Also by Randall Robinson
From The Reckoning: Chapter One
A tiger, when attacked, fights alone. Even when the imperiled tiger is surrounded by fellow tigers, the tigers that are not in imminent danger do nothing to help. Lions defend against attack as a pride. No tiger attacks a lion within sight of another lion. A single lion, however, had it the will to, could slaughter every tiger on the planet, lined up cheek to jowl, one at a time.
The amplified voice I am sickest of hearing is my own. I don’t know how the professional oracles do it, flooding the airways with their relentless blather.
… let’s get America moving again …
… the veterans have to step up their play …
… and Jaysus said …
… those Republicans will bust a hole in the deficit (which was what I thought was the idea) …
Click. Tube Black.
Killing speech with freedom. Killing freedom with speech. Spewed over a hundred channels, a thousand radio bands, countless big-talk conferences and small-talk panels, rubber-chicken luncheons and black-tie dinners. Inane, cacophonous talk. Millions of voices, aloft in the new technology’s crowded sky of social issues entertainment. The voices detach from their owners and replicate disembodied, floating off into the economy as electronic units of the gross domestic product before homing onto a defenseless huddle of jaded listeners that include, justly, the voices’ owners.
It is a Saturday in fall 1999. I turn off the talk station on my car radio and park in front of the Ira Aldridge Theater on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. I am gripped with the mild depression that precedes every speech that I give. I am unprepared, but that is not the source of my despondence. I will give my LEGO talk, patched together extemporaneously from the thousands of speeches I have made before. Audiences seem to like this more than anything new that I could think of to say.
Now I know that this is a part of what depresses me. I am giving a performance. I will believe the words. But I have said the same words in the same order too many times. I am nearly always the same. Although the audiences may not seem the same, they can all be located on a curve the distance of which I have traveled back and again many times. Nothing is new. I am a commodity in democracy’s mouthy comedic charade. Praise be to mammon, the powerless are allowed to talk. Indeed, we are encouraged to yammer futilely at the tops of our voices.
Days before having the good fortune of finding this parking space on Howard’s campus, my wife, Hazel, and I had gone to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., to meet for an hour with Juan Miguel Gonzáles, who was in the country trying to retrieve his six-year-old son from his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzáles. Lazaro, egged on by thousands of Miami’s self-exiled Castro-hating Cubans, had had custody of Elián for the five months since the boy was plucked from the sea in which his mother, her boyfriend, and others had perished. Although there is no evidence that Juan Miguel is anything but a fit father, Lazaro refuses to return his son to him, even in defiance of orders to do so from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Department of Justice, and a federal court. The Miami Cuban community, strengthened over the years by assistance from the federal government, seems now to have become a de facto government in exile under which some four hundred thousand African-Americans are constrained to live.
In this imbroglio over the fate of little Elián, the Miami Cubans have defined themselves less as Americans than as Cubans. Perhaps all of this had been made clear years ago when a bumper sticker had begun to appear with the legend Will the last American leaving Miami please bring the flag. In fact, Anglos had left Miami, and in droves, selling their property to the in-rushing Cubans. African-Americans and Haitians had been stuck. They had chafed under what appeared to them to be a provisional government of the New Cuban Republic of Miami.
The treatment of blacks in the New Cuba had disturbingly resembled that meted out to blacks in Cuba in the years before Castro. In those years Cuba had been racially segregated. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who had segregated Cuba were now in control of Miami, a Miami that was brazenly defying its erstwhile ally, the U.S. government.
Anyhow, where was I? I am thinking too much. I am nearly always involved in some exercise of counterproductive introspection. It could be that I am merely flattering myself. That I am tricking myself. That introspection is too high-sounding a word for what bothers me. Perhaps it is merely ego. I have accomplished a measure of prestige and material comfort. But I have no power. Perhaps, not even influence. Could it be that I have at last succumbed in retreat to the debilitating condition of careerism like all the rest? The talking heads. The experts. The media bees. The ambition junkies. The spin people. The celebrity liars. I do not want to make this speech. I do not want to get out of the car.
I have never had much talent for doing things in which I have little or no interest. My high school organic chemistry grade is early evidence of this trait. Perhaps this malaise with which I seem afflicted stems from a creeping involuntary likening of my career in human rights advocacy to playing the stock market, where the gains and losses seem as ephemeral as the paper on which they are reported. Distant. Remote. Manipulated. Undeserved. The real beneficiaries and victims seldom met, never known.
In the large public electronic forum of Debate America we have pretty much commodified, dehumanized, cartoonized, everything: issues, tactics, victims, victimizers, pain. Professional antagonists spar self-righteously in comfort above the fray of the affected like colliding noisy air masses. And then we careerists, left to right, accord ourselves badges of courage, devaluing both the very meaning of courage and the unsung anonymous who manifest it routinely.
Ours is a society in which the actor is more important than the real-life hero the actor portrays. I read somewhere that the Scottish when erecting a statue in honor of the fabled guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, used not the likeness of Wallace, the real Braveheart, but that of the actor Mel Gibson. John Wayne, the Duke, takes pains to avoid the draft during World War II, before making himself into a war hero on film. Sport announcers tell us that the athlete who takes risks in a game has guts. Chris Matthews names his little TV talkfest Hardball. Basketball coach Bobby Knight, after choking one of his young Indiana University charges, waxes manly explaining that basketball isn’t canasta.
I played basketball in college. Seen against a world in conflict, if basketball isn’t canasta, it ain’t much more. Guts are what honest judges in Colombia and community patrols in American inner cities have, not actors or basketball players or talk show hosts or American policy advocates for that matter.
It is midmorning and ugly. The rain falls in sheets and washes the creases from my trousers before I reach the venue of my luncheon speech. I pause in the lee of the building and struggle with my umbrella against the wind. Completing the task, I stand there. I take a deep breath. I do not know my hosts and I know almost nothing about their organization, the Black Male Empowerment Summit. The letter of invitation had been signed by a Mark Lawrence. Lawrence had described the mission of his organization as the salvage of endangered young black males and the empowerment of black men generally. Conferences, he said, were being held in major cities across the country to increase support for the organization’s programs. He had written that the organization could offer only a token honorarium. I had accepted. As is always the case when faced with the reality of giving the speech, I wished I had not.
* * *
Howard’s Blackburn Center is a modern, featureless contest between taste and budget. The large foyer has a slate-gray floor, a two-story ceiling, and a wallwide window that gives onto a picturesque pond with grassy, steeply sloping banks. I walk into the foyer and hesitate, waiting for someone to recognize me and direct me toward the banquet room in which I am to make my presentation.
“Good morning, Mr. Robinson. We’re so glad you could be with us today.” The well- dressed, thirtyish man had given his name, but I hadn’t gotten it. I seem never to. In any case I confess that it is mildly, albeit stupidly, flattering to be recognized. Just the other day upon my approach with Hazel to the Cuban Interests Section for a visit with Juan Miguel Gonzáles, a white man, one of a large cluster of camera-laden journalists said to me, “Good morning, Reverend Jackson.” This puts me in mind of a story the real Reverend Jackson told me. Sometime back when he was running for president and was featured on the cover of virtually every national newsmagazine, he had emerged from his New York hotel having had lunch with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe before rushing off to other high-level meetings at the United Nations. He had, in those moments, been pridefully aware of his metamorphosis from impoverished South Carolina child to global celebrity.
In the lobby of the hotel, the Reverend Jackson’s eyes found the beaming face of an elderly white woman. Magnanimously, he returned the approaching old woman’s smile. Pressed for time, he managed a gracious patience as the old woman struggled to say her piece: “I really couldn’t leave without thanking you for all that you have done.”
Jackson was buoyed: Even this old woman thinks I have made an important contribution to the world.
Moving away, the old woman pressed a dollar into the Reverend Jackson’s hand: “I never would have been able to lift these heavy bags. Thanks again and here’s a little something for you.”
“Good morning, Mr. Robinson. My name is Mark Lawrence. I am glad you could be with us.” I have never known how to describe faces in a way that would tell you anything that you really need to know. And only in the rarest instances have I been able to form face pictures from the language of writers that I have read. A great many black men are Mark Lawrence’s age (fortyish), height (six-two-ish), weight (one-seventy-ish), and complexion (a reddish medium brown) that hints of a childhood of freckles and umber-red hair that is decidedly different (much darker) than white people’s red hair. But Mark Lawrence, who extends his hand, has no hair. His head, like mine, is shaved. His eyeglasses are nearly rimless and comport with features that are definitively chiseled. Everything about him is neat. The double-breasted suit. The understated tie. The polished loafers. But, as warned, this tells you not very much about how the man appears. What is it about physical features, the eyes particularly, that arrange themselves to suggest intelligence, orderliness, and character, even? Certainly it has little, if anything, to do with the size or shape of the features or where they fall on the face. The real differences in what faces tell us are so subtle as to be well beyond the capacity of language to measure.
“We’d like you to do a short interview on film first. Then we should be ready to have lunch and hear your remarks. We are running on time.”
I am not surprised. I go into the banquet room, which has been partitioned to half its full size by a wall that has been moved into place behind a three-foot-high dais. There appear to be about a hundred people in the room. They are all black. Other than that, nothing obvious seems to join them in any common purpose. They range from infant to elderly. While there are more men than women, there are more women than the organization’s name gave me to expect. Most of the assembled are in business dress.
Conspicuously, however, at a near left table close to the door (table number twenty-four) are seated four young men in oversized shirts and baggy, low-belted trousers. I cannot read their face maps and feel mildly alienated by their dress. I cannot pinpoint when I first felt a conscious social remove from the young, but, at age fifty-eight, I have felt it towards some (it’s the dress I think) for a good time now. I feel it acutely now towards the four young men wearing outsize clothes seated at table twenty-four.
“Mr. Robinson, I am Reverend [I didn’t catch his name].”
He is a young preacher, I observe, as if there were something inherently incongruous in his being both young and a preacher. “You and I went to the same high school.”
We have not yet been asked by the event organizers to take our seats and thus we are standing amongst milling people near the dais.
“You’re from Richmond?” I ask.
“Yes, I run a program for at-risk young black men in Richmond.” With mild, unintended discourtesy, my concentration abandons me. I look across the assemblage without knowing that I am trying to find a familiar face. I find none.
“… do you think that might be possible?”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Do you think it might be possible to have you come to Richmond sometime to speak to our young men?”
“Yes, of course.” I mean the words as I speak them.
We are asked to take our assigned places. I find my name tent on the dais between the lectern and a tent marked with the name Peewee Kirkland. I am alone on the dais. I welcome the respite. I fuddle through the printed program to find my place in the order of speakers. The shredded lettuce and tomato wedges herald the institutional fare with which we are shortly to be assaulted. I look out again at the conferees, moving purposefully now to find table numbers that correspond to their tickets. Again, I can identify no talking heads, experts, media bees, ambition junkies, spin people, or celebrity liars. The beautiful people, overrepresented in Washington, are not here. I surmise that the luncheon is not a fund-raiser to which the organizers have sought to draw people by using celebrities as magnets. From what I can tell, all of the people here work in the regional programs of the host organization.
Another look around the room leaves me with a vague sensation of apartness. I venture no further toward self-understanding, although a rebukeful truism runs unbidden along the edge of my thoughts: There is no shortage of those who come to do good and stay to do well.
“Hey, good brother, I’m Peewee.” Though not particularly tall, the person sitting next to and speaking to me is a rangy man who moves with the unmistakable mannerism of the athlete. His hair is long in the Afro style of the sixties. His fifty-four-year-old, not unhandsome face bears the mark of street experience. He talks. I listen. I am preoccupied with thoughts of how to gauge my remarks to an audience I do not know. But even with the half mind that listens, I understand little of what he says to me. Several times over lunch he uses the phrase keep it real. He is using it as a verb, a noun, a system of philosophy. I have no idea what he means by the phrase in any of its usages: “It’s just a keep-it-real thing, you know.”
But I do not know.
Somewhere over the years, I think, I must have lost track of the language Peewee is speaking. Perhaps I knew it long ago as a boy in another world when all my friends appeared to have only nicknames. Saddle Head. Smut. Sunky Britches. Freak. Countless Boos and as many Bay Bruhs. But for me now, assuming I’d ever mastered it, the language of that distant past had become a lost art. I could no longer see back around the long arc of my life to the mean space of the early poverty that had formed my emotional politics.
The politics had remained constant enough. But the privation on which the politics had originally been constructed had long since become an academic memory. I am no longer poor. And virtually all of the blacks I have come to know, talk to, work with, and befriend over the past thirty-five years speak and think as I do. Somehow in the subtle desensitizing embrace of life’s myriad upward transitions, I fear I may have lost the heart’s knowledge of the social slice from whence I sprang, although I am conscious of none of this.
“… I had the move ’foe Pearl had it.” Peewee is telling me that he pioneered the reverse dribble. My attention has graduated to full-listen and half-belief.
“I played basketball in college,” I tell Peewee. Trumps.
“Where?” asks Peewee.
“Norfolk State from ’59 to ’62.”
“I played for Norfolk State myself,” says Peewee, “in the sixties.”
We have finished the entree and begun eating the cold apple pie that, along with the salad, had arrived at our tables before we had. Mark Lawrence, who had been out of the room for upwards of a half hour, is walking towards the dais, presumably to begin the program.
“… college is giving me an honorary doctorate degree and I’m finishing up my master’s now.” This from Peewee. I do not believe him.
I have scribbled some talking points on a napkin, but I will not look at them after I begin to speak. Still, I need the scrap of paper.
Mark Lawrence is a polished and well-educated (Wharton Business School, Cornell) man, and he makes the tasteful, well-prepared introduction one would expect of him. Upon my arrival I had asked him what he wanted me to say, thinking he would ask me to stick to the more domestic themes of male mentorship. Surprisingly he had said, “Why don’t you talk about what you’re writing about now, the case for black reparations.” I was surprised by his suggestion because I had not raised the positions I was taking in The Debt to any audience, or to anyone for that matter other than Hazel, and I had no notion of how my ideas might be received.
America’s cultural climate is antihistory, antimemory, thus, it is not easy to draw a line from any contemporary social condition back to genesis events that unfolded hundreds of years ago. Americans generally, black and white, have no memory of anything much more than a pop song ago and assume reflexively that whatever is, always was, as if a discernible contemporary unequal economic relationship of racial groups was fixed in nature as predictably as the rotation of interplanetary bodies.
But how in America had great wealth and great poverty begun their paths apart? How had the lines of privilege and privation, as mirror opposites, verged over the American centuries away from each other? How had the lines become all too nearly coextensive with race? How had the mortar of memory dried dust hard, sealing with it its own cold explanation, held fast from all. Blanket amnesia favors the thief. This is my thought as I rise to speak.
I look at Peewee and, for the first time, suspect that behind his costume of syntax, he may be north of my estimate. I warn myself that I must not be misled by the hip-hop in his talk. It occurs to me that I, a victim of prejudice, am not without a set of my own.
As for the line that verges inexorably upwards, I had an experience only a few days ago that has, I believe, a place here. I had been visited by a largely black delegation, a member of which was a white scion of old and bottomless wealth. The young man had accomplished nothing of consequence in his own right and was only in the meeting because he bore a last name that signaled money.
I am embarrassed to confess that I accorded the young man (younger than two of my three children) a measure of reflexive respect. This response was particularly insupportable given the nothing I knew about the young man and the something I did know about his parents, who were, among other things, money pillars of the Democratic Party.
It seems that not long before, the scion’s mother had hosted a sleepover for a younger daughter’s private-school friends and greeted, the morning after, the mother of the one black invitee thusly: “I understand that your daughter attends our school on financial aid. Is that so?” “Yes,” answered the black mother, humiliated. “Well, if she works hard and marries well, she should be all right,” said scion mother.
The humiliated black mother’s inability to pay the seventeen-thousand-dollar annual tuition had been every bit as inherited as the wealthy white mother’s easy wherewithal to do so. But this was completely unperceived and meant no more to the wealthy socialite than any possible explanation of how the financial gap between her and the black mother may have developed over time in the first place.
Lastly on this point, the scion seated in my office, a much admired member of Washington society and rich beyond belief, proved himself upon opening his mouth to be as dumb as a brick.
I have still not decided upon the structure of my remarks or even how I am to begin. I look at the audience for what seems longer than actual time. I sense already that these are not people for whom oratory without prescription suffices. The problems they face are as new as this morning, as critical as a client’s dollar meal, as lethal as fresh insult, old privation, a vial of crack.
They look at me. Well?
“To understand our dilemma as a people in the world, our contemporary circumstance of underclassness in America, we must be able to draw a line back through time to the origins of our crisis, from our current relative poverty to the harsh century of legal racial discrimination which preceded it and from there back to the two hundred forty-six years of American slavery, which left us impoverished, illiterate, psychologically damaged, and stripped of any memory of who we had been before slavery in the early centuries of a long and unquestioned era of African global achievement …” My voice is quiet, not by device, but with a graveness compelled by the theme of my introductory comments. There are murmurs of approval. I raise my eyes to meet theirs, and in them I see my own. We are all victims. This, in the absence of memory, is what binds us.
Could there be one here whose forebear was sold by Jefferson to restock his wine cellar? Is not this color-motley array evidence enough of the systematic rape of our grandmothers? Might not the empty chair at table four well enough symbolize the lost bloodlines of long-dead black grandfathers whose penises were cut off by white South Carolina slave owners whose descendants in Columbia wrap themselves even now in the bloody flag of their beastly heritage?
The Catholics of Northern Ireland have given their problem (like ours, centuries in duration) a name. They call it the troubles. We have not done so. They know the antecedent events of their dilemma whereas we’ve been deprived of learning ours. We only know keenly the damnable condition we are in. Little of how or whence or from whom it developed. Families had been torn asunder—husband from wife, mother, father from child—and lost with them, the priceless fabric of timeless cultures. Tantamount was it to the modern interrogation of torture victims, stripped of their self-esteem, a thousand victims keening alone in a thousand lightless, airless chambers. Seeing things, hearing voices, remembering little. Forever.
Black events, no matter the occasion, invariably bear the mark of the unnamed problem. It is there as we laugh. It is there as we mourn. It is here now. Einstein had proposed that distance and time are not absolute, that intervals of time are affected by the motion of those who observe time’s elapse. So much has befallen us for so long that we feel powerless on the limitless landscape of time, except to perceive it in distortion, as if the future had already happened and we were awaiting its verdict.
My eyes come to rest on the occupants of table number twenty-four. I cannot read their feelings. I pay particular attention to one at the table I had noticed coming into the room. His right forearm bears a tattoo of elaborate lettering spelling out in caps the word RACE. The word and its position on the young man’s arm summon for me now a meaning different no doubt than that which the young man himself had intended.
South Carolina’s slave-plantation owners had known nothing about how to grow and irrigate rice. That knowledge was brought to the low country by Africans stolen from Sierra Leone by the Royal African Company of England. As the slaves produced the rice that made the plantation owners rich, their glistening backs bore the branded acronym of their corporate captors: R.A.C.E.
“…and as a result of all that we have been caused to endure—from slavery to the new legal racial bondage of the twentieth century—an economic gap continues to separate blacks and whites in America. This gap is static and structural. For two hundred and forty-six years our uncompensated labor launched wealthy institutions and private corporate fortunes in America such as Brown University and Fleet Bank, both founded by the Brown brothers, who got their start in American business building slave ships and investing in the slave trade. Cotton made everyone associated with it wealthy—the plantation owners, the brokers, the shippers, the shipbuilders, the jobbers, the United States treasury—everyone became rich except the people who produced the cotton.
“They—we—us—our forebears—were stripped of everything—the value of our labor, our mothers, our fathers, our children, and by the tens of millions, our very lives. And so my friends, let us tell our young that we are behind in America not because there is anything wrong with us, but rather, that something heinous happened a long time ago and continued for a long time after. Tell them that our people have a proud and ancient history that must be told to them, that slavery robbed us of warranted wealth and memory, that slavery extended under new guises well into the twentieth century, that we have endured in America every imaginable discrimination for three hundred and forty- six years. Tell them we have been the victims of the longest-running crime against humanity in the world over the last five hundred years. And lastly, tell them that like all other peoples in the world who’ve suffered human rights crimes at the hands of governments—Jews, Koreans, Japanese-Americans—we too must be compensated by the government complicit in the crime against us, the United Sates of America.”
I sit down. They stand up. Do not misunderstand this report of their spirited approval as a boast of any sort. The speech was neither particularly eloquent nor insightful. I had simply spoken my heart, a heart born of the same hard experience as theirs. Only the voice—a medium, no more—had been mine. All the rest—the thoughts, the sentiments, the visceral knowings—moved around and through us all like the plaintive ghosts of forebears awaiting remembrance and redress.
Mark Lawrence now prepares to present a public service award. I do not catch the name of the award. Somewhere in a subconscious storeroom for the unimportant, I’ve long since arrived at a belief that awards are given out of some curious planner’s need to protract luncheon programs, a need that runs illogically crosswise to the unspoken desire of all guests everywhere to have their speakers brief, their award recipients, if forced upon them, silent, and their hard-bun captivity mercifully ended. No program-ending benediction anywhere was ever met with displeasure.
Mr. Lawrence has on the lectern before him two or three typed pages, presumably descriptive of the award and the honoree. He does not read from the pages. Instead, with unusual conviction, he extemporizes: “I have known this man for several years now, and no one more perfectly exemplifies the values of our programs than he does. He is the heart and soul of our efforts to pull our young men back from the brink.” Mr. Lawrence continues in this vein for a time before announcing, “Our 1999 public service award goes to …”
My attention had wavered. I look out over the audience for someone to stand and begin moving towards the dais. Amidst applause, Peewee pulls his chair back, inadvertently bumping mine, stands, and moves behind me towards Mr. Lawrence, who awaits him with a broad smile and outstretched arms. I do my best to mask surprise. Mr. Lawrence hands a brass-and-wood plaque to Peewee. The applause continues.
Before it subsides and Peewee has a chance to say anything, the occupants of table twenty-four rise and stride in a rolling gait towards the dais. The apparent leader is tall and wiry with a wispy mustache and chin hair. I estimate that he is in his early twenties, although he seems somehow older, as if the boy in the man had departed prematurely. He does not smile, which deepens the impression.
The other three are even taller than their wiry leader, now two feet from the steps at the end of the dais. As the leader steps onto the end of the dais, the particleboard of the dais step creaks under the weight of the second man, who must weigh well over 240 pounds. The board creaks a second and then a third time. They are all big men. My chair feet lose purchase on the boards of the dais as the four young men rumble across the shallow platform toward Peewee Kirkland, Mr. Lawrence, and me.
The apartness again. When had it begun? This only just recognizable feeling of estrangement? As a badge of sorts, I claim as foundation for all my serious exertions a bond with Africa’s issue whom I need so much to measure ennobled by resilience to victimization and hardship. Had Marley’s early death been a kindness after all? Had his anthem plea been naïve? Keep your culture. Rasta man stand up. Congo man don’t give up. Had our way back to self-knowledge been finally and irretrievably lost?
I look again at the four men moving towards me. Images are conjured of names in the papers: Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Eazy-E. All of a new and fatalist class, trapped on a treadmill running wildly out of control. All living fast under a lightless, near inescapable pall of death. All expecting death, forecasting it. All finding it, and finding it violently.
Peewee says into the microphone, “These are my guys,” and the wiry leader moves to the lectern with a loop-cool fluidness that is different in its motion from my generation’s. Ours was a similarly lyrical motion, but with a dip in it that would cause us to lose and gain up to four inches in height with each stride. The current young black man’s walk has more sway in it. There is still dip in the step, but it is less pronounced and more toward the horizontal. The walk is smoother than ours, with the shoulders describing slow figure eights inside baggy tops. I don’t recall that the black women of my generation had a discernible walk. (This would indicate that they were more secure than we. A startling insight.) This was, however, decades before the neck, a mannerism about which nothing salubrious can be said.
Of course, Marley was too late and he knew it. We could not keep our culture. We could only try to reassemble that which had been brutally and systematically stripped from us during slavery, leaving us vulnerable and lost in the world, within and without Africa.
I ask myself who I am. I wear another’s clothes. I speak another’s language. I worship another’s god. I practice another’s customs. I recite another’s history. I ask myself who I am and I can not answer. Instead, I invent myself, every lifetime, sometimes every day. Sometimes the walk is all that I have to call my own.
“My name is New Child and I want to say a few words about my man Peewee.” He speaks in a slightly hoarse voice. He smiles and looks much younger than at first sighting. “You know, Peewee, man, he saved my life. Me and the guys here be dead if it wasn’t for Peewee.”
I look at Peewee and begin to feel what? Well, uh, less judgmental.
“When everybody had gave up on me, you know, my teachers, my dad I don’t even really remember. When I was ’bout to git killed, Peewee was the only one that cared. He talked and talked and talked to me. He knew. He been there. He saved me. He saved all of us.” New Child looks at one of his boys whose name is Furious Stylze. Furious nods assent.
The day before, I had spent hours slogging through volumes of World Trade Organization material written in maze-speak about intellectual property rights and implications for global trade. You see, my principal career “address” for the last twenty- five years has been in the rarefied world of clinical public policy, a world in which shiny “street signs” bear aseptic names like U.S. interests, free trade, privatization, and export-import. The “streets” are found in expensive “neighborhoods” on which billions of taxpayer dollars have been lavished.
Take for instance the ill-starred, but ritzy, Washington “suburb” once called Super- Conducting Super-Collider. A poll had revealed that no one in the entire metropolitan area of Cleveland had ever even heard of Super-Conducting Super-Collider, or “SC Twice” as the pork-barrel enclave became known to the members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.
Owing to this, at least in part, the Congress had ladled out $13 billion of our hard-earned dollars to the enclave with no return at all. The money had been just shot all to hell. Much the same could be said of other gilded sinkhole Capitol Hill neighborhoods such as Star Wars and F-16 and Stealth Bomber (found to be unusable in rain).
I sit here on the dais having landed in a new world, a world foreign to me, and more foreign still to the gilded sinkholes. I am embarrassed by this realization, not least because this new world is anything but new, and a branch of it is physically situated only blocks from where I live and is just as near to Gilded Sinkhole Central, the U.S. Capitol.
“…we didn’t have nothing and no matter how hard we worked, we wasn’t gonna never have nothing.”
I am paying close attention to New Child now. He is surprisingly confident and self- possessed. He continues to speak, and the exterior of him that I had first thought menacing now seems to belie interior qualities that show him in a much different light.
“My mom did the best she could for us. She worked hard for nothing. The schools wasn’t no good. I wanted what everybody else in this country wanted, but the system didn’t give us no chance to get what a lot of people in this country have. No chance.” He pauses and looks meditative. He has lived all of his life in Harlem and knows only a few in this audience. I wonder if this has made him circumspect. He glances at his boys.
“And so when I was twelve years old, I started in the life of crime. I met Peewee when I was sixteen. If I hadn’t met Peewee, I be dead now. We all be dead.”
I benefit from an accident of birth, which is all that distinguishes my lot from New Child’s. I have lived longer and viewed a much different existential scenery, either directly from comfortable vantage points or indirectly through formal education. My information is thousands of years old. It carries forward over time’s mountains and hills and valleys. New Child’s life is short. He has had little formal education. Valley is all that he knows. It’s long shadows bound the beginning and end of all the world he has ever seen. Valley, for him, is a hard anchorage, a birth and life sentence, an unrefusable bequest with all of its material and cultural implications.
I listen to him now in light of a Black Entertainment Television special I had recently seen. The show had marked the twentieth anniversary of the network, making it nearly as old as New Child. In twenty years, the show’s youthful host had said, Black Entertainment Television had established itself as the fount of black music culture. Twenty years against the ages. How damnably depressing it was. Twenty years of coarse moment, a moment that, alas, coincides with the arrival of the information age, a moment that covers nearly the whole of New Child’s life, blurring the moment’s aberrance.
Tens of millions of New Childs, valley-stuck, blind beyond their culture’s near and far ranges, shown this for their people’s whole artistic output. Fount crudely claimed. Male performers yanking their crotches. Nubile women dancers, their sex straining against flexing thongs, shimmying their behinds before cameras that beam the behinds as heralds of black culture with electronic-age efficiency to the far corners of the universe. Somewhere along the way, the host had introduced a male singer as the artist to whose rhythmic stylings blacks make babies. Hootchie cootchie rom. Cable surround. Syncopated plague.
A mere forty years ago television pictures had helped create the civil rights movement. The pictures, more than anything else, conveyed to the nation the nobility and eloquence of anonymous bravery. They captured on film the quality of courage that delivered otherwise ordinary people from servile compliance to noble defiance. Not just leaders, but simple blacks from all walks, risked their lives pulling themselves erect in the hate- filled cauldrons of the Deep South to face down guns and dogs and hoses and steepled hoods on night-riding sheets.
Television cameras documented all, transmitting grainy black-and-white images of selfless heroism to rapt viewers around the world, rejuvenating old social justice movements and precipitating new ones, unnerving despots and innervating their downtrodden prey.
When had African-Americans been depicted in a better light? And not just those directly visible in it, singing their freedom songs and taking the blows, but those long gone who might have believed in a last earthly thought their mortal sacrifices to have been made in vain. From some ethereal realm, might possibly Gabriel Prosser, Harriet Tubman, and Denmark Vesey have been able to read on the visage of Selma’s dauntless children the emboldening marks of the forebears’ first strikes against slavery? Might DuBois have at last rested redeemed?
In my lifetime, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had been our finest hour. I had been a college student. I was in it. The world saw it on television. It saw black bodies hanging by the neck behind the firelit grin-grimace of whites. It saw neatly dressed young black men and women sitting in at lunch counters under racial epithets, hostile looks, and saliva rain. It saw four small black girl-child bodies removed from the rubble of a Birmingham church. It saw an unbudgeable people.
The world saw it all—on global television.
One of the movement’s important leaders was the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. Years later, the Reverend Fauntroy would become a member of the U.S. Congress representing the District of Columbia. He would continue to fight for the fundamental rights of the poor. He would be arrested alongside me in an effort to end apartheid in South Africa. He would lead a life of social service. He would never become rich.
The beneficiaries of the civil rights movement number globally in the hundreds of millions. I am one such beneficiary. Another is Robert Johnson. Decades ago, Congressman Walter Fauntroy gave Mr. Johnson a job. The civil rights movement gave him a chance.
Gossamer-clad buttocks shimmy closer to the lens of camera one. The imagination is not taxed. Camera two pans an audience of black female faces framed by bone-straight blond wigs. The camera moves, stops, and focuses on Robert Johnson, the founder and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, America’s only black-owned television network. Across the world, more people will see the BET twentieth-anniversary special than saw Rosa Parks forty-five years thence sitting alone on a Montgomery bus.
New Child is young. He has never seen Rosa Parks. He has seen Mr. Johnson and much of his programming.
“We heard what you was saying, Mr. Robinson.”
I am stirred from my reverie. New Child continues his remarks while looking at me. “We gon git the reparations. My generation gon git what we owed.”
I don’t know him. I don’t know what he knows. But his persona is, both, encouraging and discouraging. He has an apparent abundance of spirit and confidence, but obvious disabilities as well that are born of socialization and are virtually irreversible. He does not speak majority-culture-success English. I reflect again on his speech and mannerisms. I conclude that these characteristics give rise to a certain prejudice to which even I am not immune and, in any case, for the sake of fairness, must be put in context.
New Child is a flesh-and-blood distillation of American social statistics that would embarrass any number of less shameless nations. You will forgive me if I sound a little preachy. I detest preachiness and promise to fight its temptation for the balance of this telling. But the American social experience contorts all black development, mine included.
Often it would appear that blacks are constrained to select from a four-item life-chance wine list of varietal American poisons:
The Walk, sometimes called dregs brew, is the oldest American red wine, produced in Jamestown, Virginia, since 1619 exclusively for blacks systematically denied any and everything else: social, economic, and educational opportunity. The substance, which is administered involuntarily to poor blacks, produces in its prospectless consumers the lone career outcome allowed to them, an artistic but exaggerated walk unseen anywhere in the middle and upper reaches of American society, black or white.
The Talk is a full-throated zinfandel produced in America since the mid-twentieth-century for blacks who speak majority-culture-success English and advocate the full economic and political empowerment of all blacks. Owing to certain structural racial and class impediments inherent in the general society, the wine produces but one allowed result: a desired (by its producers) preachiness or steam-venting from its relatively more comfortable but powerless consumers who are in no other way much different from the consumers of the Walk.
The Take is a paper-dry, expensive white wine enjoyed by a very small number of whites as well as blacks. Take users (or takers) are usually rich or single- mindedly on their way towards becoming rich. Consumer surveys have revealed that takers prefer the wine not only for its magical lightness but also for its career-assisting property of sharpening innate greed and loosening natural inhibitions associated with moral memory and conscience. The bottle label suggests that the wine be served colder than those aforementioned and that the wine’s avarice-related properties are best realized when the taker drinks alone. The label also suggests something about the presence or absence of mirrors, but I cannot remember which it is. Lastly, the label informs that the top one percent of Americans control as much wealth as the bottom ninety-five percent. This does not appear to lessen the admiration of the nontakers for the takers.
The Headache is a fruity, amber-Headache colored, crossover wine used by well-educated, well-intentioned, dedicated, professional blacks who, from a variety of nominally important posts, work with and within local and national white power structures to defend as best they can the interests of the black community. Consumers of this wine are known to have Headaches daily.
The marbles of such seriocomic thoughts roll around in my head as I listen to New Child. This is flight and I know it. I daydreamed as a child in school. I do it still as an adult.
New Child’s youthful energy of hope damns the false confidence with which I earlier spoke. But why has my confidence waned? Could it be that I know too much, that I have seen too much? Doubtful. From what I can guess, for all my years, I have seen mercifully less than he has in his few. But this is certainly a mistake, if not of logic, of language at least. New Child has suffered, yes. But how much can he have seen? Likely, precious little, precisely owing to all that he has suffered. We are all (black, white, brown) world-flung, mindless yields of social inheritance. Why do we talk as we talk? Assume as we assume? Expect as we expect? Hope as we hope? The answers hide from us in the secrets of back-filed memory. They skulk in the shadows of forgotten history, obscured by tenacious privilege resting oblivious and merry atop plinths of privation and self-doubt.
Katrina Brown, a white de Wolf family descendent of the de Wolf slave-owning family, writes:
What do we inherit from seven generations ago? From five? What do we inherit from our grandparents, a face, a laugh, a ring, a Bible, table manners, a name? What do we inherit without realizing it? What family secrets hide in the unspoken and unseen? New England where my mother’s family is from has its share of unacknowledged ghosts. My cousins call it the deep north.
At twenty-nine when I was finally ready to look at our family’s history, I discovered that I was descended from the largest slave-trading family in early America. From 1789 to 1820, fathers, sons, and grandsons in the de Wolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island, developed a triangle (slave) trade….
Poor onion farmers turned slave traders—fathers, sons, cousins, uncles, and in-laws were captains and sailors, auctioneers, plantation owners and overseers, insurers and bankers and lawyers of the family trade….
One of the de Wolfs, James, at the end of his life in 1837 was the second richest man in the United States. He served in the United States Senate and secured a political favor from President Thomas Jefferson that enabled the de Wolfs to continue in the slave trade long after it had become illegal. … After the slave trade, [the de Wolfs] became ministers and bishops, writers and professors, artists and architects, upright Yankees with our faces to the wind.
Tens of thousands of men, women, and children who looked like New Child suffered under the lash on de Wolf plantations, distilleries, and ships that plied the high seas from Rhode Island to West Africa, and from there to Cuba and Georgia.
How many such stories are there? How many surviving American private fortunes were constructed upon the wearied backs of slaves? How many businesses? How many Aetnas and Fleet Banks can be called to account for tarnished histories? How many respected universities, the Browns, the Georgetowns, owe their beginnings to the bestial abuse of slavery? Hundreds? Thousands? More? How many Hartford Courants ran ads to facilitate the apprehension of runaway slaves? How vast was (is) the network? At how many intersections did the benefit currents cross? How complex remains the latticework? How witting are the intergenerational beneficiaries in their ride aboard the victims, then and now? How many innocent Christian white people have there been to live well on the blind lovely side of hate, thriving in a white society’s civil interstices as guiltless as white clapboard on a leafy lane? How many know? How many care?
New Child is alive, and that is something.
“… I put God in my life and God is on our side,” says New Child to applause. I am moved by what he says but … “God”? Do not the disciples of privilege invoke the same God and declare for Him a preference for faux-Tudor architecture? Do they not see Him sitting amongst them in endowed pews of the Sabbath’s vain mansions? Do they not publish their trust in Him on the coin of the realm? Do they not thank Him? For grandfather’s bequest? For Aunt Gertrude’s Waterford? For the volume control to vox populi? For civil peace? For advantage, the charlatan’s imprecation? For prosperity and compounding abundance? For the hallucinogen of manifest destiny? For forgiveness? Would a God that performs such for them do anything for New Child?
Edward Ball, descendent of one of South Carolina’s largest slave-holding families, writes:
In childhood, I remember feeling an intangible sense of worth that might be linked to the old days. Part of the feeling came from the normal encouragements of parents who wanted their children to rise. An equal part came from an awareness that long ago our family had lived like lords and that the world could still be divided into the pedigreed and the rootless.
The invitation to the family reunion sat on my desk, beckoning. No one among the Balls talked about how slavery had helped us, but whether we acknowledged it or not, the powers of our ancestors were still in hand. Although our social franchise had shrunk, it had nevertheless survived. If we did not inherit money, or land, we received a great fund of cultural capital, including prestige, a chance at education, self-esteem, a sense of place, mobility, even (in some cases) a flair for giving orders. And it was not only “us,” the families of former slave-owners, who carried the baggage of the plantations. By skewing things so violently in the past, we had made sure that our cultural riches would benefit all white Americans.
“We be dead man if it wasn’t for Peewee. He was there for me when nobody else was.” Peewee stands and embraces New Child, and then Furious Stylze, a friend of New Child’s.
Something significant is occurring in the room. To me at least. I cannot name the feeling but it is similar to the mildly disturbing vertigo one feels when looking at a big object (like a large painting) placed too close to the eye. Before, I was certain. Now, I am not. Of what? I have no crystallized idea. But it must have something to do with my lifelong fascination (obsession even) with things, issues, people, places that are distant.
I live in the District of Columbia but I don’t know how to locate the voting wards on a city map. I know more about Bujumbura, Burundi. Why is this? I am always interested in there.
For the same reason, I am forced to concede, that the nit-wit prizes the senator over the schoolteacher, the entrepreneur over the social worker. Arrogance is armored stupidity. But even arrogance is easiest to spot from a distance. I am being as clear on this point as the limits on self-exposure will permit.
Rationalizing, I could reason, painful though it would be, that I am no different from anyone else, that I, like tens of millions of other wanderlust victims, am an easy mark for the Somewhere Else industry. Once in an airport in Paris, as flights where chimed and announced to all corners of the globe, I could not distinguish the frenetic and pointless scurry of the ants at my feet from the galloping hordes of overstressed tourists who seemed willing to mash anything underfoot, ants and small children included, so long as it put them on their way to somewhere else. Places and faces fascinate us for no other reason than millions have heard of them and they are not next door. This phenomenon is not classified as a form of mental illness for no other reason than most humans appear to suffer from it.
I go to such introspective lengths here because those who describe themselves as leaders in our community would do well to undertake similar self-examination. I have known well by now enough “leaders” to know that what passes as leadership is often little more than an expression of egoism. It would appear that a condition of such leadership in the black community is the accomplishment of a relative celebrity that varies directly with the rung-level assignment of the leader’s status in the broader American community. To Americans, black and white, Jesse Jackson Sr. is a black “leader.” James Comer, the brilliant black professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center, is not a “leader,” although he is a seminal and influential American thinker on early childhood education for disadvantaged children. His writings are deeply influencing what Americans know about how children learn. Peewee Kirkland, on the strength of firsthand witness, saves lives. Nonetheless, Peewee is not a “leader.”
Dr. Comer and Peewee are not “leaders” because they are not famous in relative terms. They are doing different forms of public service with broad and constructive implications for the future of the black community and America in general. They are leaders who, to become “leaders,” would have to actively pursue fame or be captured fortuitously in the coinciding frames of serious work and the frippery light of public notice. Such unassisted coincidences occur about as frequently as a solar eclipse.
Leaders and “leaders” move in all but mutually exclusive constellations. More often than not the former pursue concrete objectives, the latter attention. In rare instances, because of high public interest (pro and con) in the social objectives sought, public notice attaches to authentic leaders. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Ralph Nader are modern examples of this.
In general and with particular application for the black community, American society has at present saddled itself with an unconstructive and contorted definition of what a leader is or should strive to be. This has rather muddled all of our thinking, and as you may discern from the foregoing, mine included.
Peewee is receiving a standing ovation. They all know who he is. He stands at the lectern for a long while waiting for the room to settle. New Child, Furious, and the two others, whose names I did not catch, return to table twenty-four.
Reprinted from The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other by Randall Robinson by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Randall Robinson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.