American culture seems to lack two elements basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Americans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of defending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeniable opportunities and freedom-loving people to acknowledge its legacy of unspeakable crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.
Unfortunately, this fact has become trivialized — partly by black middle-class opportunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lillian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civilization. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.
Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to attacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and authorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark contrast, most American elites, owing to narrow, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the expression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been directed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and lesbians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These targeted expressions of black rage, though often downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative powerlessness of a people toward whom American elites have been and are indifferent.
The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major American-elite response to this threat was to reduce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonexistent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.
The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been devastating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the fundamental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power filtered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communities, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.
Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desperate situation, has failed to make the requisite symbolic gestures to the black community in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokespeople, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilantism is a shon one for an abused and enraged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.
Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direction. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country depend, in large part, on whether we acknowledge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.
Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2020