The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, September 30, 2005

Bennett and Cosby, sitting in a tree..?

"The Cosby comments reveal (to non-blacks at any rate) that a significant segment of the black middle and upper classes actively detest black working class men and women."
the above was offered by one of our honorable readers.  I would say it was more accurate to say that the reaction to Cosby comments revealed that some feel that a significant segment...etc.

I don't feel that Cosby's comment "reveals" that he detests anyone, although he may well detest certain behaviors, and there is a big difference.  I say this because I agree with his comments, and detest no one.  But I am deeply disappointed by certain behaviors.  I take the position that massive damage was done to black America by slavery (by the way--slavery also gave the descendants of those slaves some kick-ass opportunities, so I'm not looking for guilt here).  If that damage was done, you will find the evidence of it in either "software" or "hardware".  I'm betting "software."  How do you get an elephant to remain tied to a rail he can pluck up with a shake of his head?  You start when he is a baby elephant, and the conditioning will last.  How do you create a slave?  You impose helplessness upon them, make them dependant, in essence change a wolf into a dog, begging for scraps at the master's table.  Guess what, folks?  That conditioning is a bitch to undo, especially combined with the very real presence of institutionalized racism.  When I was growing up, it was evidenced in the black community (and still is to a degree) by phenomena such as:

1) Light skin or caucasian features being preferred.  "If you're white, you're right.  If you're brown stick  around, if you're black, get back."
2) Straight hair was, and still is, called "good" hair.  Yuck.
3)  After integration, upper-class blacks moved to whatever the best neighborhoods were, leaving much of the black working and lower-class stuck without role models.  Those left behind really were criticised as "trying to be white" if they studied, whereas previous generations fought and died for the right to earn their educations.  I was there.  I saw it happening.
4)  Poor and middle-class people everywhee tend to spend their money on perishable, depreciable items that lose their value instantly.  Those perishable, flashy items are often the only means of projecting status within a context of poverty.  These are the kinds of items Cosby was lamenting.
There is more.  Over and over again, I emphasize that I am looking at the behaviors of black (or other poor people) who work their way out, because that gives an individual the ability to change his life.  Not that society shouldn't help, but that experience shows that there is a real limit to what any society is willing to do.  And I'm not saying that the poor person is at fault for being poor.  I AM saying that they are RESPONSIBLE for being poor--just as every one of us is responsible for our own lives, a core teaching of Lifewriting that I can't change just because it hurts someone's feelings.  Years ago I used to work with a fine woman named Dawn Callan, who taught women's self-defence workshops.  She said that the hardest thing she had to do was convince a raped woman that she was responsible for her own safety, because the woman would instantly slide into guilt, blame, and shame about what has happened to her.  But ONLY if she accepts responsibility for her own safety can she have a prayer of preventing rape from happening to her again.  I KNOW how hard it might be to tell someone that they have responsibility for their poverty.  But responsibility means "the ability to respond" not "guilt for what happened.
I hold myself to these standards, but I have the same voices in my head that everyone else has.  And some of them say venomous things about my ability to reach my dreams.  Hell, no other black man has ever achieved what I want, who the hell do I think I am?  I simply have no power...
I CAN'T  let myself off the hook.  And if I believe that this is the way out, then the fact that racists also say something SIMILAR can't stop me.  I really, really, REALLY believe, based on a lifetime of study and experience, that
1) we must help each other to the limit of our strength.
2) We must help ourselves first, and act as if no one will come to save us.
This is, and has been, the core of my teaching and philosophy.  Damn near everyone who works their way out of poverty agrees.  Almost everyone still in poverty says it's someone else's fault--the most natural and human response possible.  I 100% beleive that whites, in the same situation, would behave the same way.  It has nothing to do with genetics at all.  But in all honesty I do believe the software is corrupted, and that a cultural re-boot would do a world of good for a lot of people.  America, as much as I love it, is insufficiently enlightened to undo the damage they did.  But then...who ever does?


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