Lil’ Wayne, “New Black” Philosophy and The Complexity of Racial Identity
There is unfinished business in Black America, which the nuisance of “New Blacks” is making clear. That this unfinished business has the face of Lil’ Wayne attached to it only means we can’t hide from it.
Carolina Panther Cam Newton and rapper Lil’ Wayne have put the character of the “New Blacks” back in the news circuit.
Just this morning, TheRoot.com’s Stephen Crockett asked, “WTF happened to Cam Newton?” lamenting the day “Superman became Bizarro Superman.”
Before that, TheRoot writer Marion Harriot purported to explain racism to blacks enamored of “New Black” philosophy as if they were in grade school. “Sometimes people need things explained to them simply,” the heading of his satiric piece reads, “because some people are truly 5 years old when it comes to their comprehension skills.”
If I may, I would like to suggest another way of understanding the “New Black.” I would also note that my thinking on this matter is a work in progress. As such, I am more than open to rebuttal.
The assumption that there are “New Blacks” who are substantively ideologically different from previous generations in the black community assumes a bygone golden era of Black America populated by black people — “Old Blacks” — who boasted a clear, uncontested view of the social and political purpose of blacks in America and the extent to which racism hinders black growth. The assumption is false.
No such golden era exists, though legal segregation did — in a twist of social irony — force black people to rely on one another in a communal way that often appeared alien to the sensibilities of whites, most of whom see America as a land of self-made individuals.
“New Blacks” Face the Same Questions Earlier Generations Did
Nonetheless, Old Blacks were plagued by the same ideological hiccups of self-identity, cultural allegiance and financial ambitions — think Booker T. Washington’s argument that slavery was good for black people because it introduced them to civilization — as their “New Black” successors. And there is a powerful strand in the thinking of Old Blacks about the movement of black lives as a struggle to become an American — minus the hyphen.
New Blacks (and a percentage of Old) are the beneficiaries of civil rights legislation; however, with the exception of the proliferation of a few radical banners, civil rights activism and legislation focused primarily on the problem of bridging the cultural gap between race and nationality through assimilation. The problem of becoming “American.”
Even in the poetry of a race man like Langston Hughes, whose essay “The Negro Poet and The Racial Mountain” no doubt inspired such present-day race writers as Ta-Nehisi Coates, you will find lines like, “I, too, am American.”
Lil’ Wayne, Pharrell and Other “New Black” Commentary
I say all this to point out that the opinion of celebrities like Pharrell who describe New Blacks — a term he apparently coined — as people who realize that “it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality, and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on,” or actor-turned-daytime-TV host Raven-Symone’s comments to Oprah about her identity, or the olive branch rapper Common extended to white America when he told former Daily Show host Jon Stewart that blacks must be willing to “forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us because we’re going to help ourselves, too,” or Cam Newton’s newfound conviction that we live in a post-racial America, on up to the bizarre rationale Lil’ Wayne laid on sports host Skip Bayless’s altar when he said that racism must be over because white people attend his concerts and buy his music. This intraracial infighting about the impact of race on the progress of black lives is as old as the black struggle itself.
In a vein similar to Washington, these “New Blacks” do not so much assert that a history of racial discrimination and exclusion in America has not occurred, and that the memories amassed from this horrifying legacy threaten to rip the country apart. That would be lying, of the bald-faced type.
Instead, they defer to exceptional, successful, rich Blacks — other actors, sports figures, musicians, top executives and managers in American industry, merchandise and empire — who, like themselves, have “made it.”
They name-drop mountaintops at the expense of the dark plains. With his “Up From Slavery,” for example, Washington name-dropped himself.
They oppose the much-discussed ethnic pathologies supposedly peculiar to and rife in black ghettos to the upscale lifestyles these exceptional blacks lead, and the income and resources — somewhat parallel to whites — that make this lifestyle possible.
In short, they ape the first flowerings of respectability politics of black yesteryear.
When asked how “these Blacks” managed to beat the racial odds, to thrive in spite of the socioeconomic position they were born into, they return with free-market platitudes about “hard work” and “perseverance,” abandoning talk about the “race card,” obsessive money-mindedness, positive thinking, and the prophecies evidenced by the alignment of the stars. When all is said and done, the temperament and thinking fueling this success is summarized as “American,” which is to say, capitalist.
Malcolm X said capitalism is impossible without racism. “New blacks” have replaced that wisdom with something more suitable to their personal agenda: capitalism and racism can, will, must and are destined to peacefully co-exist. For racism is merely an illusion of the mind, an artifact of the past, begging exorcism from the imprisoned souls of black bodies.
Learning the art of transcendence is key. And only through transcending race — by which they mean letting bygones be bygones and making no attempt to seek restitution for past discrimination — is it possible to ascend into this higher, superior capitalist mode of being.
Race May Be a Myth — But Racism Isn’t
To be fair, on scientific grounds, I concede that race is a myth. There is no race gene or complex of genetic material commandeering the moves and shifts of a race essence. There is no correlation between melanin, manners and mind. That thesis has been wiped out and largely tossed into the cultural wastebin — at least in theory — along with its pseudoscientific kin, such as the flat earth theory, geocentrism and the nebulous aether.
What remains amid the theoretical rubble is the reality of ethnicity and, from ethnic affiliation, culture.
But there’s a caveat.
Acknowledging this anthropological truth aloud does not rectify or erase the centuries of group hardship, mass death, familial disintegration, economic calamities and collective psychic trauma accumulated and built on the shared belief in race and racism by socially-identified whites, beliefs codified in public policy at every level of human government and embodied in interpersonal and intergroup engagement.
Moreover, comprehending race as a myth, and that all the sewage produced by lived experience of racial hierarchy was predicated on an abundance of lies, is no consolation whatsoever to the millions of black bodies that were forced to pursue some form of circumscribed happiness within the predatory borders of the objectified fantasies of the white imagination.
The historical record is very clear: black bodies were shortchanged. Reparations are in order.
But, none of this is what “new” or moneyed (as I call them) blacks have in mind when they broach this question of the non-existence or expiration of racism. They are not in the slightest bit interested in disseminating information solely intended to correct the scientific account. The only account they care about is the one paired with the word “bank.”
New Blacks of new or old money pride themselves on surviving and thriving within lives somewhat insulated from the interpersonal indignities and petty, but no less physically jarring, microaggressions that come with the simple act of being in white supremacist territory.
Motivated by the hustler’s impulse, exposed to the world through work-sponsored travel and catered to even by “white trash,” their thinking is thoroughly buffered by the onrush of new sights and sounds and the process of their thinking and translation of the human world is recalibrated.
Like the majority of their white counterparts, they trace the “secret” of success in America to the possession (or lack thereof) of a “winning” mindset. Like moderately rich or wealthy white entrepreneurs and moguls, these moneyed blacks have investments and stakes deeply implanted in the preservation of the economic status quo and are loath to lose or willingly part with them.
Should any fragment of doubt about the soundness of the system emerge, their mere existence, their stories, their ashy-to-classy narratives — alone — are marshaled to give credence to the structural rightness of the economic order and serve as an all-purpose, feel-good deterrent to anyone in desperate need of a spirit boost. Before Black Lives Matter kicked into high gear, Jay-Z was known for giving you the blueprint, remember?
No one need loose faith or hope in “the dream,” if they but look up to these black demigods. Thus, work in peace, obey scripture and model your life on the exceptional behavior of these black lords among men. Forever and ever. Amen.
Charity, philanthropy and foundations are their response to skepticism and foul stares from their urban underlings, the appropriate antidote to social problems that are systemic in nature, historical in scope.
But is any of this new? Should it surprise anyone? So often we admit as a matter of intellectual veracity that black people are not a monolith, not homogeneous, and to view them — or any group for that matter — as such is to invite embarrassment and broadcast one’s cultural ignorance and insensitivity.
However, when an individual black expresses his or her desire to be an individual and, through the credo of individualism, to justify status, tout financial accomplishments and profit from the forms of social stratification that must inevitably follow from individualism, we repel, dump all of our critical acumen and sophisticated analysis about black heterogeneity out the window.
Didn’t W.E.B. Du Bois warn us back in 1953 that black individualism is no different from white individualism, that blacks are susceptible to the same propaganda machine …
” … by which monopoly of news gathering and distribution; concentrated ownership of radio, cinema, and television; and financial control of publication, make democratic government nearly impossible today by denying knowledge of the truth to the average man.”
And didn’t he say that in matters of capitalist business, blacks exploit labor in the same manner as their white neighbors and “employ the same methods” as white business? “The colored landlord is no different from the white,” he cautioned.
If we take Du Bois seriously, really appreciate it, then we realize that these intraracial collisions are as fundamental to what we call the black experience as is the white imposition of enslavement and second-class citizenship on black lives. We realize that the mode of perception we have termed “new black” is not so new, but a very old, entrenched phenomenon, the logical extension of a tendency within Black America to take their rightful place as citizens, a tendency constantly weighed and assayed in debates about assimilation or separation, or temporarily reconciled in the mental act of taking up psychological residence in a tension-filled, political gray area, where wave turns to particle turns to wave. Floating, if you will, in cultural limbo.
“New Blacks” Remind Us that Black Americans Aren’t of One Mind About Social Issues
New Black, therefore, is the latest expression denoting the fact that Americans of African descent have never been absolutely of one accord on the issue of economic philosophy and human identity, or the fact that Blacks have spent the majority of their energy in this country fighting to be American, to hold bourgeois democracy accountable, to self-knowingly integrate into the ethics of free-market enterprise, to merge their ethnic culture with what they understood as the broader national culture, into something altogether different and, at the same time, unfamiliar.
The civil rights movement epitomized this drive, with its ambition to end legal segregation and discrimination and institute a black middle and upper class. That it did. Prior to this, in postbellum America, the fondest aspiration of black free persons was to acquire plots of American land like their former white masters, and to subsist “independently” on the sale of their crops, i.e., to set themselves up as landed capitalists.
Thus, once integrated, Old Blacks did what all American dreamers do — clawed, bit and fought their way to the top of the social apex and assumed their rightful place in the national pecking order. New Blacks have taken the baton and run with it.
There is unfinished business in Black America, something these “New Blacks” is making clear. That this unfinished business has a celebrity’s face attached to it only means we can’t hide from the problem.[adsense1]