Thursday, November 29, 2007

Victims to victors (and back again?)

I was watching Oprah not too long ago (I know. I'm sorry...). On the show were Drs. Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint as they discussed their new book Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. This book is the latest in the long list of public appearances and open discourse they've had regarding the state of today's black community. Their forums -- controversial as they be -- are calling on the Black community to be more aggressive in their advocacy for change and community improvement. Not surprisingly, their commentary has been met with opposition; mostly from public intellectuals like Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who insist that they place too much emphasis on personal responsibility and not enough on the systemic and structural racism that exists. Further, opponents contend that "airing dirty laundry" allows many in White America (especially conservatives) to justify their own bigotry by using observations from other blacks like Cosby and Poussaint as a support system.

Truthfully, I see both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, I completely understand how some of Cosby and Poussaint's biggest critics can get incensed by their observations. Looking at their commentary from a certain vantage point, I can see how it can be perceived as being generationally out of touch, classist, and unbalanced.

To address the first point regarding the generational breakdown; for some time now, Dr. Cosby has been waging war on young people; particularly as it relates to how they embrace a certain urban culture that often includes activities, images, and representation that have negative implications. But what Drs. Cosby and Poussaint fail to note is how complex many elements of urban culture truly are. Now I'm not exactly a hip-hop subscriber myself. But even I can tell that many circles of hip hop go beyond simply celebrating thuggery, drugs, misogyny, violence, and the vacuous pursuit of material. There are quite a few mechanisms in place through the urban community that speak directly to the importance of education, community awareness, the harsh conditions of the streets, and the presence of systemic racism in law enforcement, the courts, and society at large. But messages like these are often ignored simply because the entire platform of hip hop is disparaged by the likes of Cosby and Poussaint. Simply put, some of their messages about black folks living outside of our means, killing each other, and promoting ignorance can sometimes be found in the very rap lyrics that they are so vehemently against.

Moving on to the next point, many critics tend to view the antics and commentary of people like Drs. Cosby and Poussaint as being laced with a great deal of classism. Though I don't think that is at all their intention, one would be hard pressed to disagree. One of the problems with how they (and other "well off" black folks) delivery their message is that their commentary typically suggests a level of antipathy toward poor and lower class blacks. Oftentimes, that antipathy is unfairly assigned. For instance, I read an amazing book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; where she experimented by taking on a series of unskilled jobs while trying to earn a living. Yet she was unable to make ends meet. Such is the case with many poor blacks. They have solid work ethic and an interest to take care of their families; but because of certain precipitating events (racism, the ills of job outsourcing, corporate greed, low wages), they are often left out of the "American Dream".

Speaking to the last point, I understand why Blacks are sensitive to criticism about their lifestyles; albeit constructive. When analyses and cultural criticisms appear to be unbalanced and conveniently discount social, economic, and political deficiencies that create the problem, the 'victim' tends to get more offended when you place the blame squarely on them. The unfortunate consequence of this type of critical analysis -- though somewhat on point -- is that it can get lost if it isn't balanced by an understanding and an appreciation of the systemic problems that contribute just as much to this plight.

Still, I think that critics of Drs. Cosby and Poussaint should stop and really listen to the message they are trying to convey; regardless to how poor and incomplete the delivery might be. They talk about how gangs, drug/alcohol addiction, violence, and ignorance should be viewed in the same light as the other nefarious forces that exist in this society. Jim Crowism no longer "keeps us down". Now it's B.E.T. The Klan no longer terrorizes our neighborhood (at least not to the same extent as it once did). Now it's young black teenagers who are committing the assaults. It's no longer the George Wallaces of the world who work assiduously to keep blacks out of college. We're the ones voluntarily dropping out of high school. Simply put, in many cases, we're the ones self-imposing things that threaten our advancement and indeed our very survival.

Rather than painting black folks as sad and pathetic victims of circumstance, people like Cosby and Poussaint seek to empower us to control our own lives. They challenge parents to play a more active role in determining what images their children are exposed to; particularly when that imagery is the product of what we throw out there ourselves. True, most of the enterprise out there has a great deal of corporate sponsorship/ownership; but we are the ones being portrayed. Cosby and Poussaint are trying to urge us to be more actively engaged in promoting education in the community. They are calling for us to manage our households. They are calling for us to be more fiscally responsible. Frankly, there is nothing classist about that. They're using their "bully pulpit" in a responsible and necessary manner.

Again, I don't deny that there are major social obstacles in place that can hinder progress. But now is the time for the black community to have a renewed mind when facing those challenges. Let's take Oprah for example. Sure, she can be pretty shallow; especially with some of her ridiculous talk-show and magazine coverage and how she flaunts her money. Sure, she panders to middle-aged white woman far more than a person ever should (interestingly, the same thing can be said of most rappers; who largest consumer markets are white teenagers). But she is also a black woman who, by her success, wealth accumulation, and philanthropy; is living the life. This coming about in spite of racism. Though she is a rare case of insane success, the possibility of emerging from dysfunctional and oppressive environments is not at all inconceivable. True, not everybody can earn the status as an uber-billionaire in the same fashion that Oprah did. Only so many black people can cater to the interests of White America before the novelty wears off (are you listening Wayne Brady?). Nevertheless, the possibilities for other forms of success are as attainable now as they have ever been. That being the case, I see nothing wrong with one of us who "made it" occasionally lighting a fire under everybody else's ass.

What's often deplorable is that any time a Black person makes even a slightly critical assessment of other blacks, they are labeled as an Uncle Tom, classists, or as being apologetic for/dismissive toward racism. But if you believe that, you must also believe that their attempts to improve the conditions of Black America are somehow wrong as well. That, to me, is a ridiculous claim. This country is full of great people who have emerged despite the mounting structural disorders they faced. So rather than solely channeling out frustrations at Cosby, why not use our resources to confront both the systemic problems AND the ones that we create?

Holla at me!


14 "Insiders" spoke their mind. Join in...:

Cynthia said...

One of the major problems is that Cosby and Poussaint are spreading their message to the wrong people. Instead of speaking at colleges, churches, and other places where people are sure to listen to them, they need to go to the jails, housing projects, and poor schools.

Cynthia said...

Oh, and welcome back. :)

KC said...

It's funny. I typically enjoy MED's commentary on most issues. But with this one, he's just plain wrong. He spends too much of his time lifting up commercial hip hoppers; putting them on the same platform as renowned intellectuals. In so doing, I think he's in a bizarre circle, where he seems to defend a subculture in Black America and NOT necessarily the Black underclass as he so claims. I'm sorry, but mothers and fathers working 50-60 hours a week to take care of their families is INFINITELY different than a bunch of dumb a** negros on B.E.T. swiping credit cards through girls butts. Bill Cosby understands the difference between those groups. Why can't an 'intellectual' like MED see that as well?

GA girl said...

Being a huge lover of Bill Cosby's work, I've been following this story as well. What annoys me most about Dr. Dyson's criticism is that he took Cosby's words seriously out of context. TIme after time, Dr. Cosby indicated that his assault wasn't directed at the working poor. Andre, you also made mention of that in your criticism which bothered me. But at least your assessment was a little more balanced.

If people listened to what he said instead of being quick to judge, they'd see where they missed the argument.

KC said...

Call me crazy, but I think MED is so interested in securing his status as the self-proclaimed "hip hop intellectual" that he'd rather pick a fight with Bill Cosby for speaking the truth than to call out most of these idiot rappers today for the nonsense they put out. That bothers me.

The H.C. said...

Hey Dre,
As a white dude, I found your dialog on this subject to be absolutely riveting. Unfortunately, as a white dude, I don't feel it's my place to interject my opinion on this one. But, I will say this. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It takes two wheels to move anyone forward, society's and the group's. The responsiblity can't fall only on either one. Those that think that Government alone can save them are sadly mistaken as are those that think it's only personal responsibility that's to blame. This is true of all groups, not just black people. Great Post Andre, I'm glad your back.

ajbendaña said...

this make me think of a song by Bob Dylan: Only a pawn in their game.

Whats up Andre, see you in orlando for the Capital One Bowl.

The H.C. said...

Hey Ajbendaña,
That is one of my all time favorite Dylan songs. In the Dylan video, "Don't Look Back" there's a great segment where Bob's singing that song to black sharecroppers in the south. The look on most of their faces is one of, "Who the hell is this white boy and what the F**k is he trying to say." I really believe that the powers-that-be fear having poor whites and blacks realizing the simularity of their situation. Great reference Ajbendaña!

Andre said...

@ Cyn: "...Cosby and Poussaint are spreading their message to the wrong people."

Good point. That's actually been my only REAL beef with their commentary. It looks as if they're essentially "preaching to the choir" while the "sinners" aren't been spoken to at all.

@ KC: I think that MED is concerned about losing his street cred and/or abandoning his association with hip hop. So he has to come to bat for them. I mean, who would you rather piss off: a cranky old man (as many people see Bill Cosby) or some platinum recording "artist" who could diss you in a record? For MED, it's the former.

@ Ga Girl: "TIme after time, Dr. Cosby indicated that his assault wasn't directed at the working poor."

I get your point. But as far as I can tell, he never excluded working poor blacks from his tirade. Unless he comes out and says "Look. I'm NOT talking about you.", most people will assume that if you're attacking one aspect of black culture, you're attacking them all. On top of that, Cosby DID insult some of the things that blacks in general do (giving kids 'strange' names, buying expensive clothes/shoes, etc.). Those are things that happen irrespective of social status. I don't like Kanye West, but in one of his songs he's talking about a "single black female, addicted to retail". Some of Cosby's comments cut across social lines.

@ KC: My point exactly. Well, I guess it would be YOUR point since you came up with it first.

@ HC: Ludwig Wittgenstein said "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." But I never said that. Feel free to join the dialogue even if you think your status as a white male somehow excludes you from the convo.

@ Aldo: I never really listened to Bob Dylan. Care to elaborate? But I guess I can take a listen to that song some time to see how it relates.

Off topic, I just got tix to the Capitol One Bowl. I hate to admit it, but I think Florida's gonna cream Michigan. Still, I'm going just for the experience. This is the first bowl game I've ever been to.

Are you going? Maybe we can hook up.

ajbendaña said...

Dude, I would love to go but I am going on a new years cruise that leaves on the 31st. Even if you loose your gonna have a good time. Those bowl games are always awesome. I have been fortunate to have been to a few.

As far as Bob Dylan is concerned, the man rocks, his style is odd at first but just listen to his messages. The way he delivers his lines and just the different thoughts that flow as you listen to his songs.

ajbendaña said...

thanks HC, I got to check that Dylan video out. Sounds like a good view.

HeiressChild said...

hi andre, very good post & good points. sometimes it's the messenger that people have a problem with, & sometimes it's the delivery of the message. as long as someone isn't turning their nose up at me to make me feel like i'm being put down, i can hear & listen to what's being said. that's part of the problem here to some people.

the only issue i have with cosby (and it's a small one) is that he didn't step up (or at least i wasn't aware of it) about a lot of this until after his son was murdered, which always made me feel that it was being done more out of anger over his son's death than really caring & being concerned. i also know tragedies change people's directions & perspectives on issues.

i think in order to alleviate some of the problems that we've all (govt, individuals) created thru negligence, ignorance, or whatever, we're all going to have to stop being so offensive and defensive, not take everything so personal, stop playing the blame-game, & do our individual parts. i guess that's what cosby and poussaint are saying anyway, and i do think a lot of what they say is valid, but if people have issues with them, they're not going to hear, which puts up back at square one.

and what's wrong with wayne brady?

Andre said...

@ Aldo: Goin' on a cruise?! Dag. Must be nice...

Have fun, dawg.

@ Heiress: You know Sylv, I'm not sure if Dr. Cosby's message is as much a product of his son's death (which happened over a decade ago and wasn't even committed by a black person. The killer was Ukranian) as it was for his mounting frustation with some folks in the black community. I mean, it's no secret that he's devoted millions of dollars in support of community development and dedicated countless hours (through his television career) in trying to portray a more positive view of African-Americans. I think that one day he just snapped.

"i think in order to alleviate some of the problems that we've all (govt, individuals) created thru negligence, ignorance, or whatever, we're all going to have to stop being so offensive and defensive, not take everything so personal, stop playing the blame-game, & do our individual parts."

Great point. I don't deny the existence of racism and classism. But that kind of stuff is not making 15 and 16 year olds go out and get pregnant. Somewhere down the road, personal responsibility HAS to play a role; even in the face of social barriers.

There's nothing wrong with Wayne Brady. I personally like him; most likely because we share a lot of the same chessiness. I was only pointing out (jokingly for the most part) that black folks being successful by catering to middle-aged white women can only go on so long before it gets old. :)

HeiressChild said...

i knew what you meant about wayne brady. i was just messin' with 'ya!