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Stepin’ Fletchit in 2010: Showcasing the Stigma in Routines of Shame - Represent Our Resistance - By Dr. Lenore J. Daniels, PhD - Editorial Board

…shipments [of Africans] were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else.
-Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972
The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: whatever happens to black men is strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.
-Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name

The bus pulls up at the corner bus stop, and the woman driver opens the door. Two women walk up the steps while, just behind them, a young man is walking toward the bus. The new riders swipe their cards and walk down the aisle out of my view when I notice the young man, still approaching the bus.

The bus driver is patient. She’s seen it all, I thought. This young man was “holding himself” as if to let go would be a catastrophe. This isn’t anything new for this young woman bus driver. Even while the young man faces the driver and eventually begins walking down the aisle between mostly women passengers, he is still “holding himself.”

The driver and the mostly women passengers up front were Black. I, too, looked out the window ahead of me, imagining the driver or one of us women, approaching the young man and, remembering Malcolm, asking him to tell us who taught him to disrespect himself and us? Who taught this or any young Black person to represent blackness, womanhood or manhood with symbols of self and collective hatred?

If the rappers - then who taught them?

If young parents - then who taught them?

White America has to ask itself, why it needs a nigger?... Why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place?... If you invented him, you have to find out why?

-James Baldwin.

The day before I observed this young man, I spoke to Prof. Michelle Alexander by phone (see “Interview: Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Black Commentator, May 13, 2010). One statement stood out: Black Americans have been stigmatized! Black Americans in the U.S. are responding to this stigmatization, that is, to the shame of being labeled criminal. Our response to this stigmatization isn’t limited to the young Blacks who embrace the stigma of the gangsta.

There are many ways in which Black Americans are continuing to respond to the campaign on the part of the government to neutralize us. Yet, many of us, as Alexander observes, refuse to acknowledge that the for-the-people-and-by-the-people-government has repeatedly betrayed Black Americans.

‘[w]e tell ourselves that if only young Black people would stop committing crimes, things would be different. There’s a level of shame in that Blacks don’t want to believe there’s a system in place against them.’

Some of us are not only complicit to the government’s agenda as it relates to Blacks, we are also blind to the idea of justice as it relates to Blacks.

Alexander is right. Blacks don’t want to believe there’s a system in place against them.

Survivors of the first wave of legalized segregation, Jim Crow, didn’t want to talk about it, and talk pointed to local culprits: police, sheriffs, maybe a mayor or two, a governor, or the Klan who was often the police, the sheriff and the mayor, too. Riffraff types so dissimilar to the beloved Kennedy or Johnson, the big, all caps GOVERNMENT, the Calvary, arriving on time, in the spirit of Lincoln!

We lost all memory of the Struggle: A good many Blacks accepted the same conclusion already offered by the government to explain why others are poor or why these others are not advancing economically.

It’s not the government. Maybe it’s us or that King or that Malcolm or those Black Panthers. Those Black young militants. Not the government.

You’d think that subsequent generations, my generation in particular, would have recognized the big, all caps GOVERNMENT in the assassination of Malcolm, Martin L. King, Black Panthers and other community activists. You’d think that Black Americans since 1968 would have noticed that the Calvary came, but not to save Blacks. The Calvary came in 1969 in Chicago but not to save Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. It came in 1985 but not to save the 11 Black residents, including 5 children, on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia. You’d think there would be a recognition that self-determination is an empty term if it’s still white America who determines the few who will be offered the opportunity to tell the story of how they “got over” obstacles without ever speaking up and asking why the obstacles of inadequate schools, poor housing, absent jobs were there in the first place. Who is responsible for the obstacles to overcome?

Even when the Calvary, led by Ronald Reagan, brought the War on Drugs to the Black community, Blacks accepted some if all of the law and order package, including the stigma of the Black as criminal - a stigma, Alexander tells us, that we are still responding to in our own way, but certainly not in any unique way.

The plantation showcased the spectacle of the stigma.

While many enslaved Blacks determined that freedom was neither the government’s nor the plantation’s definition of the term, and sought at the risk of death an alternative definition, others were content in bragging privileges. I work in the Big House! I’m almost not a slave!

And now, in the year 2010, don’t we have evidence of cultural genocide when we hear the people’s narrative subverted so as to be conducive to the neutralization of the Black memory of struggle?

How many conversations have I had with Blacks in which the conversation ends up less a conversation and more a display of school-yard dialogue?

I have a doll!

I have two dolls!

My father is a store manager!

My father is a doctor!

Comment on the weather and try to discuss climate change and the topic changes immediately. I work for the School District and when the weather…

Comment on the neighborhood and try to discuss the racial division and the topic changes immediately again. My son is a police man over in district…

And it never ends: My daughter is a district judge…

My granddaughter works for [so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so] and she’ll move up to director…

My family and I are not criminals - but the others are!

We engage this routine of shame because, to use Alexander’s words, ‘the stigma of race has become the stigma of criminality” (The New Jim Crow).

The War on Drugs hasn’t only created a racial caste system that criminalizes Black behavior or neutralizes Black culture, it has also, I would argue, created an environment in which some Blacks announce their guilt (whether or not they have committed any crime) by, to use Alexander’s term, “embracing” gangsta culture. On the other hand, there are many Blacks who, for the most part, are always proving their innocence. (I’m in the Master’s house! I’m virtually not Black!). Sadly, too many Black Americans still perceive white America as their audience. What is new here?

When will the Stepin’ Fletchit routine be put to rest!

Once again, the Calvary has arrived. It looks like Lincoln, Kennedy, and Johnson - the big, all caps GOVERNMENT - coming to save Black America.

We play the blame game? Hardly.

In the refusal of Black Americans to acknowledge the government’s role in sanctioning what appears on the surface to be race-neutral rules, protocols, and laws but that nonetheless facilitate the stigmatization of Black Americans is to collaborate in furthering our cultural and physical demise. A government that can and does support and fund the dispersal or death of millions of other racially and religiously different people can and does support and fund the prisons, the inadequate schools, the glass doors that remain closed to many of us.

Who taught us to accept a government that by any means necessary continues to call and to deliver the shots - at us?

Justice isn’t in the Empire’s dictionary.

If we’d remembered our African and African American ancestors (including those not chosen by the government as appropriate role models or honored because they’ve been whitewashed), we’d stay focused on justice for all our people who endured enslavement, dehumanization, and demoralization in the U.S.

But some of us would rather drop our cultural values and convictions to comfort white Americans. We remain silent or engage in a well-recognized routine. So it is with Prof. Henry L. Gates. He’s not crying racism now because it’s not a personal encounter with the authorities who saw a Black and recognized a nigger. Gates wants to discuss these others: Africans. In his article, “Ending the Blame Game,” New York Times, Gates wants white Americans to know that Africans sold Africans to Euro-Americans.

Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in ‘Roots.’

Well now, “untidy problem,” “significant role” of Africans, and the sarcastic “evil white men” educate us to how we’ve been sadly mistaken to believe that Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, France, and the U.S. individually and collectively made economic gains, indeed, whole empires on the back of those Africans who toiled in slavery in the Americas.

As Prof. Tim Wise writes in his response to Gates’ article, “Racism, Reparations and the Politics of Blame: Pardon You,” Gates is recasting history! In Counterpunch, May 7-8, Wise points out what should be obvious: “Africa did not benefit by the complicity of some of their own with that system.”

Quite the contrary: the depopulation of Africa limited the growth of African economies. Ten to fifteen million Africans were shipped to the Americas by 1800, while numbers at least that large died either at sea or on the march from their homes to the coast. At least 25 million, and more likely as many as 50 million lives were lost to Africa due to the system of enslavement. At the very moment that Europe was growing in population - enriched as they were by slavery - Africa was witnessing a rapid loss of peoples.

Reparations, Wise argues, is due not only because a “certain group committed a wrong,” but because “the wrong led to the unjust enrichment of an entire nation (the United States) and a continent (Europe), at the expense of those enslaved.”

Texas textbook writers take note: You have an African American collaborator in Prof. Gates! He’ll be happy to serve!

Talk about ways in which we respond to the stigmatization of Blackness in this post-racial era and how we, rather than confront the stigma, embrace it, and thus betray our ancestors.

Minstrel stars abound in high places as well as low. When will the shame end?

If anything, reparations shouldn’t be limited to the period of enslavement, Alexander argues. What about the oppression and exploitation as a result of legalized segregation and the current legalized racial caste system that maintains a cap of the economic mobility of Black Americans?

You’d think we would use our intelligence to debate this issue rather than entertain a certain element of white America who still expects to see Stepin’ Fletchit if not the criminal.

Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.
-Langston Hughes, “Freedom [1]” Editorial Board member, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has been a writer for over thirty years of commentary, resistance criticism and cultural theory, and short stories with a Marxist sensibility to the impact of cultural narrative violence and its antithesis, resistance narratives. With entrenched dedication to justice and equality, she has served as a coordinator of student and community resistance projects that encourage the Black Feminist idea of an equalitarian community and facilitator of student-teacher communities behind the walls of academia for the last twenty years. Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literatures, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.


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May 20, 2010
Issue 376

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