Wednesday, September 05, 2007

is there a "we"?

The Assertion

"N*****s destroy, Negroes assimilate, Black people build."

this is what led me to ask the question a few posts back about assimilation. i heard this sentence about two weeks ago, and it is still working my nerves. never mind for a moment the unnecessary use of the n-word (i've come to hate this "n-word" term as much as the word it unsuccessfully attempts to skirt, by the way), since i've already gone on that diatribe, and the debate will likely never die.

what's more troubling to me is the way this phrase is so divisive, as if we need any more division amongst us. all this finger pointing and "they" this and "they" that is so spinning-wheels-and-getting-no-damn-where. add that to the problem that none of these words are defined. two of them are fairly easy - destroy and build. the other words are not so simple. and based on context clues and personal anecdotes, even though i suspect that a black person hearing this sentence would know what the sentence means, they shouldn't just accept it word for word. instead, they should question.

De-constructing Semantics

now if i'd tried to get this same point across, i'd have said in the alternative that "ignorant, unappreciative people destroy," and that "progressive, positive people build." but that still leaves the middle part. this is where i really get puzzled. what is the difference between a "Negro" and a "black" person? and what (this is the really nitty-gritty gristle and marrow-in-the-bone of my problem here) is "assimilation," anyway? see, the speaker of this sentence is a brother i respect - i know he means well, and i see his point that we need to focus our attitudes and our actions on doing the best we can for our situation as a people. but this "Negroes assimilate" thing is where the whole thing gets derailed.

does assimilation mean moving out of the neighborhood to a place with bigger houses, less crime and better schools? does it mean speaking standard english? does it mean putting a relaxer in your hair? perhaps assimilation means playing golf on saturday with colleagues, or watching Friend.s reruns while baking chicken to eat with artichokes. maybe it means marrying a white person and having beige, amber-haired, hazel-eyed kids. it probably includes preferring E! to BET or Oprah magazine to Essence magazine. does assimilation mean purposely naming your daughter Katherine instead of Keesha? or purposely naming your son Matthew instead of Marquise? where do we draw the line? what is assimilation and what isn't? and if a Black person does "assimilate," what makes them a Negro instead of a Black person? for the record, some of the greatest Black figures of the 20th century were self-described Negroes, when Negro with a capital N was the most dignified way to refer to us Africans in America. have the past 40 years changed the meaning of Negro so much that it must become an insult? an assertion that someone has lost their Soul with a capital S? why are some of us always on the hunt to find words to malign each other?

Problems on Every Side

perhaps my friend's issue is that when people of color get involved in middle-class culture, and take on middle-class bills and obligations, they are less hungry for change in the neighborhoods they or their parents or grandparents left behind, where people who look like them still struggle without them, although they are probably best equipped with the education and funds to help make a difference. they are more worried about job security than agitating for change. they're less likely to tutor or clean up their old block or become a mentor, because they're busy hustling to pay mortgages and student loans (and keep up with the joneses). they're probably more likely to blame people left behind in the old neighborhood for not hustling like they or their parents or grandparents have done, both because it may relieve some of their guilt for turning away from the shells of the left behind neighborhoods and also because they do have a point about the "i'm a victim" mindset. black victims of racism and poverty have been helping themselves for centuries, and there is no reason in this post-Civil rights era to stop now. is this an assimilationist stance? to expect people to do what they can with what means they have? to expect such achievement of yourself and excel, like our ancestors fought to enable you to do?

part of "black people build"-ing (i assume the speaker categorizes himself in this group) is recognizing that change requires power, and power is not free. one thing middle-class black folks understand is how to put their time and effort into work that generates money. and in this country, money is power, and poor people get the shaft. poor people could learn this lesson from the Katherines and Matthews. and in turn, Katherine and Matthew could re-learn a thing or two about remembering where they came from from Keesha and Marquise, who pool their funds with their grandmother when that gap between this check and the next gets too long, or who watch their sister's baby after school when she starts her shift every afternoon so she won't have to spend light bill money on daycare.

Reality Check

certainly - point out destructive and selfish attitudes when it will help us adjust our focus to what is important. but there's no need for the name calling. no need for the division. we all have problems. too many of us from various economic places on the spectrum have our priorities jacked up. pointing fingers at "them" from whatever point of view you come from is a sure way to further alienate us from each other. how then, will we learn from each other or help each other, if we can't tolerate our differences, let alone appreciate them?