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Notes of a Native Daughter | The Nation

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Notes of a Native Daughter

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The title does neither the book nor its author any favors. The End of Blackness, merely as a billboard, seems calculated to get a rise out of the people who will most likely reject on first contact whatever it's selling--the very people, Debra Dickerson would argue, who need to read it most.

About the Author

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour is a film critic at Newsday and a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Jazz (Oxford University Press).

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It's a title that screams contrarianism. And for many African-Americans, "contrarianism" is almost always synonymous with conservatism, accommodation, even treason to the race. None of these charges effectively cling to Dickerson. But her armor's strapped on too tight for her to care what people think. "I'm spoiling for a fight," she declares in her acknowledgments. "I have pulled my last punch with the 'blacker-than-thou' brigade.... [This book] is my gauntlet thrown down to the black powers that be. Pick it up if you dare, but you'd better come correct."

I can relate to Dickerson's combative stance. I share the exasperation that provokes it. I think of all the times I would hear black people proclaim, with fierce and unyielding conviction, that the white man is the Devil. And of all the times when I would want to shout back, How is calling the white man the Devil any different from calling him God? Either way, you're ceding him more power over your destiny than he deserves. It's relinquishing autonomy over your own life. I kept such comebacks to myself, because I didn't want to be censured or ostracized for violating the customary loop of black discourse. I wish, on a purely visceral level, that I could throw down as Dickerson does here, if only to void the accumulated bile of so much stifled dissent.

Her force field's so thick she won't care if there are black readers who couldn't get past the introductory pages of her 2000 memoir, An American Story, which focus on her years as an Air Force enlisted woman and knee-jerk "blame-the-victim" Reaganite. Once a righty, always a righty, n'est-ce pas? Never mind that the sister went through all manner of psychic and intellectual changes, from her working-class childhood in St. Louis to her long, strange pilgrimage through the military, out the other end of which she's a born-again progressive bearing down on Harvard Law School like a laser beam. Even as both her self-esteem (from a series of clueless teachers, relatives and varied alleged grown-ups) and her body (via rape by a fellow serviceman) came under vicious assault, her mind stayed open to possibility and alert to complexity. She seems never to have met an idea or a presumption that she didn't hold under the light, checking for cracks or warped edges. Citizenship, she believes, demands nothing less than vigilant skepticism even toward one's own skepticism.

But for African-Americans embittered by citizenship's faulty promises, a permanent state of war has existed with white supremacy, a war in which any trace of skepticism toward tactics, ideology and agreed-upon beliefs is perceived as a back-door opening to concession, if not outright surrender. It will not please any of these folks to learn that The End of Blackness is being submitted to the general public as a brief for letting go, if not giving up.

"What blacks must surrender," Dickerson writes in her introduction, "is the notion that they can be made whole for the centuries of loss and degradation they endured, that whites can be made to suffer guilt and shame equal to the portion they have dealt blacks, that white America will ever see itself the way its black citizens do.... Whites will never cringe with the shame blacks feel appropriate; they will never welcome blacks nonchalantly into their neighborhoods and schools--or, at least, blacks should assume so. Practically speaking, as both intermarriage and black uplift continue, whites will passively participate in integration, but blacks still should not list it among their goals. They should ignore whites qua whites and focus on being prime movers."

Such rhetoric has been linked by some readers to the distant sounds of buckets being cast down. But Dickerson can't easily (or usefully) be linked to the ghost of Booker T. Washington, and The End of Blackness is too discursive and ill tempered to be taken for an echo of Washington's Atlanta Compromise. Washington's oracular prescriptions were lofted to the heavens, where his listeners were implored to reach. Dickerson, much in the manner of contemporary public dialogue, provokes, needles, gets in your face, sets off cherry bombs; anything to keep you awake, especially when you're least inclined to hear her out.

That title, again, could be a red flag or a repellent. Why The End of Blackness? Why does "blackness" have to get snuffed when it's "whiteness" that maims aspirations and kills dreams? If one goes, the other has to walk the plank too. Maybe even go first, thank you very much. "If I am not who you say I am, then you are not what you think you are," James Baldwin famously informed his white readers. (Along with Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Carter G. Woodson, Amiri Baraka and E. Franklin Frazier make up the ancestral posse Dickerson deploys for backup.)

Dickerson isn't quibbling. In fact, white supremacy gets its omelet-fluffy head slapped around for more than half the book in a scathing if familiar litany of political and personal transgressions against Africans. We all know how bad things were from slavery through Jim Crow. Then again, Dickerson argues, maybe we don't:

Only the loss of understanding that blacks were once literally, officially second-class citizens and subject to the whim of any white anywhere in America can account for the fact that many blacks today claim that "nothing has changed" and equate the paucity of black faculty at Harvard Law School with Jim Crow. That charge is an obscenity. Jim Crow hanged black men for taking pride in their homes. Jim Crow cut fetuses from black women's bellies when they protested the lynching of their husbands for acting like men. Jim Crow taxed the black population, but refused to pave or police or educate the black part of town.... Jim Crow had white parents chuckling while their children threw rocks from their school bus windows at black children trudging to bookless, one-room shanty schools.... Jim Crow was active, pulsating evil that proudly detested blacks...

"Thanks to the civil rights movement," she continues, "black Americans are free and thriving. No one, apparently, is more surprised by that than some black Americans. Nothing else can explain their need to continue believing they are marginalized, that whites are all-powerful and all evil and that America wants to see them fail. Some blacks have absorbed white supremacist notions and cannot give up perpetual protest, their only avenue to receiving Caucasian attention."

As far as Dickerson is concerned, "whiteness" and "blackness," as they are commonly understood, are locked in a satanic tango over American consciousness, with "blackness" following the other's lead. "Whiteness" in post-civil rights America has congealed and hardened into what Dickerson encapsulates as "narcissistic know-nothingness." It may no longer literally lynch or bludgeon, as Jim Crow did. But it continues to covet its inflated sense of supreme privilege and deny its more complex cultural connections with blackness. "Not because whites hate blacks per se," she writes. "They ostentatiously fear and feel superior to blacks, both of which feelings have to do with how precious whites think themselves."

Meanwhile, "blackness," Dickerson argues, feeds off and further pumps up this narcissism by defining itself almost exclusively in terms of white oppression. "Blacks simply do not know who or how to be absent oppression. To cease invoking racism and reveling in its continuance is to lose the power to haunt whites, the one tattered possession they'll fight for while their true freedom molders unclaimed. It is to lose the power to define themselves as the opposite of something evil, rather than on their own terms. Much more bravery is required to assert black power, set an autonomous agenda, and court the failure that too many blacks fear is all they're capable of."

If these sentences lack polish, it's because Dickerson is opting for force over grace. The headlong momentum of her argument, propelled by anecdotes, quotes, homilies, one-liners and blogs, jumps and hums with a vitality reminiscent of high-end pop music, good chase movies or contact-sports television. This brawling abandon accounts as much for the book's appeal as it does for its problems. She does, in the manner of a relentless debater on a mission, have a tendency to repeat many of her key points, in case they're missed the first time around. And while broad-stroked generalizations can't be avoided in a polemic as unapologetic as this, The End of Blackness can sometimes seem as impervious to measured reflection as the attitudes it seeks to demolish.

I raise my fist in salute when Dickerson declares the mind to be "the last plantation." At the same time, she makes me wish she'd brought to her witness stand The Last Plantation, Itabari Njeri's quixotic and undervalued 1997 inquiry into shape-shifting multicultural America near the twentieth century's conclusion. Njeri challenged readers to broaden to a shattering point the same narrow parameters of "blackness" and "whiteness" as Dickerson does. But Njeri widened her view to take in the myriad rogue elements being brought to the American cultural bounty by Asian, Latino and other hyphenated Americans. Dickerson's focus is more on black-white dynamics--though, to her credit, she throws a well-aimed sucker punch at the white hierarchy's tendency to set nonwhite cultures against one another. "As whites squirm their way out of black demands, they turn to other minorities as guilt- and concessions-buffers." Thus Asians and Latinos are praised and even rewarded for diligence and hard work. "Whites remain on top, but they signal that Hispanics and Asians can outrank blacks while they work on their promotions to whiteness."

The End of Blackness scatters, flags, almost loses its legs toward the end, when Dickerson yields the floor to joke lists that members of the black middle class send to each other through e-mail as if in a cyberspace ritual of self-mockery. (Examples: "YOU KNOW IT'S A GHETTO SALON WHEN... All the stylists wear house slippers.... YOU'RE A CORPORATE NEGRO IF... You think anyone without an office job is ghetto" and so on.) All of which is marshaled to signify the dreary levels of self-loathing toward which African-Americans have allowed themselves to sink by investing their identities in hidebound concepts of "blackness." Get over it, Dickerson urges. Think outside the box and "transcend the ragtag reminders of racism by refusing to be demoralized by them."

So what is to be done? Those looking for a ten-point program or a well-marked road map toward direct action won't find it here--and will likely find more reasons to throw things at Dickerson. She may affirm charges of conservatism by urging blacks to "do for self." (Then again, when have blacks ever been told to do anything else?) She doesn't come down hard against seeking reparations for centuries of slavery and segregation, but rather aims a gimlet eye at the manner in which such pleas are submitted: "Bereft of a unifying and legitimizing intellectual-moral framework, blacks rarely respond by pointing out that reparations are demanded from America, not from the white residents of America, but from an America which includes blacks and is supported in large measure by the wealth created by blacks." She is cagey on the subject of affirmative action; without opposing affirmative action outright, she takes a swipe at black leaders for emphasizing it "above all other goals...even though the black masses derive little benefit from it. Why? Because it disguises the elite black interest as the general black interest. Also, because whites don't like it."

Point taken. But what does she propose? Apparently, nothing more than comprehensive attitude adjustment: "Blacks must monitor white people so as to safeguard their piece of the pie, but they otherwise should ignore them politically. Black self-worth simply cannot hinge on other people's behavior: So what if people eyeball them suspiciously? So what if rent-a-cops follow them around? So what if a random white woman clutches her purse when they pass? Is it not obvious that much of this behavior persists merely because it feeds whites' need to be central to everything? All blacks can control is their behavior, not other people's narcissistic and inglorious needs. If you know who you are, why does it matter so much that a powerless stranger has you all wrong?"

This may not be news to as many people as Dickerson--or, for that matter, her critics--imagines. If anything, it's possible that The End of Blackness, however much it goes over the top and gets too fast and loose in presentation, may have arrived in time to affirm many African-Americans' suspicions that something, anything, drastically new in leadership and collective attitude is needed right now. In her acknowledgments Dickerson nods to the "intellectual and political fervor emanating from the hip-hop generation," which, as is habitual among younger folks, wants to bust open and transfigure traditional social and political discourse among African-Americans. Many will persist in thinking of The End of Blackness as part of the problem. But no one should be surprised if future solutions can trace their emotional foundation to Dickerson's all-encompassing crankiness. Of course, the best thing a book like The End of Blackness can do is help make its what-blacks-must-do-next genre obsolete.

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