Essayist Max S. Gordon shares his thoughts on America's obsessive ties to patriarchy and white culture as seen through the lens of presidential politics and pop culture.
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“You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.” -- Nina Simone
“I, too, sing America.” -- Langston Hughes
It is befitting that a conversation about racism and the Oscars occurred so close to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as it is impossible to talk about Hollywood or America without deconstructing whiteness. If you haven’t noticed, whiteness is currently under attack, is deeply threatened, and may be, when all is said and done, eradicated completely. (When whiteness crumbles, patriarchal dominance will be right behind it.) When I speak of whiteness, I am not talking necessarily about individual white people, but the construct of whiteness, the cult of whiteness, while particularly onerous to people of color everywhere, on some level oppresses us all.
For many of us, a discussion about the Oscars may seem petty and insignificant given what is currently going on in this country. America, at this moment, is a country in flames. We have a city tricked by an indifferent governor and his administration into drinking poisoned water, which, regardless of his original intentions, may have had homicidal results; teachers in the same state walking out of their classrooms because the ceiling was literally falling down on them; and a mayor in another Midwestern city allegedly covering up police brutality and civilian murders in order to protect his career. And yet, as I write this, these men are still in office, still governing.
We trip through life, unable to digest the grief and rage over one violent incident before having to face another. Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin. Americans all, deserving of our protection and justice, but disregarded once out of the headlines or courtroom – like so much garbage. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. The gross negligence and injustice of it all could send you half out your mind, but even insanity is a luxury now, as we still have to feed our kids, we have to go work. Everything is backwards – instead of sleeping through our bad dreams, we awake each morning to fresh nightmares.
Homeless men and women and the mentally ill roam the streets sick, desperately in need, and it is estimated that close to sixteen million children live below the poverty level. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, as the prison industry continues to turn a profit. For many of us, feeling safe and protected is part of a nostalgic past. We dread the terrorist who may be lurking on the subway car or train, or who may blow us sky-high while we’re standing by the coffee-machine at work. We scan the faces as we board the plane, wondering if the person sitting across the aisle is the enemy and this flight will be our last. Or perhaps it will be the high school student during second period who takes us out, and if not him, then the maniac with the assault rifle who finishes us off in a movie theater while we watch Star Wars with our kids. And now, after Charleston, there’s blood on the collection plate too, as even the church pew is marked as a potential crime scene.
In light of this gruesome reality, who the hell cares about a bullshit self-indulgent contest that is always an hour too long, hosted by someone who too often disappoints the viewing audience and critics, then followed by media coverage of the millions of dollars in loaned diamonds and a debate over which color gown dominated the red carpet. Given what we face as a nation at the moment, a dinner-table conversation that shifts from social welfare and justice to whether Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win a best actor Oscar this year may seem almost blasphemous.
But because our need for escape has never been greater, we may crave movies more than ever. The Oscars matter because in American culture and all over the world, movies matter. And in a country where an actor can leave Hollywood, become governor of a state, and then become president of the United States, movies matter because stars matter. We are a society decidedly built on a system that refused to have a king and queen, yet superstars are the closest thing we have to royalty. And if anyone doubts a star’s power, consider how stars have been used in modern history, to sell clothing, to sell cosmetics, to sell religions, to sell politics, to sell wars. Rock stars, sports stars, political stars, TV stars. The right star might influence you to go to AA for recovery, to leave a bad marriage, to try a new diet or health regimen, to even join a cult. And, one may argue, nothing fascinates us more or wields more power in the American consciousness than the movie star.
“Winning!” - Charlie Sheen
“Can I speak to you before you go to Hollywood?” – Labelle
In 2004, I ended a piece entitled “Bringing Down the Hope: Condoleezza Rice, Black Capitalism, and War” with the line, “In the end, despite her many achievements, I can't claim Dr. Rice. If she is the realization of Dr. King's dream, he should have been more specific.”
Deliver us from the writer who quotes him or herself, but I include it here because what motivated that piece more than a decade ago is the same question that inspired this one: for people of African descent, a people who are themselves the descendants of slaves, what is our relationship to American capitalism and patriarchy and should it be any different because of our horrific past? What does it mean for us as black Americans in this society to “win”?
Is it “winning”, for example, when a black star makes millions from his or her latest clothing line or sneaker, and endorses a company which uses the equivalent of slave or child labor in a developing nation? Shouldn’t we, who know what it means to be on the wrong side of capitalism, know better? For the shining black capitalist in 2016, out to pillage and get rich or die tryin’, is there any less blood on the money because it goes into in a black hand instead of a white one? What is the black fulfillment of the American dream?
And what does black success really look like in Hollywood? Hollywood - which so often has an aggressive disregard for the black actor and has been more devoted to its stereotypes and romance about black life than to the truth. When Hollywood is negligent, what is the black actor’s responsibility to honor “the blues song” and the black American experience? Should we praise the black actor any time he appears, even if the vehicle encourages the kind of contempt that affirms, most decidedly, that black lives don’t matter?
We may root for Kerry Washington, exhilarated that a black woman is the lead on one of the most popular shows on television, and that Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, writer and producer, has been credited with single-handedly saving a major network. And yet, as I’ve also written before, there are aspects of their show Scandal, including its depiction of torture, that I find deeply problematic. But, business is business.
Angela Bassett is a gifted performer and I’m always glad to see Gabourey Sidibe in anything. My goodwill towards them and my curiosity about the casting of Patti Labelle (underused as a non-singing black maid!) kept me watching American Horror Story (AHS). What I didn’t anticipate was its truly perverse depiction of slaves being tortured, which I still regret seeing to this day. (The real horror is the thought of children being exposed to the show.) AHS has a certain creative extravagance and one is titillated by the knowledge that because it has no boundaries, anything can, and will, go down. Some people call this “brave”. (You watch parts through your fingers, like young children watching scary movies, not sure if you can handle what comes next. And often you can’t.) The premise of AHS is full of potential too often is unrealized, particularly when it applies to examinations of racial terror: weaving together history and fiction while revealing what lurks in our subconscious, the history we refuse to integrate. James Baldwin wrote about The Exorcist in his book on Hollywood, The Devil Finds Work (1976):
For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror….The devil has no need of any dogma—though he can use them all—nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do. The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film…Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.
With the exception of one rare, beautiful episode of AHS that featured an extraordinary performance by actress Naomi Grossman, cruelty is woven into the show’s fabric and its lack of empathy for its victims. Perhaps the show’s sociopathic tone is its biggest indictment of American life. I finally gave up last year after the extended, brutal rape of a gay man in the season’s opening while another character looked on; mesmerized, amused. Whatever one thinks of the show, however, I've taken time to examine it here because it’s money-making Hollywood at its best, it has millions of viewers, and it definitely hires black actors. I’ve watched American Horror Story with ambivalence, often glad a black person has a job, then remembering that the person who flips the switch on the electric chair has a job.
We need to be able to say no, an example led by several black actors, particularly black female actors like Esther Rolle, Cicely Tyson, Beah Richards, and Alfre Woodard. Robert Townsend reminded us in 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle” that black actors don’t have to debase themselves in Hollywood to “win”; there is always work at the post office. But then this: Hattie McDaniel, Oscar’s first black winner is often quoted as saying, when criticized for her role in the film Gone With the Wind: “Hell, I can make a lot more money playing a maid than being one!”
“The new racism: Racism without ‘racists.’ Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will. It’s common to have racism without racists.” -- Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
If you’ve followed the #OscarSoWhite controversy, then you know that for a second year in a row an exclusive roster of white actors, directors and writers were nominated, with what seems with one exception like the deliberate exclusion of any artists of color. Lawyer April Reign created OscarsSoWhite as a hashtag in response to the Oscar race of 2015. Reign told Forbes magazine last year, “There were many performances both in front of and behind the camera by people from marginalized communities that I believe should have been recognized.”
Jada Pinkett Smith, after the 2016 nominations were announced and history seemed to have repeated itself, recorded a video on Martin Luther King day about the Oscar race. She instructed black Americans: “Begging for acknowledgement or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people and we are powerful, and let’s not forget it.”
Whether she was motivated by an activist’s fervor or sour grapes because her husband, Will Smith, wasn’t nominated for his performance this year in the film Concussion, Jada looked beautiful, noble even, and her words resonated with those who preach self-determination. While she never mentions the word boycott, she made it clear that not only will she not be attending the Oscars, she won’t even be watching. Spike Lee came forward in his inimitable way, joined her, and asked, “How is it possible for the second consecutive year that all the nominees under the actor category are white?”
The arguments and rebuttals follow on social media, including a mesmerizing response (or meltdown, depending on whom you ask) by Janet Hubert (“Aunt Viv”), Will Smith’s ex-colleague from his The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television days. Hubert’s critique, perhaps motivated in part by a career débâcle involving Smith, is the YouTube equivalent of the poison pen. However savage her approach, her points can’t be dismissed: she calls the Smiths out on their entitlement and timing, suggesting they may be motivated more by self-interest than black pride.
Others weigh in: Charlotte Rampling channels unfiltered white indignation and, in a moment of rare honesty for an actor speaking to the press, claims, “(#OscarsSoWhite) is racist to whites. One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list.” Piers Morgan tweets soon after in response: “MISSING: a set of marbles. If found, please return to Charlotte Rampling.” George Clooney acknowledges that we are “moving in the wrong direction”, Danny Devito admits that “the entire country is a racist country”, and Whoopi Goldberg reasons on The View: “Oscar can’t be that racist, I won one!”
Will Smith informs us that in his experience “prejudice is everywhere, but racism in America is rare.” I am irritated at Smith, because what he ends up describing in his critique are racial preferences, with the usual, “we’re all prejudiced” line that too often lets real racism off the hook. Smith has no analysis of institutional racism, which is required in this particular conversation, as Oscar and Hollywood are American institutions. And an analysis of institutional racism may help us understand how we can have generation after generation of new people in new positions, how everyone can be well-intentioned and talk enthusiastically of making progress, and yet year after year the only black faces we see on the executive floors of Hollywood studios are operating the elevator or pushing a food cart.
Whoopi is another performer who uses her platform to talk about individually prejudiced people, whom she colloquially refers to as “boneheads”. She refuses, however, to discuss the power of institutional racism and sexism, how insidious it is, and how it is perpetuated throughout our society in our universities, corporations and law-enforcement. Whoopi has replaced Truman Capote as this generation’s talk-show bullfrog. Truman, whose work I adore, did his star turns on The Tonight Show with slithery insinuations and gossip, while Whoopi nastily shouts down anyone who attempts to disagree with her politics on The View. She openly tells the audience, Don’t bother writing me because I don’t care if you disagree. Her opinions on race lack depth, and I believe she’s dangerous. We’re invited to think that because she dresses in schleppy clothes and occasionally faux-farts on the air, that she’s “everywoman”, “just like us”, and not a millionaire Hollywood insider.
Certain black actors love to keep discussions of race on the level of personal experience, knowing that it won’t implicate or insult the white members of the audience who may watch their movies and pay their salary. They are allowed to remain the favored black performer, the audience leaves their racism unexplored, and everyone stays happy and pats themselves on the back for having had an honest conversation about race – racism in America is treated as just another “hot topic.” Conversations about institutional racism, sexism and homophobia are always more threatening than mere talk of “prejudice”, because they extend us past the whims of personal bias and force us to examine what is endemic in the belief systems of our culture; what keeps injustice alive, regardless of who the individual players are.
In the end, I am more annoyed at myself for expecting anything different from Smith. He is the black Tom Cruise (or maybe the only Tom Cruise, as Cruise isn’t quite Cruise anymore), and for Will to talk about racism, and the frustrations of black life, goes against his brand as an actor. He’s our golden boy, winning, and always full of sunshine. (He’ll win his Oscar playing Obama one day.)
“I love being famous. It's almost like being white.” – Chris Rock
For the mere mortals of social media, Jada’s video inspires discussion and debate. Some claim we need our own movies, our own awards shows, and, most importantly, we need to stop looking to Hollywood and white people for help or validation. This argument asks: How many times do we as black Americans need to be abused and rejected by Hollywood before we get it? Certain white people and institutions simply refuse to acknowledge us, and always will. It’s time we empowered ourselves.
Others contend that as black Americans we should be able to participate within the system anywhere and in any way that we choose. And that no matter how much one may appreciate the BET (Black Entertainment Television) or NAACP awards, they will never wield the same economic power or command the same media attention as the Oscars in Hollywood. We have a right to demand equality within organizations, aware that completely divesting from and abandoning America’s institutions is a romantic fantasy. (Along with the suspicion that the true white segregationist may be so delighted to see us leave he’ll not only buy our plane ticket but help us pack.)
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. As black Americans, it has been reported that we are responsible for approximately 46% of movie ticket sales. Which means if we stop going to movies, we could shut the industry down overnight. Jada is right; we have to know our power. And we need our own projects, we need our own film companies, and we need our people to support them. We need to know that our projects are worthy and invest in them, whether they are recognized by “mainstream” institutions or not.
But the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a mass exodus from the South in which activists said, “If you’re not going to serve us, fine. We’ll get our own lunch counters, department stores, hotels, and restaurants.” In other words, demanding equality in America and insisting on full participation isn’t the same as asking for white validation and approval.
We desegregated buses, schools, hotels and major league sports because we are Americans, and this is our country too. And not because we landed here by accident on a cruise ship, or as my high school teacher seemed to suggest, because slavery was a shrewd career move orchestrated by bored Africans. We built this country with our bare hands, from Florida to New York to California – sometimes paid for our work, but too often kidnapped and exploited, or incarcerated and exploited for it. Black men and women, including my own grandfather, have fought in our wars. One thing you’ll never see in this country is #IraqWarSoWhite.
We are entitled to enjoy every last square inch of this land, and Jackie Robinson and Aretha Franklin are just as American as John D. Rockefeller and Betsy Ross. Walter Lee Younger tells the character Linder who wants to pay to keep his black family out of a white neighborhood in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun: “we have decided to move into our house because my father….earned it for us brick by brick.”
We know the experiences of black performers in the United States from Vegas to Mississippi, who were told to stay in trailers behind the hotels where they were headlining, asked never to use the pool, and to come and go through the kitchen. Ella Fitzgerald, like many jazz greats, had to have a white person buy her food in towns where it was potentially life-threatening for a black person even to enter a white restaurant. These stories are part of our collective history.
Which is why #OscarsSoWhite isn’t just a “black cause”, and why some have suggested that white actors should be the ones to boycott the Oscars, not blacks. We may not need white validation, but in the battle against racism, we can use all the help we can get. It mattered, for example, when Walter Yetnikoff, President of CBS records, threatened to pull his other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, from MTV in the Eighties when they refused to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Or when David Bowie confronted MTV’s Mark Goodman on the channel’s system of musical apartheid and why black musicians weren’t being played. The truly secure white artist doesn’t want an #OscarsSoWhite or anything else “so white”. He or she wants to compete with and learn from black artists, knowing that the victory of winning any award is sweeter when the playing field is equitable. She understands that she needs both Mozart and Sly Stone, Bessie Smith and Joni Mitchell. And she will acknowledge her appreciation and creative debt to the black American artist, as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones both shared and acknowledged a love for black American blues.
It would be disingenuous not to admit that there have been times in Oscar’s history when a beautiful black performance has been recognized by either a nomination or award: Diahann Carroll as Claudine, Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues, Denzel Washington for Training Day, Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field, Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones, Don Cheadle for Hotel Rwanda, Forrest Whittaker for The Last King of Scotland. There was even a time that a black actor was awarded for stamina: Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. Berry’s Oscar, the only Oscar awarded to a black female in the Best Actress category, furthered the suspicion that blacks can only win when the roles they play indulge in black pathology, or when we are the victims of white pathology: Lupita N’Longo is whipped within an inch of her life because she hides a bar of soap from her master in Twelve Years a Slave, and Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe were both nominated for Precious, a film about a young black woman who can’t read, who is incested by her mother, raped by her father, steals food because she’s hungry, gives birth to a child with Down syndrome and finds out she is HIV positive. (Precious can’t catch a break.)
Whoopi Goldberg as a performer of her own material used to have a genius, but Ghost wasn’t a great movie, and, in my opinion, the Oscar for that film had Eighties corporate cynicism written all over it. The role of Oda Mae Brown (the name says pretty much all you need to know about the character) was full of black schtick, was crudely conceived, and required broad characterization much like Whoopi’s Sister Act films. Ghost, billed as an eternal love story, was really about white innocence and its ability to transcend everything, even Latino criminals, who are eventually dragged down to hell for their real crime: messin’ with pretty white folks. By the end, Patrick Swayze’s Sam, having protected Demi Moore’s Molly, and white womanhood everywhere, ascends to heaven. The movie uplifts as it fear-mongers. Ghost was a crowd-pleaser, and Whoopi’s “mammy as medium” was the best thing in it. She won the award, fair and square, on Oscar’s terms, even if the role was a stereotype and a downer for those of us who saw Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway and knew the greatest of her artistry. Oscar’s most cynical critics would maintain that for the black actor, receiving the award not only applauds one’s talent but also the kind of images our society wants to empower.
The problem with #OscarsSoWhite, and with America in general, is that too often blacks have to be exceptional to be even be considered at all, when in the cult of whiteness, white mediocrity is too often rewarded. White people never have to “transcend race”. In some cases, they just have to be good, and sometimes they don’t even have to be good. (Mediocre white kids will eventually find their way into college somehow, especially if they have money; mediocre black kids, especially when they are poor, get taught a trade.)
I met a lot of this year’s nominees with a shrug of the shoulders, longing for a time when the Oscar contest seemed to matter and when there truly were no “losers” in the bunch. (Best Actress nominees of 1981: Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter, Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection, Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin, Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People, Gena Rowlands, Gloria. Spacek won.) And the idea is not just to have any black actor nominated for anything; that is condescending, and an insult to the industry and to art. (In response to the racial bias of the Oscars, other awards shows may try and compensate by handing out trophies to blacks like candy at Halloween, or, during a singularly white Oscar year, give a black performer the always dubious “Lifetime Achievement Award” – particularly suspect when the recipient’s “lifetime” is still under 60.)
What we demand, in the end, is fairness. Spike Lee and other critics are right - it has to begin with the studios; you can’t nominate performances that aren’t there. But Idris Elba’s performance in Beasts of No Nation was there, and was disregarded by Oscar, to the surprise of many movie-goers, black and white. In a generous year in which a best actor nomination went to Matt Damon in The Martian, this just doesn’t make sense.
“When you come out of Desperately Seeking Susan, you don’t want to know who the director is – you want to know who the perpetrator is.” –Pauline Kael, State of the Art
It has been said that movies are our collective dreams, the stories that we all share, which is why they are so powerful. It may be for this reason that we are loyal to the film industry, even when it continues to disappoint us, year after year. Conventional movies and movie theaters should be in danger of going extinct. Hollywood, it would seem, is stale, out of touch, and the Oscars and studios being this white in 2016 is like walking through the offices of Google and Facebook and finding someone sitting behind a Selectric Typewriter or rushing past waving a telegram.
I was in a movie theater only a handful of times last year, which is rare, because I love to go to the movies. A movie in New York City costs fourteen dollars and that is before you pay another fifteen for popcorn and drinks, and, for some of us, more money on childcare and parking. A cheap theater ticket in New York can almost be as much as a night at the movies. You sit down and see characters that aren’t particularly nuanced in a movie that isn’t beautifully filmed and that will be available on DVD in a couple of months. Many of us leave the theater feeling ripped off, imagining what it was like when the lights went down on movie classics like “The Godfather”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Taxi Driver”, “Singing in the Rain”, “All About Eve”, “Do The Right Thing”, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Wizard of Oz.” This list doesn’t include all my personal favorites, but what I am referring to here is the richness of the movie-going experience for generations of mainstream viewers - when one leaves the theater having seen a movie with a director’s vision, and not a big-budgeted television show on a widescreen.
The industry seems deeply confused – who are they even making movies for these days? While movies have been lacking, television, has - ironically - been enjoying a renaissance for many years now and doesn’t carry the stigma it did for movie stars in the Seventies and Eighties. We are seeing many of our favorite actors, and particularly actresses, stranded by conventional Hollywood because they are considered too old, too black, too fat, or whatever, now finding acclaim and amazing roles on cable, Netflix and Amazon. Reviewer Pauline Kael wrote in the 1970s about her frustration at having to go to a movie on the same evening that the second part of Sybil aired on TV, knowing that whatever she would see that evening probably wouldn’t match Sally Field’s extraordinary performance. She suggested in another review that if television kept making mini-series like Roots, which she also praised, it might finish movies off altogether. That was forty years ago, but she could have been writing about Hollywood now. Movies are in big trouble when the latest clichéd Hollywood thriller has to compete with shows like The Wire, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Breaking Bad.
There was a time when I naïvely believed that the Academy Awards were simply a talent contest for actors. I eventually realized that while the competition keeps us watching, the Oscars are really one long commercial for the movie industry. We watch the nominated movies so that we won’t be left out on Oscar night, and we watch the winning movies to find out what we’ve missed. I have been tricked too many times to count into seeing the latest “must-see” movie, only to find out that not only wasn’t it Oscar-worthy, it wasn’t even worth seeing, while the studios, the reviewers and the advertisers all seemed to collude in creating the big lie. And it is so easy to be ripped off by movies; how do you ask for your money back from a movie you’ve just seen? Unlike choosing to avoid a restaurant after a bad meal, movies change every week, allowing us to be tricked by Hollywood advertising and Oscar “buzz” over and over again.
I was told to run, not walk, to Silver Linings Playbook years ago. A story about mental illness, family and forgiveness which featured a brave, startling performance by Jennifer Lawrence turned into a feel-good movie (in cinematic terms “feel-good” is often code for “white”) about a dance contest. I left the movie furious that the father’s own compulsion and the torment it caused his family hadn’t been explored at all; everyone got their sham happy ending. Hollywood has always reinforced “whiteness” on some level, but it seems, at this particular point in Hollywood history, to wallow in it. At a time when there is such a need for truth and acknowledgement of authentic pain, the temptation by movie-makers to lie to us about ourselves seems irresistible.
I like Amy Schumer, and find her sexually subversive humor inspiring, but I stopped watching her halfway through the recent Trainwreck. The movie demanded that her wild-woman character, whom I was thoroughly enjoying, become girly and white, as the movie took the usual conventional, heterosexist turns and suddenly became a Julia Roberts movie. Perhaps I missed something by walking out, but I just couldn’t bear watching her “sexually promiscuous” character humiliated and, finally, domesticated as she “got the guy”.
Great art enlivens, some art just leaves you cold, and then there is another kind of “art” that drains; it takes more from an audience than it gives, and leaves our entire culture bereft. Robert DeNiro’s “Bad Grandpa” seems the latest installment of movies intended, I suppose, for adolescent white boys. The assumption is that they only enjoy racist, sexist and homophobic jokes. Young white men should feel insulted. Blacks and women, meanwhile, pay the industry handsomely in ticket sales for the opportunity to be degraded.
Movies influence us greatly, and we watch them from an early age, sometimes before we have a filter even to know what we are seeing. And it is an age-old discussion that I won’t belabor here whether the industry bears any responsibility towards the consumer other than to entertain. Hollywood would argue that it makes the movies people want to see. But things have become so cynical, and there is such a lust for profit, that we are creatively bankrupt, affirming the prejudices, sexual stereotypes and racial jokes that reflect the worst in the culture. We are taught through movies which lives have value, which stories are worth being told. And the absence of a story told can be just as powerfully felt as the rendering of one.
I am tired of being offended at the movies because of sexual orientation, violence towards women, or race: the disproportionate number of men of color killed by the Joker in The Dark Knight, including one black man whose head is brutally jammed down the length of a pencil. The young boy behind me who was audibly wincing throughout the movie was finally lead out of the theater during this scene by his father. Or maybe it is Tarantino’s “Dead Nigger Storage” in Pulp Fiction which I’ve never gotten over, despite a great performance in that film by Sam Jackson. A friend of mine on Facebook was watching television when the trailer for the recent Hollywood film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi came on. A government official herself, she wrote that she was so shocked and horrified by the exploitative tone of the film that when the trailer ended, she burst into tears.
I want to be careful here; I’m not arguing that Hollywood should be free of violence or that we can’t show racism or violence against people of color or women; but what does it mean when Hollywood continues to create and promote films that don’t have any emotional or dramatic consequences for the brutality or cruelty we are watching, films that seem to put us on the side of the violator and encourage a contempt for any kind of “difference”? What are the implications for the woman walking home alone at night, for the transgender man waiting outside the bar, or for the voter standing at the booth and choosing a presidential candidate?
Chris Rock is hosting the Oscars this year. Rock, a black comedian known for his subversive racial humor, has decided not to pull out of the show, and asks people not to boycott but to tune in and support him. Rock appears on the promotional material and his wry, devilish smile suggests he may have something up his sleeve. But I can’t help feeling that I fall into Oscar’s trap if I watch to see what he will do on that night, thus sabotaging the boycott.
Oscar’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, also black, issued a statement on behalf of the Academy when #OscarSoWhite reached a crisis point and threatened seriously to damage the show’s ratings. “I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.” Isaacs promises systemic changes, and the tone of her announcement sounds as if she picked the nominees herself, and the weight of change is on her shoulders. I have nothing personal against Isaacs, but I am cynical about her position as Oscar “president”. As usual, a black face answers the Big House door, telling the angry mob the master’s not at home.
I personally hope that Chris Rock does the entire Oscar broadcast in “whiteface.” (Isaacs may join him.) Blonde hair, blue eyes. No joke he tells could be more powerful than the visual of a black man who transforms himself into a white one in order to be recognized as worthy, no statement could as deeply invoke what it means to be black in corporate America, the monsters we must sometimes become in order to thrive in the business world, and what we end up annihilating in ourselves to "win".
#OscarsSoWhite matters because the conversation it inspires isn’t just about blacks in movies, or our creative contributions to acting and film; it’s about racial greed, artistic homogenization. This is particularly appalling in America because there is so much cultural richness to mine, so many fascinating stories to tell. It might make sense if Hollywood were in Montana or Vermont, but you have to work pretty damn hard in New York and California to be this white. (Woody Allen has been a pioneer filmmaker in the promotion of cultural whiteness on the two coasts.) Michael Caine tells black actors to be patient, change will come; but it has been this way for quite some time. We tell the “deeply committed to diversity and change” lie to soothe ourselves, it is the national bedtime story that keeps us from facing the underlying, ugly truth: racism is a societal addiction, and most of us are addicts who are simply too greedy to share.
And finally, a classic example of recent “Hollywood”: It has been reported that the actor Joseph Fiennes has agreed to play the role of Michael Jackson in a British television movie. The film is about an alleged road trip taken by Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando as they attempted to flee New York after 9/11. The announcement of Fiennes as Jackson was met with outrage, because Fiennes is English and white, and Michael Jackson was black and American. Fiennes’ response in the press was unapologetic, sassy. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color,” he said.
The final film may be little more than a trifle, about an event that may or may not have taken place – but that’s not the point. The point is that it is 2016, Joseph Fiennes belongs to a generation of white people who should know better, and, while the stakes may seem considerably lower, he exudes the same cultural smugness and entitlement that must have motivated the early traffickers of African flesh – as he tours the black cultural marketplace, fingering this bauble and that, with the ennui of a man who knows that he can buy whatever he likes, and whatever he can’t buy, he’ll just take. It’s only a TV movie and yet Fiennes’ attitude (and the Fienneses of the world are legion), his arrogance at this stage of the game and the arrogance of others like him, have the power to finish us all.
And whether you believe that Michael Jackson actually had a disease called vitiligo that caused some of his skin to turn white, or whether he bleached his skin as a result of a pathological need to appear white, Michael Jackson was black. (When asked to clarify the rumor that he wanted a white child to play him in a Pepsi commercial, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey: “I am proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race.”) Michael Jackson grew up on the “wrong” side of Gary, Indiana, if there was a right side in the Sixties – and I say this respectfully because if one is looking for a perfect example of the American dream, and the poor or middle-class black American dream, the Jackson family is it. And for all that went wrong in that family - and a lot went wrong - they gave us arguably two of the most successful American pop stars that ever lived, and one of the most successful pop groups in history. Michael Jackson’s story is a black story, from Gary, to Detroit, to Motown, to meeting Berry Gordy and emulating James Brown, to Motown 25, “Billie Jean”, Thriller, and the funky, black, Jerri-curl grease that he sweated out every night as he performed his music around the world. I know that grease, and the black Midwest, I know black fathers, and I also know that whatever accusations were leveled against Michael and whatever horrors came later, Michael was a black artist, and, as Dr. Nesha Z. Haniff at the University of Michigan has argued in her African-American studies’ class on the subject – an American genius. But perhaps because of Justin Timberlake’s pioneering efforts in the white-cultural-theft-of-Michael’s-work-disguised-as hommage department, Fiennes feels entitled to his version, regardless of the outcry against him.
Perhaps if there were a fair turn-about, if there hadn’t been such a campaign to discourage Idris Elba, a man who exudes a fabulous masculinity and sexual charm, from playing James Bond, or, as someone pointed out on social media, if Viola Davis were to play Elizabeth Taylor in the same Jackson movie (and given her great talent as an actress, Davis could probably pull it off) then maybe the conversation about Fiennes’ playing Jackson would be different. But in the end, black actors can’t have “white” roles and, it would seem, we can’t even have our own roles.
Fiennes’ entitlement may be the last straw for many of us tired of dealing with white imperialism on a creative level, on any level. It clearly doesn’t matter to him what the impact of his playing Michael will have on the black spirit, or that there is a historical precedent for his cultural appropriation of black creativity and talent. I’m sure that for him, it’s a part, he’s an actor, it was offered to him and he’s going to play it. Blacks sit in front of a screen once again as our cultural contributions are repackaged as whiteness and served back to us for consumption. It has become the plus ça change of Hollywood to cast a “historical” film about Egypt, for example, without a single actor of color. As a black, gay man I was doubly offended by last year’s Stonewall. Under Hollywood, a film about the New York City rebellion in 1969 led by transgender activists of color became instead a movie about a white gay man who, by throwing a brick through the window of a gay bar, singlehandedly begins a revolution.
It’s this “whiteness” that some people around the world want to smash, that endangers us all, because the message that it sends to everyone is that white people, not all, but far too many, in the end have to have everything and refuse to share the world’s wealth, refuse to share education, top positions in business and academia, creative opportunities, healthy food, and, finally, in Flint, Michigan, even water. Water. And I know there are white people who read these words who are just as angry about the circumstances we have created as I am, but their goodwill and mine hasn’t seemed to stop producing men and women like Governor Rick Snyder, who still appears dissociated from the full barbarity of what he has perpetrated on Flint. It is hard to tell if the constantly bewildered look on his face is the dismay of someone who is shocked by his own negligence, or by the fact that the world finally gave a shit about poor, black lives and that he got caught.
Governor Rick Snyder and Joseph Fiennes come from a paradigm that just can’t exist if we are to move forward, if we are going to thrive in a global community, and heal as a country. This level of greed and corruption can’t be supported anymore. And there are those men and women, to be sure, who are equally outraged at the shift in power that is coming, the changing tide, furious that someone is taking that to which they feel they are entitled, and they are resisting more than ever. Governor Rick Snyder is hopefully finished, but for those who are white and disaffected, they have found their greatest inspiration in a Republican presidential candidate.
A beautiful woman whom I love and respect, white and in her early fifties, is thinking about leaving her husband over Donald Trump. It’s not just that he plans to vote for him (although living in New York, a blue state, it’s unlikely that his vote will be decisive), it’s the man he’s become over the years that could even consider supporting a candidate like Trump.
They had a fight recently when their straight teenage son went to a costume party in drag. The father exploded and claimed my friend was encouraging their son to be gay by lending him a pair of clip-on earrings. There was a time when they might have laughed off this incident, but the humor between them is nearly gone.
At night she lies awake, unable to sleep, uneasy about what’s to come. They watch television together, and she sits beside him, appalled at the spectacle of Trump. Meanwhile, her husband feels vindicated, having a candidate who finally speaks the “truth”, whom he can trust and believe in - a real man. It is deeper than just a political disagreement between them; she feels stifled and suffocated and notices he has become more controlling recently, as if he intuitively senses that his relationship to societal power and power over her may change under a woman president. She wants out; away from him and his friends who are also Trump supporters, as they sit around drinking and discussing Obama and what has happened to “their” America.
My friend and her husband can’t be the only couple experiencing this now; it must be taking place in households all over the country. I’m shocked when she tells me her news over lunch, as I’ve had dinner with her husband, I’ve been to their home, and I like him, although we’ve never talked politics. (When I told her I wanted to include her story in this piece but feared it might upset him if he ever found out, she touched my hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry, he’ll never see it,” she said. “He doesn’t read.”)
I know he’s not one of the scary people on my television screen who comes from some far away town in America, people who show up at Trump rallies and who cheer when he allows a black man to be pummeled by the crowd for speaking out, who swoon when Trump attempts to silence a Latino journalist during a press conference, who praise him for throwing a Muslim woman out as she quietly expresses her dissent. But still he wants to vote for him. Trump is now making sense to people I care about. And if my friend’s husband feels this way, a man whom I’ve known to be a bit macho at times but never considered a fascist freak, then there are others like him, and a Trump presidency becomes even more of a possibility.
“Donald say he wants to run for president and move on into the White House. Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time (he) pushed a black family out of they home.” --Snoop Dogg, The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump
Donald Trump is the perfect presidential candidate for a wounded white male consciousness. He is John Wayne, Rambo, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry asking you through squinty eyes to Go ahead, make my day. He is Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies. He’s white male vigilante justice to be sure, but he’s smarter than earlier incarnations of “numbskull” macho. He’s more vulnerable than they are, which means that his appeal is even greater to some women and men. When he pouts, especially after he’s been put down, or told no, he’s a wounded boy who didn’t get the train set he wanted for Christmas.
Trump has talent, and not just as a businessman. Lots of people in America make money, wage deals, and have charisma, but he’s different, and it is important to acknowledge his gifts if we are to assess what is happening in politics at this time. Trump is a direct communicator, an entertainer who thrills his audiences, and he has gifts as a comedian. His personable style obscures the evil in his message.
Years ago, I was thoroughly disgusted with him, as many were, during his reprehensible birther movement against Obama (which he has refuses to talk about now, of course). And like many of us, I later allowed myself to be amused by him, as he remained a curiosity in the political three-ring circus. I watched as he read everybody in the room like a white male queen in corporate drag. And don’t get it twisted, Lady Miss Donald can read. Arriving at the party in her jewels and tiara, if you offend her, she will set down her drink, lift up her gown, kick off her pumps, and read you for filth in front of the entire crowd. And she will keep reading your ass to the front door, out to your car, and will still be reading you in your rear-view mirror as you drive off. It’s pretty obvious by now that Donald Trump holds grudges and never walks away from an insult, slight or fight.
And granted, Trump can be pretty hilarious, especially when he is letting someone “have it”, someone you yourself can’t stand; Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Fox News. He can also “play the dozens”, another form of “reading” which involves trading insults back and forth (Donald vs. Rosie O’Donnell) in black culture. Perhaps this was one reason, in addition to satisfying their own greed and starfuckery, that a group of black preachers famously sold out their communities in order to meet with him. They claimed not to be endorsing him, but having their picture taken with Trump was endorsement enough. With their black stamp of approval, the birther questions disappear. How can Donald be racist when they agree to meet with him?
Black preachers might give Trump a pass, but Chris Matthews, host of Hardball, doesn’t. The black comedian W. Kamau Bell, creator of the WhitesAgainstTrump hashtag is credited with the phrase, “White people come get your boy (Trump)” or as a friend of mine paraphrases, “White people come get your white people.” Bell's hashtag suggests that as black Americans, racism is not our problem to solve, it’s white people’s. Matthews attempts to dismantle the cult of whiteness when he confronts Trump on the Birther movement, one white man to another: “I do think that’s a blemish,” he says. “I think it’s your original sin, I’m an American and I think our president should be respected. I think there’s a little ethnic aspect to it…He’s African American and we’re saying he’s not a real president, I don’t like that. It’s not a good thing about you.” Trump is obviously embarrassed, awkwardly thanks Matthews for the interview and leaves. Soon after, the jokes from Donald, like the tone of his campaign, get nastier, and suddenly, nothing seems funny anymore.
In Iowa, Donald Trump comes in second place behind Ted Cruz. Whether this is the result of his skipping the final debate before the caucuses, which may have been seen as a sign of disrespect, or Cruz’s nefarious ground campaign, Trump isn’t discouraged. His speech to Cruz and Iowa is generous, as he makes his way to New Hampshire. He knows that whatever happens with the nomination (his most deleterious effect, if he drops out, would be bringing more voters to Cruz), he has electrified the party in a way no candidate has since Reagan. The Ted Cruzes of the world come and go, but Trump, a rock star, has had a tremendous effect on the country and political landscape, an effect that relates specifically to the cult of whiteness.
Donald promises to return a world that used to spin around white men and white privilege, a world that Obama and Hillary Clinton archetypically threaten, back on its proper axis. He has no experience as mayor or governor; we don’t know, in fact, if he was even the leader of a boy-scout troop. But what we do know is that his wealth and success as an entrepreneur make him a winner in America, and for some that is more than enough to make him our next president.
And for those of us who have watched his poll numbers rise, and who keep trying to wake up from this bad dream, perhaps no one is more surprised by what has happened to Donald Trump than Donald Trump himself. The irony is that Trump isn’t really the right leader for the people he’s leading. He’s more progressive than they are, he’s kinkier and shrewder than they are, and has more of a sense of humor (although he can’t laugh at himself, the true sign of a narcissist), but they are willing to worship him regardless. And because Donald Trump above everything else is a megalomaniac, he will compromise his principles to maintain their devotion. Even Sarah Palin has managed to forgive him for being a friend of Hillary’s and for giving the Clintons money in the past. Trump continues to shape-shift, and tea-party himself into the creature we watch on our television screens, promising to build walls to keep foreigners out, to impose bans on Muslims, and to send immigrants back where they came from. Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, recently compared Trump’s rhetoric to Hitler’s. Hitler gets tossed around a lot as a cultural reference, but if there is anyone whom I would trust to know what the new Hitler looks like, it would be Anne Frank’s stepsister.
White supremacist groups endorse Trump, and he denounces them, but without much vigor; he responds defensively as if he doesn’t want to alienate them, but knows he must say something. I have read that he plans to go after gay marriage next. (My own gay marriage is less than two years old.) Frankly, I don’t believe that Donald Trump gives a shit about whether gay people are married or not. I suspect he is pandering to Ted Cruz’s evangelicals again, much like his disastrous attempts to quote and read from the Bible. But at some point Trump may forget that he is pandering, and, in an effort to get re-elected one day, his pandering will become policy.
Trump’s tweets read like patriarchal whiteness’s greatest hits. He backhandedly calls Megyn Kelly a bimbo, a term with obvious sexual connotations. Regardless of what one thinks about Kelly as a journalist, if the Republican party were really about morality, his campaign would be over tomorrow because we don’t want a presidential candidate who calls women bimbos. (“Bimbo” is kind compared with the epithets hurled at Meagan Kelly by Donald’s “Trumpeters”.) Trump is aware that his supporters will do anything for him. He even said at a rally, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” Trump, the Little Lord Fauntleroy who hurts back when he’s been hurt. His followers, or rather enablers, listen to his attacks and see them as endearing and “honest” and not for what they really are – potential threats to national security from a presidential candidate who has an enormous chip on his shoulder. So one day, when the leader of some antagonistic country wants to piss us off, they’ll tweet that our president has a tiny dick (and not even a limp dick, but the kind that looks like someone punched it in and it never popped back out again), and we’re going to find our country at war.
One of the interesting things about studying religious cults is trying to make sense of the belief systems that guide them. And because the cults that usually make the national news and headlines are so bizarre, most people imagine they could never find themselves in one. Our judgment distances and protects us so we may examine them with fascination, ignoring, of course, the many cults in our own lives that claim us.
From outside the cult, we see how humans construct systems, and how everyone involved must play a part in that system in order for it to work. For those who are newly initiated, it may seem appalling when they are first introduced to its precepts: (“Mommy, why did the kids at school call me a nigger?” “Well, honey, let me explain, you see when I was a little girl….”) but after a while you adjust and may even take the system for granted. For those caught deepest in its web, it may seem impenetrable, allowing for no escape. Eventually it destroys your imagination – you find the possibility of another system inconceivable. I remember traveling to Senegal and Zimbabwe during my college years and noting the differences between African countries that had been under French and English colonial rule. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there were differences, and it helped me to appreciate that colonization was a social construct, and that I had myself in fact been colonized. (The good news was that if something could be constructed, it could also be deconstructed.) With awareness, there may come a day when one wakes up and says of the cult, “What the hell is going on and how did I get here?” In that moment of illumination, one has the power to awaken oneself, and through one’s newly-found clarity, liberate and awaken others.
I truly believe there are many white people in this country who are also tired of whiteness, who want to escape the cult of whiteness themselves. They don’t want their children to grow up in it, and while they may benefit from it at times whether they want to or not, they know the cost of it on a global scale, the enemies that it creates for us around the world, and the fact that all our children are in more danger because of it. They are ready to share, they are ready for a new paradigm that is more inclusive. These are the white people who voted for Obama and made him president. (Whether they got a commander-in-chief who destabilized whiteness or who actually helped reinforce it is the subject for another essay.)
Others may suspect that an article on the end of whiteness is actually a rallying cry for blackness or black chauvinism - but this isn’t so. Whiteness, in the context I am referring to here, doesn’t find its opposition in blackness, but in “otherness”. And since true otherness, given the complexities of the human race, doesn’t actually exist, one can then surmise that whiteness, when practiced at a pathological level, has no opposite – it is absolute.
The simple truth is, white Americans aren’t white, and never have been. This theme exists throughout the work of the great American writer James Baldwin, and it is as true today as when he was writing more than half a century ago.
I’m not sure when it happened, when the nigger was created, and when we stopped becoming a country of Italians, Irish, German, French, Indian, Spanish, African, Japanese, Chinese. Things became, literally, black and white. Or rather…black vs. everyone else. It has been my experience in America that immigrants arrive and seem to be given a tour. “There’s the Statue of Liberty, there’s the White House, and those are the niggers” as if part of the experience of being an American means separating oneself from blackness - both the culture and the people. (Enjoying black culture as entertainment and making money off it is allowed, even encouraged. The commoditization of black culture means enjoying a rap video, black music or television show, but doesn’t require an actual relationship. The consumer always remains in control of what he is consuming without the messiness and terror of dealing with an actual human being’s anger or a spontaneous interaction and dialogue.) Immigrants and some American whites want the American dream without the American nightmare that comes with it - slavery. Black experience is American experience, and any attempt to separate the two means that one begins a descent into mental illness.
Talking about slavery in our culture is not unlike talking about rape. We can’t really have an honest conversation about either one, because in a society that feeds so heavily on greed (the kind of greed that inspires a Bernie Madoff) the perception is you can’t have empathy and still make money, and you definitely can’t empathize with those who are victimized. Patriarchal imperialist whiteness taken to the extreme requires total invulnerability, which is why it attacks the feminine, and rapes, why it seeks to control women’s reproductive rights, to destroy the homosexual, to make a beast of the African, and allows its kids to go hungry. Instead of facing the many transgressions that take place in this society every day, we are unwilling to look in the face of the victim. We project our shame onto her, and instead of trying to find our way back to wholeness, choose omnipotence and brutality instead - hating the victim’s guts for having allowed us to violate her.
Slavery and the rape of African women in this country changed us inexorably – if white Americans ever were white once upon a time, after slavery they were never white again. Nursed at a black woman’s breast, the white American has an enslaved African mother and he is haunted by her, by her blackness and her relationship to him. We know racism has driven black people crazy for years, but this is why the cult of whiteness has the power to drive or keep white Americans insane – it forces them to dissociate themselves from their own Africanness, from their own black mother.
White Southerners know this relationship most intimately. It is in their literature, the moment when the white child becomes the white adult and is told by society that he “owns” the black woman who raised him, and who may have been the only one, in fact, to show him any affection or for whom he feels any affection. At this point he must decide, and it is a decision that often leads to madness – to join the cult of whiteness and betray his own mother, or stand with her and reject his inheritance as a white man.
It is fascinating to me as a black American, watching men with the last name Cruz and Rubio advancing the cult of whiteness despite endless references to their immigrant parents and to Cuba, talking about “no amnesty” and keeping immigrants out, while they must have memories of sitting on their abuelita’s lap, nibbling on her cultural food while she coos to them in Spanish. They are men of color, feverish with the desire to win at whiteness, and their betrayal of their own pasts and their Latino background makes them seem desperate and overeager on the political stage, running to and running from (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) at the same time.
Meanwhile, patriarchy finds a staunch ally as Carly Fiorina continues to sink her teeth into Planned Parenthood, overturning Roe V. Wade and a woman’s right to choose. She exudes a steely confidence on the campaign trail, but her spiritual energy suggests great disappointment, and a woman’s heartbreak rides her face. Ben Carson babbles on, black and foolish, looking somnambulant and managing to sound incoherent; no small feat, given his impeccable credentials and accomplishments in the medical field. He disparages gays, downplays racism, and uses the Bible and the Constitution to further the perception of the world as “us” vs. “them”.
We live in a cultural twilight zone where the greatest proponents of cultural whiteness and patriarchy, those most against difference and change, may be blacks or women themselves. Fiorina and Carson, a woman and a black, lead us further into racist, patriarchal chaos. We must reach a place where black men truly understand that if we don’t make the connection between racism and a woman’s reproductive rights we will never escape racist patriarchal control; white women must demand for the children of Flint the same water they’d want for their own children. But unfortunately, our greed ensures that too many black men continue to defend rape culture and too many white women benefit economically from the exploitation of others. Until whiteness and patriarchy are no longer seen as in any way benefiting those of us who are marginalized in this society, we will be stuck in the matrix forever. I titled this piece “The Cult of Whiteness” because I believe that in America we have a cult-like devotion to whiteness (which includes patriarchy), and to the extent that we are unable to explore it, face it and finally abandon it, it will be our ultimate undoing.
“O, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land." -- Daniel Decatur Emmett
“I get how it can be news to some of you that people are victimized by systems legitimated by your nation, countrymen, and god. But I’m black and female and southern. I call that Tuesday.” --Tressie McMillan Cottom
If it was the plan of Dylann Storm Roof to further the cult of whiteness by attempting to murder a churchload of black parishoners, killing nine, on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, it backfired: he forever changed America’s relationship - and very likely ended its romance - with the confederate flag on that same day. At this time in history, in an unprecedented way, whiteness is deeply threatened, shaken to its very core. The threat to whiteness is the reason we should be infuriated, but not surprised, by what may seem like a “rise” in police brutality. The police (and I’m not talking about heroes, and there are heroes) are the arm of the law that acts from our collective consciousness, and, when engaging from its shadow, is calibrated, much like the Klan in the South, to denigrate and destroy black empowerment and black lives. When a black business would thrive in the historic South, daring to compete with a white business, or when a black laborer suggested he was getting less than a fair price for the cotton he picked, the Klan knew whom to maim, whom to kill, whose home to burn down to send the message - you’ve gone to far, you must be controlled. Emmitt Till from Chicago, black, bright and full of spirit was tortured and mutilated for “disrespecting” a white woman, eventually lying in an open casket, a courageous decision made by his mother, Mammie Till, for all the world to see. In that moment, Emmitt Till was as much America’s son as George Washington is considered the father of our country.
During a recent conversation about politics and black America, a friend said he felt that Trump and Cruz are the businessmen who, for profit, would easily sell your black babies like cattle; the Clintons are the benign slave owners who love money, but also appreciate loyalty, won’t beat their slaves (an overseer does it) and who promise never to break up a slave family. Bernie Sanders is the abolitionist farmer who hides you in his basement. My friend is technically a Hillary supporter but worries that Hillary is also the friend who, when everyone is broke but wants to party, collects money outside the club and says, “Pay for me and then when I’m inside I’ll open the back door and let you guys in.” Hours later, someone goes in after her and finds her partying in the VIP section, laughing and getting her drink on, her friends long forgotten.
Bernie Sanders is new to black people: even he acknowledges this, so it is not clear exactly what he will do for us, and the Clintons have always had an interesting relationship to whiteness. They have been considered to be friends of black people by many of us since the Bill Clinton years, despite enjoying enormous white privilege and supporting policies that have been deleterious to blacks in the past. The comparisons my friends and I make may be unfair to the Clintons, but we laugh as a way to cope with our black disappointment. And there is a lot of black disappointment going around lately.
I was cleaning the closet the other day and deciding which clothes I might give to charity. I lifted a black tee-shirt from the pile and opened it – it was the iconic Obama image, etched in blue and red as if from a woodcarving, with the word emblazoned at the bottom, “HOPE.” I remembered the day I bought the tee-shirt on 125th street and wore it everywhere. Standing in the bedroom, I couldn’t keep it, and I couldn’t throw it out, so I just stared at it, feeling like an asshole for believing back then, and feeling very old now, as I wondered to myself, “Exactly whose face is that?” Obama looks young and vulnerable and full of promise in the image, but it is eight years later and a lot of promises just weren’t kept. Obama may have the distinction of being the only president in American history who ran as a progressive, presided as a moderate and was treated by Congress as a radical.
There is still a question as to whether our black president actually did anything to improve underprivileged black lives. Given the platform of black respectability and non-racial identity he ran on, some argue he couldn’t, and probably did less than a Democratic white president, however condescending, might have. It’s hard to call a black president on his administration's racism. (He and Cheryl Boone Isaacs should have lunch.) Still, having a black man in the most important position in the world has changed whiteness in this country forever. Children all over the country pledge allegiance each morning to an American flag and a black American face.
There is a group of Americans that are aware of this and they are deeply panicked. A majority of people voted for a black president in America, but there is still a question whether as a society we were truly ready for one or not: evidenced by the obvious contempt and constant resistance to Obama by Congress and his Republican colleagues. Like a poisoned body that detoxifies too quickly and throws up the food that will heal it, the American body desired but never truly integrated its first black president. Paul Ryan sits passively during Obama’s State of the Union address, unable to express any goodwill towards him. One thinks that despite their ideological differences, Ryan could garner some enthusiasm for the office itself, to which he clearly has aspirations. Not a chance. His parsimonious and pinched expression reveals his disgust for Obama, and his unwillingness to transcend his own pettiness and bigotry, despite the great challenges Americans face.
Governor Chris Christie, during a Rupublican debate, debases himself thoroughly and says to the President, “We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall”, a huge difference from the now infamous hug he gave Obama during Hurricane Sandy. I was proud of that hug at the time because it suggested that during a crisis, we aren’t Republicans and Democrats: we are Americans. The simple human fact was that on that day New Jersey needed Obama’s help, and Obama was there for New Jersey and Governor Chris Christie.
Lifetimes ago. Now Christie talks to the president as if he were the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan standing on the Obama’s front lawn. In the end, his words are self-destructive and extremely short-sighted. Christie plays at whiteness, but he comes from a state with a large black population, and he is too funky himself to be truly white, and I mean that as a compliment. He doesn’t realize that he at one time he had something better to offer than “whiteness” – the potential to be a leader across party lines. But the Republican party, with few exceptions, seems to want only whiteness now and he wants to win, so he delivers. Christie’s fatness “others” him, “niggers” him, so he knows what it means to be an outsider and different. Out for whiteness like everybody else, his differences don’t sensitize him, or provide a platform for greatness – they make him appear grotesque. Christie betrays himself by using tea-party shortcuts, and in the end they know he is a phony and his poll numbers continue to go down. (Christie's campaign may have been resurrected after his spectacular take-down of Marco Rubio at the New Hampshire Republican debate, proving Donald Trump isn't the only queen on stage who can "read".)
The Republican candidates scramble to get what is for most of them, the ultimate, unattainable prize. It’s a mad, mad world. Christie’s "kick your rear” comment to Obama is a low point during the debates, but things gets uglier, more despicable. Jeb Bush is in similar trouble with his party, but he has more integrity than Christie, plus a Latino wife. Any walls he builds to keep immigrants out might exclude some of his own relatives. This is a lovely predicament for justice, but not one that the Republicans appreciate. Bush refuses to go full patriarchal, tea-party white, but he doesn’t have anything else to offer, and that makes him seem like a cipher. He ends up finishing almost dead last in the polls.
We are a society addicted to whiteness: and as in any other addiction, one reaches a bottom where one either loses everything or uses that low point as a platform for great change. The direction we are going, led by Trump and Cruz, will ultimately lead to the day when we are running through the streets, clutching our children’s hands and carrying whatever we can in our arms, as the final confrontation goes down. This isn’t conjecture or hyperbole; it is the direct consequence of compulsive whiteness, imperialism and patriarchal domination taken to its most extreme; the ultimate macho showdown. Cruz, who is the Republican frontrunner for the presidency at this writing, says that he will carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” He seems to be itching for a confrontation of biblical proportions, and a continuation of the war perpetrated by the whitest man who ever lived; Dick Cheney. But eventually all cults come to an end, as will ours, if we don’t decide now that whiteness as a societal construct doesn’t offer enough of a pay-off for what it ultimately costs us.
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free.” --Rosa Parks
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” -- Abraham Lincoln
In this moment in our political history, while fighting an anger that threatens, at times, to consume me, I choose to believe there is hope. All eyes are still on America - the great cultural experiment. Sitting in the subway last week, there was a woman across from me, her hair wrapped in an orange scarf, lovely against her dark skin. She was laughing with what I assumed were her husband and child. Crammed next to her in the seat was a middle-aged white man in a suit, holding his briefcase. It was evening around six and his gray hair was a little disheveled, perhaps from the rain outside, or from running to catch the train. In that moment, we were just a few of the thousands of “strangers as backdrop” that you look at as you travel through New York City; unremarkable and yet remarkable all at once. There was a Latino woman with headphones, a young Asian man reading a newspaper, and a white woman applying lipstick in a tiny mirror. It was just another day on the subway; we were together for this short ride and would eventually arrive at our separate destinations. But something about the fact that in that moment we were in the same circumstance, on that train uptown, New Yorkers all, yet determinedly different - felt soulful to me, deeply beautiful. I looked at the faces and thought, as I often have since 9/11, Are we prepared, if this is the day, to share some great tragedy together? Do we even see each other?
At the other end of the subway car was a man, black and obviously homeless. Although seemingly impossible on a crowded subway car during rush hour, he was alone. Exhausted people stood on tired legs to avoid sitting in the empty seats near him. He leaned forward, wrapped up in a felt blanket and hiding his face deep inside his coat, his entire head covered with a black plastic bag. One shoe was unlaced and looked damp, the other exposed his naked, slightly green foot - peeling, bloated and covered in crust. As the man’s fetid smell suddenly reached our end of the car, I made eye-contact with the gray-haired man, and the woman with her family, and we all shared a knowing, uncomfortable look, finding solidarity in our revulsion for the homeless man and his circumstance. Leaving the train, I considered his shame and what should have been ours, the home that awaited me, and it occurred to me that America hasn’t really happened yet, that despite its great potential, we are still waiting on America, as one waits on the platform, expectant and hopeful, for a train to come.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His work for NCRM also includes, "Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence."