April's Boston magazine just disobeyed one of the cardinal rules of modern race relations.
As black people have been trying to explain for years, white people can't call us Negroes. We can call ourselves that. We can call ourselves worse names. But white people can't do it.
Boston magazine ignored this when they published their recent feature on W. E. B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., titled "Head Negro in Charge." The outcry over that term that came from Reverend Eugene Rivers shouldn't come as a surprise.
What did surprise me was that no one has criticized Boston magazine for their reasoning behind the use of that term. The notion of the existence of an "H.N.I.C." in the first place is an insulting one. The opening sentences of the article offended me more than the poor title choice. "As chief interpreter of the black experience for white America," the article begins, "Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. may be the most influential black man in America today....In the parlance of black activists, he has become the new Head Negro in Charge."
Chief interpreter of the black experience? Excuse me?
That is what an "H.N.I.C." is considered as, however, the one person who can speak for the race. Never mind that one person cannot possibly speak for an entire race of people (the last time I checked, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wasn't knocking on my door asking for guidance on what to tell the white world about black youth). Never mind that there is no corresponding term for whites. Apparently Boston magazine still thinks that black people are one huge homogeneous mass that can be spoken for by one voice.
"H.N.I.C." is a term that has been used by blacks for many years, but what Boston magazine ignored is that it is not a flattering one. "H.N.I.C." was a term used by blacks, somewhat facetiously, to describe leaders who had gained acceptance by white America. The most famous example is Booker T. Washington, who was loved by whites for his acceptance of segregation but was warily received in the black community. Washington was certainly not a spokesperson for the majority of black Americans who did not accept segregation, but because he had the money and the backing of white America, he was considered to be the "H.N.I.C."
Blacks today don't have an "H.N.I.C." As a community, we are facing different problems than we have before. Not only that, but blacks across the country live very different live. The blacks here at Harvard, for example, are just a wee bit different than the blacks living in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans or the blacks living in the suburbs of Colorado. Asking one person to speak for us is a ridiculous proposition.
What we have instead is what Cornel R. West '74 calls a crisis of black leadership. One problem is that black leaders aren't even sure what to lead black people to. The persistent problem of racism has gone underground, surfacing in subtle ways that frustrate and humiliate blacks, but does not often threaten our lives. Segregation is self-imposed (although, to be fair, many blacks like it that way), not placed there by law.
In his essay, "The Crisis of Black Leadership," West writes, "The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for black America....The days of brokering for the black turf--of posing as the Head Negro in Charge (H.N.I.C.) are over."
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the black community right now is our own division along class and gender lines.
Add this division to the breakup of the strong black community that has traditionally sustained us, and what we are facing is the need of leaders who can guide us to repair ourselves from the inside. We don't need someone who can speak to white America for blacks, what we need is someone who can speak to black America for blacks.
Caille M. Millner is a first-year in Matthews Hall.
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