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The Exceptional Are the Rule

Guest Commentary

By Lee A. Daniels

Have you noticed who died recently, and what has not been said about their deaths?

From New Year's to early February five African American men and women, known throughout the world for their achievements, their grace, and their indomitability, died.

Phyllis Wallace, the pioneering economist, Reginald Lewis, the financier and philanthropist, Thurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe, and John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie.

Together with Audrey Lord, the poet, who died in November, they constitute an extraordinary collection of individuals to have passed on in so short a period of time. Any yet, while one may say that, as individuals, each has been given his or her due in the mainstream media, I have noticed that a significant part of what they were and what they represent has not.

Who were these people?

They were Black Americans who lived their lives both as Black Americans and as citizens of the larger world. They combined a passionate commitment to the race with an equally passionate dedication to cosmopolitanism. They understood that being Black in a nation with such a checkered racial past and present as the United States' means something, something that cannot be whitewashed by naive or hypocritical declarations of allegiance to color-blindness. But they also understood that being grounded in one's racial heritage was only part of the task of living for the future. They well knew that the other part was considering race not a boundary circumscribing one's attitudes, actions and aspirations, but a foundation for moving boldly out into larger society.

Is that a complex undertaking? Absolutely. And absolutely necessary. They--Wallace, Lord, Lewis, Marshall, Ashe, and Gillespie--knew that a fundamental part of the legacy of the African American Past lies in accepting and indeed celebrating that complexity.

Do many African Americans understand this legacy? I believe so. The evidence?

Well, for starters, I look at Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the journalist, who has just published her autobiography, In My Place, discussing her experiences as one of two Black Georgians to integrate the University of Georgia in 1962. And I know that the other, Hamilton Holmes, is a respected physician in Atlanta and an honored alumnus of this university.

I also look at other recent autobiographies and biographies of Black Americans: Lorene Cary's Black Ice, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.'s Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, James's Comer's Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family, to name a few.

And I look at such high-profile African Americans as Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, and Ron Brown, the new Secretary of Commerce, and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony Magazine, and Johnnetta Cole, president of Spelman College, and many others who are less well known and not known at all.

I look, too, at the substantial expansion of the Black Bourgeoisie in the three decades since the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement forced White America to make the country a democracy in political fact as well as political myth. Most of them--along with many whose incomes are below the poverty line--are striving to live up to what the writer Albert Murray in his novel, The Spyglass Tree, called the indelible "ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody."

But what I don't see is any recognition in the White Media that these kind of Black people exist as a group and that there is a group dynamic which generation after generation produces such a bloc of strivers. In that sense, they are as "invisible" as the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's classic novel, The Invisible Man.

To be sure, the White Media is generally willing to describe, either explicitly or, more often, implicitly, an Ashe, Lewis, or Lord as an "exception."

But that's just the wrong point: they are part of a community of people stretching backward into the past and forward into the future, all motivated by that ancestral imperative. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and a former Marshall clerk, made this point obliquely in a remembrance of the Justice in Time when he noted that Marshall's civil rights colleagues--and personal heroes--included Walter White and Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, William Hastie, the lawyer, diplomat and federal judge, and Charles Hamilton Houston, the legendary dean of Howard Law School.

These were all exceptional people, all right; but, among Black people, they're not exceptions. We've got plenty of them--and their varied careers, activities and personalities show there are many ways Blacks have fought and do fight to eliminate the vestiges of racism in the society. Looking back at the life of Phyllis Wallace and Arthur Ashe, for example, it's clear that, albeit differences of personality, they were every bit as racially aware and committed to pushing racial change as Thurgood Marshall. And who will argue that Dizzy, among his many achievements, did not contribute to the advancement of Black America?

Such evidence of the complexity of Black America is almost never to be seen in the White Media. Why? Because it's too threatening to the simplistic, negative racial views some significant portion of White America--including some in the media--is still desperately trying to hold onto. That's the reason negative ethnic based generalizations about Black people are all too often asserted quickly and with relish in the White Media when it's a matter of a Leonard Jeffries, a Mike Tyson, or a tragically self-destructive Marion Barry--and why positive ethnic-based generalizations are absent from any consideration of a Phyllis Wallace, a Dizzy Gillespie, or a Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Indeed, one can discern the potency of the force of racism still at play in the White Media from the controversy which erupted last month when USA Today published on its Feb. 16 front page a photograph of five angry-looking young Black men holding guns to accompany a story about gang violence in Los Angeles.

As it turns out, the men were planning to give up their weapons as part of a jobs-for-guns program and had initially showed up to meet with the reporter without them. It was the reporter who wanted guns in the picture--even to the point of driving one of the men home to get his rifle.

To its credit, USA Today condemned the reporter's deceit, and suspended and fined him. Nonetheless, damage has been done.

"It was an out-and-out blatant lie," one of the men said in a Feb. 20 Washington Post story. "They wrote what they wanted, what would get more papers sold. Our intention was to give up guns, to get some jobs, to better ourselves. They portrayed us as hard-core criminal gang members who are ready to incite a riot."

Usually, the White Media's labelling of African Americans as a problem people is put more subtly--an unsubstantiated derogatory assertion here, an omission of fact or context there. But the cumulative effect is just as harmful. Which is why the exceptions are all the more instructive.

Last June 18, The New York times reported that after the post-Rodney King verdict riots in Los Angelles, the Walt Disney company committed itself to hiring 200 young people from poverty-stricken South-Central Los Angeles.

The Times news story, headlined "job Opportunities Bring out Young people (and their Idealism) in Riot Area," and subsequent editorial pointed out that, although the jobs involved a two-hour commute from South-Central L.A., more than 600 people turned out to interview for them.

It also noted that their numbers and quality astonished the Disney company executives. "They were wonderful kids, outstanding kids," the times quoted a Disney company executive as saying. "We didn't know they were there."

No wonder they didn't know. They had taken what's too often said and implied in the White Media about Black people as Truth.

Lee A. Daniels '71 is an Institute of Politics Fellow and a former reporter for The New York Times.

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