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The new black America

Dave Chappelle is a genius. In a masterful comedy sketch from the first season of “Chappelle’s Show,” Chappelle plays a black white supremacist—whose blindness at birth prevents him from ever knowing his true colors. The character is shielded from the truth by fellow KKK members, who assert that he’s “too important to the movement.” Besides, they add, if he knew he’d probably kill himself.

Chappelle introduces the sketch by commenting how a black friend thought the piece set black people back a few hundred years. With a bold, defiant “Sorry!” Chappelle continues with the show.

What makes Chappelle great is his ability to target the absurdity of race in America, obliterating boundaries that our academics, journalists and politicians are wary to cross. In a society that wants to believe deeply how individual we all are, the only way to escape these arbitrary yet pernicious categorizations is to embrace them wholeheartedly. The alternative: Willful ignorance at how these historically defined roles have an impact on our daily lives.

Try this as an exercise: Go your entire week without using cultural categories in any form, to define yourself or others. That means no “black,” no “white,” no “Asian,” no “Latino,” no “Jewish,” no “Palestinian,” no nothing. You will find, eventually, that this can lead to insanity.

The sad thing is, it takes a lot more for white folk to see through the dense fog that is whiteness. They wonder why black people preface comments with “As a black so-and-so,” and they are doubly confused by black people’s adverse reaction to questions about “the black community.” White people avoid discomfort by reassuring their token black friends from prep school, “I don’t even think of you as a black person!” For white folk, race in America is like Poe’s purloined letter, made invisible because it lies hidden in full sight.

I’m not going to lie, it’s complicated; at times, completely hypocritical and nonsensical. But so is the whole concept of race, as we know it.

Enter Jayson Blair. Blair, a once up-and-coming reporter at The New York Times, rocked the journalism world after the newspaper uncovered dozens of fabrications and examples of plagiarism in his stories over an eight-month period. No doubt a prickly situation, but add to the mix the fact that Blair is black. What changes?

Some point to Howell Raines, former executive editor of the Times, whose guilt as a white man from Alabama had something to do with why he gave Blair second and third and fourth chances. Others acknowledge what they view as a clear case of affirmative action gone wrong.

I see an educated black man resorting to alcoholism and cocaine abuse, trying to cope with the manic depression forced on him by the disease of racial consciousness. A consciousness with which non-blacks never have to deal: a profound understanding that blacks and whites will never be equal, a recognition that we must constantly grapple with racial hyper-analysis—being conditioned by whites (and, in turn, everyone else) over centuries to see race even when one does not want to.

“My story is about man against himself,” Blair said in a talk at Winston-Salem State University last week. Indeed, such has always been the story for black America.

On the other side of the black spectrum, we have Barack Obama. Keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, presumptive winner of the Illinois Senate race, perhaps soon-to-be the first legitimate black candidate to run for the nation’s highest public office, Obama has resonated with a wide array of Americans. However, there are some complications.

Besides his last name’s uncanny resemblance to the mastermind behind Sept. 11, Obama identifies as black. Biracial son of a Kenyan farmer and graduate of Harvard Law School, he can play the immigrant rags-to-riches card, AND he talks in a way that does not threaten white America’s Protestant sensibilities. Yet, he actually talks about race, and unapologetically so.

For example, take his DNC speech: “Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn—they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Nothing new to black America. Still powerful when coming from a prominent politician like Obama.

But does Obama believe, in his heart of hearts, that “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America”? I think the reality, at Duke University and particularly in church on Sunday mornings, would beg to differ. When has he felt that inevitable push from the media and American public to silence himself, to perform the racial hyper-analysis, to stop speaking the truth as he sees it?

Richard G. Butler, founder of the white supremacist organization called the Aryan Nations, died in his sleep about two weeks ago. Sometimes, I don’t think I’m so different from him or Chappelle, Jayson or Obama.

I wonder if the three black men described here, so diverse in their experiences, would be the supreme fulfillment of Butler’s racial worldview, as well as our own.


Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.


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