Saturday, April 12, 2014

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2014, April 12: White liberals expecting (false?) hope of black intellectuals

The Jonathan Chait/Ta-Nehisi Coates discussion over white racism is providing a steady stream of commentary on the kind of issues this Confederate "Heritage" Month series of posts is addressing.

One contribution to that discussion comes from Tressie McMillan Cottom in A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism Tressiemc 03/30/3014. She writes about how the long tadition of American white liberals scolding balck writers and intellectuals for being fatalistic in the sense of lacking hope for improvement. Which criticism can and often does become a way of scolding African-Americans for articulating anger over the conditions of white supremacy and the real effects of white racism in the US. This fits nicely with the theme of my previous post in this series about George Jackson and the militant prison movement for which he became emblematic.

Cottom writes:

This is a turn so common in the long history of black intellectuals and white publics as to be mundane. Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. It is a role that requires the illusion of hope. Without a hopeful angry ward, Mr. Drummond [a character from the TV series Diff'rent Strokes] is just some weird dude keeping his black adopted sons in a gilded cage. Hope is what transforms the relationship into a cause, a movement, a penance.

Of course, requiring hope is not functionally different from requiring drug tests for public welfare (when you are one of the publics, no less) or requiring women wear long johns to be justifiably victimized by a rapist or being told to bide your time as the majority catches up to the idea of your humanity. [my emphasis]
Here we have to make a meaningful distinction between anger as an individual phenomenon and anger as a response to real social conditions. Or, to put it another way, between anger as a tactical matter and anger as a strategic response.

Anger that dissipates itself as petty criminal violence or personal self-destruction is a different thing than anger sublimated and channeled into action against real injustices and real grievances.

For people in genuinely desperate situations, the range between the two may be relatively small. For white people in the United States in 2014, there is considerably more room in day-to-day life to avoid confronting the reality of white racism as a problem than it is for non-whites. So it easier for whites to counsel African-Americans to practice patience and the avoidance of (strategic) anger when it comes to dealing with civil rights/voting rights/white racism. Which is very often a way of counseling them to not consider it a real problem.

In an earlier post this month, I quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and at points they profit from segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man in an incurable "devil."
The Nation of Islam, to which he refers there, was publicly denouncing King's nonviolent activism as a sell-out to the White Devil. But King was practicing nonviolent activism, confronting white racism and expressing, yes, anger and outrage at white racist practices. He wasn't telling his followers not to be angry. He also wasn't simply telling people not to let their anger lead them to political violence. He was telling people to take their anger and do something constructive about the problems that they were justifiably angry about.

Cottom continues:

I said on Twitter that I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope. DuBois was crazy for embracing communism when empirically it would be crazy to have embraced his America where Ida B Wells was documenting the regularity of black lynchings. Crazy, he was, for not having hope in the face of those empirics!

Paul Robeson was consistently the smartest person in any room he inhabited. When his nation recalled his citizenship he made a powerful case for the benefits of socialism. He may be remembered today as a black history month milestone in the sanitized march of America’s progress, but at the time his sanity was questioned. What could be wrong with that brilliant, ostracized, stifled black genius that a little hope wouldn't cure?

And do not even get me started on the women who are not only crazy for questioning the white man’s hope but who are crazy by function of their biological penchant for hysterics. The relatively privileged Mary Church Terrell had an education few blacks of any gender had at the time. But she had to fight first her father’s dismay at her wasting her lady breeding to pursue formal education. She went on to do just that, making friends with powerful white women in the suffrage movement only to have them warn her to not make her speeches too "harsh". Harsh isn't hopeful.
America's Story gives this brief sketch of Mary Church Terrell:

In 1898, Mary Church Terrell wrote how African-American women "with ambition and aspiration [are] handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race." She fought for equality through social and educational reform. Born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, Terrell became an educator, political activist, and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. Terrell understood the value of education.
Cottom makes the following observation which is troubling in the best kind of way:

And hope is integral to the greater project of white paternalism and black intellectual products. To be recognized, rewarded, disseminated, or sustainable black intellectualism must perpetuate the fervent epistemology of American progress. This epistemological frame is so rigid, so deeply rooted in the psyche of the majority culture that it turns good thinkers into circular logic jerks. It must be defended at all costs to reason or argument even when reasonable arguments are offered up in compliance with the rules set forth by the epistemology! [my emphasis]
My reading of what Cottom is saying here is that the predominant white expectation - even among liberals/progressives - is that African-Americans are required to profess hope even if it means professing false hope.

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