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The End of Blackness By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 20, 2004


Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Debra Dickerson, the author of the  prize-winning memoir An American Story and of the new book The End of Blackness. Educated at the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s University, and Harvard Law School, Ms. Dickerson has been both a senior editor and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and a columnist at Beliefnet.

Frontpage Magazine: Ms. Dickerson, welcome to Frontpage Interview. In your new book, you call Afrocentrism “self-eliminative and isolationist.” Could you kindly tell our readers why you believe this?

Dickerson:  I don’t think Afrocentrism must be self-eliminative and isolationist, just that it often is. Afrocentrism is a valid discipline and world view and there are many worthy Afrocentrists just as there are many worthy Sinophiles or Anglophiles. Like most things, however, the Philistines get hold of things they don’t, or choose not to, understand and diminish it to the point of silliness. 

For too many blacks (African American is just too unwieldy), ‘Afrocentrism’ means “I thumb my nose at Western culture.” It’s a rejection of white people, not an embrace of something else that lives and breathes.  It’s a way to punish America for mistreating us by pretending to opt out while availing themselves of every morsel of their American, Western rights and benefits. 

You can’t call yourself Afrocentric without studying the true history and traditions of Africa (that enormous place with all sorts of contradictory traditions), without taking part in the new discoveries that are being made about its lost intellectual traditions and output, without at least knowing and grappling with the significance of such things as that Classical Arabic was the language of knowledge in the Middle East and Africa before the Europeans came. At a minimum, you have to visit there as often as possible and many so-called Afrocentrics are horrified by Africa and just as racist against it as any Klansman.

You have to study an African language, you have to study the slave trade, you have to grapple with gender roles, not just make up stories about how Africans were doing vascular surgery or inventing airplanes during the Bronze Age, that’s just about one-upping whites.  Kente cloth placemats and fertility mask screen savers are not Afrocentrism. That’s just shopping. Snooping around in old photos trying to ‘prove’ that Babe Ruth or J. Edgar Hoover were “really” black – that’s not Afrocentrism.  That’s just trying to embarrass whites. 

To complain that something is Eurocentric, without explaining why that is unhelpful or wrong in any particular situation and without being able to explain what an Afrocentric point of view on that issue is, is not Afrocentrism.  It’s just making a nuisance of yourself, its just being a naysayer.  I always chuckle when someone draped in Kente cloth from hat to shoes gets hysterical about ‘western rationality’.  Ok, what is African rationality?  I have yet to get an answer.  Being Afrocentric should be about how you live YOUR life, how YOU see the world, not about how others should live theirs or why theirs is less worthy. 

Also, those who are Afrocentric have a duty to persuade others to incorporate Afrocentrism into their Eurocentric (or other) world.  Europeans can’t demand that Africa admire and adopt western literature or western religion and neither can Afrocentrics living in a Eurocentric society.  Win me over, dazzle me with the glories of African traditions, because I’m not changing my world view just because you want me to. I’m not going to be harangued with your trivia about Shaka Zulu.  Show me the substance if you want my attention and too often, there’s no substance, just someone mouthing unsupported insults about western culture, as if they’re not a part of it.

Another thing that seems central to a claim of Afrocentrism, is the mature realization that America and the West are, duh, Eurocentric.  So choosing Afrocentrism requires one to be sanguine at the fact that one leaves himself out of many things.  Afrocentrism is a choice. Accept its consequences, like your irrelevance outside of your own Afrocentric circles.

When I was in law school, I stopped straightening my hair and had some pretty wild stuff happening on my head. Most of my black female classmates got very straitlaced come interview time – all the braids and piercings disappeared.  I interviewed with top law firms assuming that my Afrocentric hair would disqualify me at most places and made my peace with that.  I gotta be me and they gotta be button-downed lawyers.  I decided that I didn’t want to work anyplace that couldn’t handle my hair because it was a particular expression of certain feminist and black sentiments I held – I just believed that I shouldn’t have to look a particular way to be considered either attractive or intelligent. 

My appearance never came up in my interviews (all of which were with white people). I was inundated with offers. I think my ‘non-performed’ Afrocentrism, my quiet self-expression rather than haranguing them about the difference between black hair follicles and white ones, haranguing them with subtle threats about not making me an offer because of my wild hair --  that’s the good kind of Afrocentrism. Afrocentrism within a Eurocentric culture.  Seems to me that I can’t demand access to Harvard Law School and fancy law firms while simultaneously denouncing western legal traditions, but I can do it with a wild Afro.

FP: You strongly criticize the black community for its defense of O.J. Simpson. What do you think the psychology was of the African-Americans who jumped up and down for joy when he was acquitted -- even though it was evident that he had murdered his wife in cold blood?

Dickerson:  First, some people actually think the evidence against OJ was not dispositive, so their jubilation is justified. A significant corollary of that is the widespread belief that the LAPD framed a guilty man.  In that case, freeing OJ works the same as discounting evidence because it was illegally obtained.  Convictions have to follow the law, we have to be process-oriented, not outcome oriented. I happen to be of the school that thinks he was both guilty and framed and of the school which puts all its faith in the rule of law. That’s what separates us from the beasts, from the autocracies, from the dictatorships. 

That’s what made the Constitution come to life and end the de jure oppression of blacks.  We can’t invoke it sometimes and not others; justice has to always be in the ‘on’ position.  We can’t allow the police, whether from zeal or racism, to frame people or even just be slipshod.  The rules have to be followed because the police power is an awesome thing. We have to put ourselves in the defendant’s place, with the unlimited resources and power of the state facing him, and ask ourselves what constitutes fair play on the part of the state. I think every police force in America became a lot more careful in its handling of evidence in OJ’s wake.  The Constitution must take precedence over any one crime. Better that murderers go free than American justice become an oxymoron. LA could have convicted OJ had they not cheated.

That brings us to those blacks who defended him only because whites wanted him convicted.  That is immoral.  I was listening recently to one of  Dr.King’s speeches where he drew a firm distinction between those going to jail for Civil Rights activities and those blacks in jail for drunkenness, robbery and the like.  Among blacks in those days, to commit a crime was to put yourself beyond the pale, both because you were stupid enough to put yourself in the hands of a racist, brutalizing criminal justice system and, more basically, because of the black community’s disgust at sin.  We didn’t think it was all right then to commit crimes just because there was so much unfairness facing us. We used to know that it wasn’t how others behaved but how we behaved that mattered. So the Movement fought an uphill battle convincing blacks to accept going to jail for the cause as an acceptable, let alone heroic, thing.  So, I’m listening to the disgust dripping from Dr. King’s voice when he dismisses the black criminal element in jails and reimagines it as a place of nobility if you’re there for noble reasons, if you’re taking a stand against injustice. 

So, blacks jumping for joy at the sight of a black murderer gone free just because he murdered white people, I feel ashamed. That’s why I call my book The End of Blackness.  I’m just so tired of being black in that way, that way which can only understand itself as the people who are oppressed by white people.  The people who condone murder as long as it annoys whites.  The people whose morality is situation specific if there’s a way to get back at whites by forgetting our home training.

Blacks are experiencing a sort of disequilibrium brought about by freedom while so much injustice remains enshrined and circumscribes their options.  There is so much bitterness and disappointment that, to us, the racism still seems so obvious yet white people walk around free and unrepentant.  Too many of us are caught up in the ‘a ha!” syndrome.  We think if we just track down every scowl, every missed promotion, every clutched purse, eventually we’ll have evidence to get whites on the witness stand, forced to admit their racism, and apologize. Because that’s what we really want.  Few of us will admit it, but we want atonement. We want whites to feel bad about themselves, for a change. Not only is that never going to happen, it doesn’t need to happen. 

The Movement wasn’t about forcing people to love us, it was about forcing people to leave us the hell alone.  The psychology of the murderer-applauders is that of the bitter, defeatist who makes crank calls at midnight to the woman who wouldn’t go out with him.  In our minds, lauding OJ was evening the score for all the murders whites got away with, all the rapes of our foremothers, all the lynchings, all the white riots in which only blacks went to jail.  It’s slaves spitting in the master’s soup; changes nothing and demeans the spitter. 

It teaches weak minded, immature blacks that we never have to look at ourselves, that anything we do is justified, as long as it displeases whites.  A lot of blacks are still slaves picking cotton on that last plantation, the mind. It’s evil when whites get away with murder but not when we do because so many of our innocents paid for crimes they didn’t commit.. How lost some of us are. We’re free but unavenged and some of us are losing our minds at the injustice of it. They can’t accept that two wrongs don’t make a right, that there is no way to undo the past.  People like that are obsessed with white people.  They are the ultimate white supremacists;  they can’t even figure out how to feel about crime without reference to white people.

FP: In An American Story, you told an inspiring story of how you rose from a family of former sharecroppers to Harvard Law School. Could you tell us a little bit about this personal journey? To what do you attribute your success?

Dickerson:  My parents were Great Migration sharecroppers;  my mother from Webb, Mississippi, my father from Covington, Tennessee. Both were born during the 20’s, then migrated to St. Louis, Missouri where all six of their children were born. My father got there after island-hopping with the Marines in WWII.  Neither went to high school.  Moving up North was their entire plan for us – just not picking cotton. Just not having to step off the sidewalk when whites passed.  They had no conception that their children really could be anything they desired and worked hard enough for.  Their plan for me, a designated gifted child, was to be a secretary.  They used to fantasize about it:  “You’ll wear little skirts and blouses, not uniforms.  You’ll sit at a desk in the air conditioning.”  

My father was a truck driver, sort of like Sanford and Son.  My mom was a cleaning lady, cook, waitress.  Hard core, old school, fundamentalist southern Baptists.  Church was basically our only social outlet, everything else was sinful.  We couldn’t play cards (tools of the Devil) or games with dice in them (like Monopoly).  The rod was not spared and the child was not spoiled.  Their plan for us was that we’d all graduate high school, an incredible  accomplishment to them, then get ‘sit down’ jobs which we’d hold till we died.  You get your reward in the Great By and By.  There was no understanding of much happiness to be had in this life time. Life was duty, as a parent, as a spouse, as a Christian. It was pretty bleak.

They had an odd philosophy of insignificance, I call it, that has taken me everywhere I’ve ever wanted to go in life.  My parents were not militant. They were appalled by the raucousness of The Movement (I was born in 1959), all the yelling and rude behavior.  They were sort of cute about it, looking back on it.  My father would say things like “Them knuckleheads should take their fists out the air and get jobs.”  They were simply unable to believe that America would change. All they wanted was to be left alone. So, we were raised to believe that we were so insignificant, so unimportant, so impotent in the world that we should focus on escaping the notice of authorities.  The only thing we could control was our own behavior. We were never allowed to say things like, “All the other kids are doing it” or “so and so did this and that’s why I…”.  Someone could set the school on fire and that still wouldn’t make it alright for me to get there late.  To this day, I can’t walk past trash on the street or watch someone struggle with a heavy load alone. 

They didn’t believe education would take me anywhere except to that much-longed-for desk in the air conditioning, but that I had to excel academically because it was my duty.  We simply were not allowed to complain, were not allowed to fail at any task anyone in a position of authority set for us, fairly or unfairly. My mother’s waitressing standards, to this day, make it difficult for me to eat out.  I used to sometimes think, to my shame, “look at her killing herself for white folks who think she’s no better than a dog”.  I see now that she took the only opportunity she had to express herself, to display any excellence. It didn’t matter how others behaved because all she could control was her own behavior.  It was all about getting into Heaven, not Harvard.

They taught me that there was never an excuse not to do your best even though that would only be demonstrated in lowly pursuits. So, if I mopped a floor, it had to be the shiniest.  I had to wash the most dishes, fry the most bacon, pull the most weeds.  In the environment of increasing opportunity engendered by the Civil Rights Movement, and because I was a diligent, nerdy book worm, I was able to work hard at worthier and worthier tasks.  I was in one of the first few integrated gifted classes in St. Louis for instance, then in the Air Force for twelve years.  Though I’d had the grades, I’d had no belief that “someone like me” could go to college. Even though I had the ‘gifted’ gold star on my forehead, my (all white) teachers kept telling me I’d “make a fine secretary someday”.  I figured, if I’m going to type, might as well do it for my country, so I enlisted.  Having the sharpest hospital corners and being able to work unsupervised got me noticed there and helped propel me to one position of leadership after another. They made me a Korean linguist and ‘atta girl-ed’ me all the way through a BA, a commission, and a MA.  That was the place that told me I could, and should, aspire to anything.

So, combining old fashioned virtue for its own sake with Post-Movement opportunity was my recipe for success.  So many poor blacks are missing the first component, they can’t make use of the second.

FP: You are quite critical of the black leaders of the civil rights movement today, arguing that they live out of time and place – in the past. Could you talk a bit about this?

Dickerson:  First of all, the general refusal of that generation, their incredible past heroism notwithstanding, to talent scout and nurture the next generation of black leaders is unconscionable.  Name a national black leader under the age of fifty, especially one who didn’t come through the traditional, closely controlled conduits of DNC/Civil Rights power. Martin Luther King was chosen by the elders to lead the Montgomery bus boycott at the age of 25 – where is that happening today?  So, the main example of their being out of step with current conditions is thinking that 60 year olds ought to be in charge, few heirs in sight, when they all came to power when they were college aged. However wise they might think themselves, surely they don’t think they’re going to live forever.  The new leaders have to be prepared.

More troubling, the very same goals they sacrificed their youths and sometimes their lives for are now seen today often as proof that ‘certain’ blacks are sell-outs, and Uncle Toms, that dreary bit of anti-intellectualism and fascist group-think.  Those of us who criticize our designated leaders or offer intracommunal critiques face routine attempts to silence us by ominous reference to our “European” educations, as if they went to the University of Timbuktu or for our interracial relationships or some other ridiculous thing like being successful.

When I ask them where they went to school and if they think the anti-miscegenation laws still should be on the books, I get nothing responsive, just more denunciations for “doing the white man’s job” i.e. not hewing to the party line.  As with the murder-defenders, they are so obsessed with white people, that obsession takes the place of any need for rigorous thought, moral consistency or practical action. Riding herd on the rank and file, their source of power, is what concerns them most instead of helping blacks figure out how to occupy their freedom even in the face of remaining impediments. They tell us repeatedly who white people are, but never who we are, how we are to go about being free, what our touchstones are, how to go about being the most upstanding black people we can be.

When the Movement failed to un-enslave the millions gone, when it failed to unplow the millions of acres our sharecropper ancestors tilled as near slaves, when it didn’t un-rape our foremothers, when the ghettoes didn’t magically disappear, they fell apart.  The bitterness and disappointment at the subtle new forms that racism and the status quo take, drives them to incoherence and fulmination.  They need an infusion of fresh, more ignorant young black blood which can not truly fathom how heinous things recently were for blacks. Their ignorance frees them. I’ve never set foot in the state of Mississippi. When I asked my mother why we were never taken there, she said cryptically, “That ground might snatch you back.”  I think she was right. Why keep reliving your worst nightmare over and over again?  They’re still focused on the obstacles, not the opportunities because they ‘re still focused on making white people ‘fess up and apologize.  They act as if its still 1954 instead of 2004. They’re old dogs who can’t learn new tricks, even the young ones who hew to old school racial discontent.

FP: Tell us why appealing to whites to help solve black problems is a formula now headed for failure.

Dickerson:  Well, the first answer is that whites benefit, if only in the form of feelings of superiority, from black problems.  Many whites quite like to see the black population remain downtrodden, its what DuBois called the public, psychological wages of whiteness.  Whites benefit from their greater employability, their easier access to housing, their not having to learn to tolerate those who are different.  Whites work hard to remain on top, its not accidental. Blacks didn’t get into the shape they’re in by chance.  We’re not helpless paper dolls but neither are we operating in anything like a social vacuum. 

But, if we’re speaking of non-racist, non-opportunistic whites, then it’s clear that we’ve reached a stage in the Freedom struggle where a great many problems in black communities do not require the assistance of outsiders but only the leveraging of our hard earned citizenship to redirect resources as necessary to make equality of opportunity a reality.  In our heart of hearts, many blacks, especially the most militant, secretly believe the lies – that blacks are ugly, stupid, bell curved.  They’re afraid to take the spotlight off whites for fear that they too will be appalled and sickened by the depravity of blacks. 

They don’t want to roll their sleeves up, turn the TV off, ride herd on our lost youngsters, spell their kids on the multiplication tables and take them to a museum. Those things are tedious, unglamorous, and aren’t about the evil of white people. But those are the things that will cure what ails the black community, especially in education and crime.  Here’s our dirty little secret:  blacks hate other blacks, too.  We think the other guy is the problem, the nigger, the Uncle Tom.  We have to admit that and take steps to stop the madness.  There is such a need for mental health services in the black community, so much unresolved trauma.  Until we deal with the practicalities – education, crime – as well as the more ephemeral – like the passive suicide of drugs, alcohol and crime – we can’t move forward.  Outsiders can’t really help us with those things.  Also, we have to learn to believe in our own efforts again.  We have to act as though we truly believe we don’t need anyone to ride to our rescue.

Also, let me say that I reject the notion that there are black problems:  there are only American ones.  It hurts all of us for there to be bus drivers who could be nuclear physicists, unemployed welfare mothers who could be nurses or nursery school teachers.  Until we see stop seeing our problems in an ‘us against them’ way, we can’t move forward because blacks are not asking for handouts.  This is our country too, we helped build it and we help keep it going.  Let us not forget how over represented blacks and Hispanics are in the military in Iraq right now.  We are not drains, we are participants, citizens, resources

FP: You write that “Blacks often ask what their country can do for them, but never the converse." You make the point that reversing this question causes great outrage. Why is this so? What damage does this attitude do?

Dickerson:  Blacks tend to believe that while the outrages against us continue – unequal funding of schools, police predations, etc. – that we can not be taken to task for our own misdeeds.  It’s the same outrage many Americans exhibit when undue attention seems to be paid to the rights of criminals.  To some black minds, America is so racist against us, how dare it criticize us, how dare it make demands of us.  Any good behavior on our part is gravy, something America doesn’t deserve and should be grateful for. This is a seductive line of reasoning (that is almost always subconscious) but a destructive one.  To be free, one must act free, like the Tuskeegee Airmen, like Dr. King, like Frederick Douglass.  They weren’t responsible for racism, just for their responses to it. 

They understood that nothing absolved them of the requirement to answer for their own behavior.  But we’ve lost the kind of leadership that reminds us that our fight is against injustice, not against whites or against America. We shouldn’t be trying to become the new oppressors, but the drum majors for justice.  We demean ourselves when the weak-minded lead the rest of us to the bottom, to unAmericanness and just plain sin.  It teaches blacks to consider themselves as somehow outside America, existing in some not quite citizen-status, which is supposed to be our bitterest lament, but we are the first to sideline ourselves in this way.  But that makes a mockery of the patriotism and sacrifice and hope for the future of our slave and Jim Crow ancestors.  They weren’t demanding to be sent back to Africa (something which modern blacks could do at any time), and they weren’t demanding the imposition of African notions of government.  Our ancestors were demanding that which could only be had in the West, in America. We do them a disservice spitting on that.  When I think of my father fighting for a country which even segregated its battlefield latrines, I know I have no right to relinquish one iota of my bought-by-blood citizenship.

But even a black drug dealer can crack the whip of white racism.  Why?  Because few in the black community will point out that he is the far greater danger.  Why? Because of outdated notions based on conditions that no longer exist;  there was a time when we had to stick together because of the common danger we shared.  That time is passed. It all comes back to an unhealthy obsession with whites and a paranoia that can only be the result of an acceptance of one’s own helplessness.  If Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, could make the world, let alone America respect him, so can I. But blacks are incensed to be criticized when whites, to our minds, get away with so much. 

It’s as if the moral high ground from the days of true racial oppression can somehow be magically bequeathed to us without our having to deserve it. To question that is pull the rug out from the black racists, or rather, to shine a big ole light on what they thought was obscured in the shadows.  As my sharecropping, grandson of slaves grandfather used to say, “You can lie on me all day long, but please Lord don’t tell the truth.”  They’re afraid to look in the mirror and that fear get reprocessed as something they can live with – immorality and racism.

FP: You also make some criticisms of whites. Could you outline a few of them?

Dickerson: Basically, it’s obfuscation, subject-changing, and denial.  Whites, being human, cannot neither accept their inheritance of privilege or give it up.  That leaves only lies. The worst kind of lies – the ones you tell yourself.  In the best summation I’ve ever encountered of this phenomenon, James Baldwin wrote, “If I am not who you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.”  If I am not a lazy, good for nothing who prefers welfare to work, then you’re not better off because you work harder.  Whites want to keep the lion’s share of the goodies as well as their superior status without having to feel badly about themselves, which produces certain types of stupefying, to black people, behaviours.

In The End of Blackness, I developed what I call a Privilege Primer.  Reading the newspapers while trying to move beyond the tropes of  a stultified racial discourse, was maddening. Even as I was trying to abandon my post in black America’s war with white America, I was constantly being brought up short by thinly veiled racism and just plain bs all around me. 

I couldn’t let go of the anger until I’d unravelled the motives and objectives behind certain types of white behaviour in the face of, to us, clear proof of racism or unjust distribution of resources.  So, I describe things like Aversion Therapy in which whites invite charges of racism just for the purpose of steeling themselves against it, for the purpose of staring it down and swatting it away. Most maddening, blacks almost always took the bait, getting hysterical over things like “niggardly” and whether enough hurricanes had black-sounding names.  Anytime I read a sentence that began, “I guess it’s racist to…..”, I knew it would end with something like “…expect blacks not to commit murder.”  Heavy sigh at the burden of always having to be the weary truth teller.  Maddening!  This guise allowed whites to pretend to be engaged in manful self-examination while in reality, only playing a cynical game of chicken with themselves, abetted by kneejerk blacks and liberals.

There are other gambits for expressing white contempt and rage at blacks, things like Africa-bashing, decontexturalizing events and using ahistoricism to make black claims seem ridiculous. Literalism is another favourite. When minority kids sued California for offering them only substandard schools, the state’s blue chip lawyers cross-examined the teens with questions like “How did the rats in your classroom affect your ability to learn History?” Or, “You got an A in that class, didn’t you, even though there was no air conditioning and students routinely passed out?”

FP: Thank you Ms. Dickerson, our time is up. It was a pleasure to have you as a guest on Frontpage Interview. We hope to see you again soon.

Dickerson: I'd be honored to come back. Thanks for the invitation.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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