The Rise of the Black Nerd
by James Hannaham
Studying at elite institutions has alienated
. . .
Afrodemics from blacks who see higher education as whitewashing. Yet their views still
cause mainstream whites to ostracize or misunderstand them. Isolated from both
camps, and even each other, they've developed an independent party of race
politics with an intellectual bent. All that isolation and scholarship are what
classify them as nerds.
Thandeka, Boston University economics
professor (and supposed former neocon) --
Thandeka, a Unitarian minister and associate professor of
theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, draws conclusions
not unlike Loury's, but with a more sensitive, sociological approach. Her recent
Learning to Be White, examines the process by which Euro-Americans
maintain racial boundaries for their children through shame. It may seem
counterintuitive for a black woman to spend time explaining the damaging effects
of racism on white kids. But the real paradox is that it has always fallen to
the victims of discrimination to describe how it works—as if they had created
"Would that the problem was really racism in and of
itself!" Thandeka exclaims. She starts off
Learning to Be White with
a series of personal anecdotes from Euro-Americans detailing the first instances
in which they felt themselves to be "raced." "Sarah,"
Thandeka explains, recounting an episode from the book, "brought her black
best friend home, and her mother told her not to bring her back. As Sarah
pressed for the real reason, she discovered that if she persisted, she risked
losing her mother's love. Every time she saw her friend, her appearance reminded
Sarah of what she didn't want to know."
In many cases, theorizes the
author, "the motivation for racist acts is not racism, but a fear of being
* * * * *
Loury --Brazenly esoteric, Loury's new
book, The Anatomy of Racial
Inequality, excavates racism using the unlikely tools of theoretical
economics. He argues that racism has become embedded in our society because
racially stigmatized groups are denied access to the informal social networks
crucial to success in any field. Also, what he calls "self-confirming
stereotypes" help to "create the facts."
Black people sometimes
believe our own bad press and behave accordingly, even adopting negative
stereotypical behavior as a way of throwing it back at society. But when
non-blacks see the effect of this "feedback loop," they conclude that
blacks are being held back because of something in our nature. This Loury calls
"essentialism," and he rejects it as an explanation for inequality.
holds liberal politics responsible for miscomprehending this process. The
problem, he says, is that liberal individualism sweeps the issues of social
networking and self-confirming stereotypes under the rug. In the process, it has
allowed the idea of racism to become separated from specific acts of
discrimination, so that it appears "natural and nondissonant."
Loury's assertion that racism has become unmoored from its
direct objects is a common thread among today's black intellectuals.
While Loury suspects that class will become as much of an
issue as race in the future, Thandeka's research reveals that America's racist
attitudes originated with class discrimination. She cites colonial Virginia's
"race laws" of the late 1600s as the moment when British classism gave
way to American racism.
Previously, indentured servants and slaves had mixed
freely and identified with the other group's plight. In 1676, former indentured
servants began to rebel against the ruling class for their unfair taxation and
greed. They burned Jamestown to the ground. Terrified that the slave population
would join forces with the indentured servants, the masters put the "race
laws" into effect. Among other rules, white servants could legally whip
black slaves and were protected from receiving beatings themselves.
multiclass 'white race' would emerge from the Virginia laws as one not
biologically engineered but socially constructed," concludes Thandeka.
"The very definition of the white would now be legally bound to the
inferior social status of the black."
It isn't hard to bring this historical data alive in the
modern era, Thandeka points out, since the ruling class still treats the lower
classes with contempt no matter who they are. "The Enron execs didn't
discriminate against their employees racially!" she says.
* * *
* * * *
Martha Southgate embraces the label:
"In high school, I never found my way into the black social circle, but I
never felt fully comfortable in white social circles either. I certainly am a
nerd!" For Southgate and others, righteous anger usually takes a backseat
to curiosity, compassion, and a dash of world-weariness. "People ask me at
readings to provide answers to this conundrum," she says. "I don't
really have any. I'm just interested in exploring that tension."
Novelist Martha Southgate focuses on
upward mobility, and the ways in which race and class have ceased to be
synonymous social problems, echoing the ideas of Loury and Thandeka. Centering
on an intra-black class conflict, her recent novel
The Fall of Rome
describes the events leading to a confrontation between two black men of
"The Fall of Rome ended up being in part a way to
address the idea that things aren't simply black and white," says
41-year-old Southgate. "In the early '90s there were a number of newspaper
pieces about the good old days when we all lived together, almost saying,
'Segregation is good.' I would get impatient with that. They're right about the
split among classes, and that a lot of people have been left utterly behind. But
I just don't really think Jim Crow was that great!"
* * * * *
Black Nerds Through
Akhnaton Egyptian pharaoh/eccentric mama's boy; brought
avant-garde art and monotheism to Egypt in 1300s B.C. Moved capital to middle of
desert. Legacy suppressed, name denounced for years afterward.
Bankouri Prince who renounced throne of Songhai to become
scholar at Timbuktu during heyday in 14th century.
Sally Hemings Jefferson slave and baby-mama; favored
coalition-building in early 1800s as diplomatic means to freedom. Became neocon
after decision to return to America and slavery rather than stay in Paris.
Enest Everett Just Early-20th-century American biophysicist.
Pioneer in fertilization and cell development. Remained obscure because he
didn't invent peanut butter. Appears on 1995 Black Heritage stamp.
Bayard Rustin Nonviolent activist who organized 1963 March on
Washington. Condemned as "known homosexual" by Strom Thurmond before
the march, to little effect.
Adrienne Kennedy Award-winning playwright rejected by Black
Arts Movement for creating multiracial plots and surreal, symbolist images. With
Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard, changed the face of theater.
Ernest Thomas A/K/A RAJ (from What's Happening!!) From
1976 to '79, led motley clique of very uncool African Americans. Tutored college
basketball player, lied about age in order to date model.
Rita Dove U.S. poet laureate 1993-95. Won 1987 Pulitzer Prize
for collection Thomas and Beulah. Avoided popularity by eschewing dialect.
Henry Louis Gates,
Jr. West Virginia-born public intellectual.
After testifying in favor of 2 Live Crew, created prestigious African American
Studies department at Harvard during 1990s. Traveled around Africa for six-hour
PBS special while wearing khaki shorts, polo shirt, and glasses. —J.H.
posted August 2002
* * *
* * *
The Last Holiday: A Memoir
By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
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Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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