuff surfaced in 2008 during the John McCain campaign, especially once Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, and no one lifted a finger then to nip it in the bud. So it’s no surprise that a Tea Party convention would feature the likes of Tom Tancredo all but calling for the establishment of America as a whites-only enclave. How he’d achieve that given the fact that the aforementioned Census will reveal an America that’s almost more non-white than white remains open for debate. (See “Tom Tancredo: Obama Elected Because ‘We Do Not Have A Civics, Literacy Test’ To Vote” on The Huffington Post, 5 February 2010)


Thus, it would appear that all those who doubted that Obama’s election signaled the end of racial division and lack of understanding were correct. Sorry, Ms. Womack, America isn’t quite post-black yet. Or maybe it’s that most black people are becoming post-black, whatever that is, but most white people clearly aren’t. Actually, I’d take that one step further: at moments, black Americans themselves aren’t quite post-black, if recent evidence of age-old racial attitudes creeping into discussions of cultural work is any indication.


A change indeed has come, when we consider that a black man just produced and directed a film adaptation of a challenging novel by an adventurous black writer to critical acclaim – just two generations ago, Hollywood barely embraced black talent, let alone black check-signers and black themes. However, the extent of that change is apparently an issue still in play, when we consider how some black people can find themselves bothered and upset by what others do with the opportunities that change provides.


The black man in question is Lee Daniels, the film is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), and the beef in question is the backlash in some corners of the ‘hood that Precious shows black motherhood and black men in a negative light. New York Press film critic Armond White executed the most notorious riff on this theme in his 4 November review, (”Pride & Precious”):


Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.


…Birth of a Nation glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a panicky subculture’s solution to social change. Precious hyperbolizes the class misery of our nation’s left-behinds—not the post- Rapture reprobates of Christianity’s last-days theories, but the Obama-era unreachables—including Precious’ Benetton-esque assortment of remedial school classmates. One explanation is that Precious permits a cultural version of that 1960s political controversy “benign neglect”—its agreed-upon selection of the most pathetic racial images and social catastrophes helps to normalize the circumstances of poverty and abandon that will never change or be resolved. You can think: Precious is just how those people are (although Cops and the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows offer enough evidence that white folks live low, too).


Never mind the fact that most sane people would no more mistake Precious—or any single cinematic work of fiction—as an authoritative documentary on black people than they wouldThe Sopranos as the ultimate statement on Italian-Americans in northern New Jersey. To hear White and others rail against Precious, seeing something just short of venom-dripping, condescending scorn in white audiences responding favorably to the story of a black girl overcoming unspeakable suffering, is to believe either that old racial sensitivities die hard, or that the birthers don’t have a monopoly on overheated conspiracy theories.


Yes, when it comes to black folk and culture, breathless pronouncements of a new day can often be premature. Three years after that New York Times article, the Washington Post looked at the same crowd of black artists (”Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists”,” 24 January 2010) and wondered if this generation’s work will ever be accepted by black audiences more used to art as communal uplift than individual commentary—even as Ligon’s work now hangs in the Obama White House ( “Glenn Ligon gets Obama’s vote”, Los Angeles Times, 11 December 2009). 


Maybe those aren’t the best examples of intra-blackness tension between the old and the new; after all, black folk have proven to be no more attuned to cutting-edge art than any other ethnicity (and yes, I’ve written about that in this space, too). The most recent entry in the old-habits-die-hard sweepstakes took place just a few weeks ago at the Sprite Step-Off, when a bunch of white girls took first prize – but for the purposes of our story, the real news broke after they won.


The finals event in Atlanta was the culmination of a nationwide competition among college sorority and fraternity troupes in stepping, a routine of synchronized chanting, movement, body percussion and showmanship done by groups of ten or so. It took hold among black colleges, and is one of the slices of black college life Spike Lee portrayed in School Daze (1987).  Slowly over time, the step show phenomenon seeped into the broader pop world, with routines freely borrowing from music video choreography (and vice versa) and the cheerleading-with-attitude of the Bring it On franchise, beginning with the original 2000 movie (and vice versa). 


With the release of the movie Stomp the Yard (2007), stepping (not to be confused with steppin’, the province of black couples’ social dance) officially became mainstream, and thus available for anyone to adopt and interpret. So perhaps it was inevitable that one day there’d be some white folk who could step well. After all, white musicians from Jack Teagarden to Amy Winehouse have earned varying degrees of love and acclaim for their talent in black musical genres (albeit not without varying degrees of skeptical questioning of their motivations by black audiences – just ask Elvis or Eminem). 


It may simply be that black folk weren’t ready for that day to show up last month, but it did, when the Zeta Tau Alpha squad from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville took top honors and the $100,000-in-scholarships first place pot. Their win relegated a team from the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha at Indiana University to second place, and that’s when our fun began.


It started right after the Zetas finished busting their Matrix-inspired moves. Event emcee Ryan Cameron took to the stage, sensing the crowd’s reaction to seeing a bunch of white girls throw down on what black Greek culture has always assumed was its thing and its thing alone, its cocoon of performance and pride against a hostile outside world. “Stepping is for everybody,” he announced in what could have been a line from the burgeoning Stomp the Yard franchise (and may well be someday). “If you can step, you can step!”


Nice try, dude. The uproar was so great (and in online comments, so racially charged), that Sprite blinked and discovered a “scoring discrepancy” that called the final judging into question. So the good sistas from Indiana were also awarded first-prize honors! Everybody wins! Is this a great country or what?


Personally, I’ve done my own judging, and must admit that the Zetas put on a much better show. As for the propriety of cultural back-and-forth and who’s allowed to excel at what, that horse left the barn years ago, and this is merely the latest manifestation. If black people can make inroads into classical music as players and composers (with the help of groups like The Sphinx Organization), and if black people can win medals at the Winter Olympics, then surely we can make room for white folk taking something we started and running with it.


So if we’ve learned anything these last six years, it’s this: black folk will continue to show up on Channel Two – and white folk might show up on the chocolatized sista station—and we’ll all continue to tune in, excited for the happenstance and curious about where it might fit in the larger scheme of American racial things. Thus, I humbly thank you, all you black stars and demigods out there (and those of you working it on the other side of the racial fault line) for continuing to get your strut-and-fret-across-the-stage on. Job security’s hard to find these days.


Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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