In these days of polarizing, pulverizing debates that make it almost impossible to describe what it means to be African American anymore, I find myself better off simply describing a day in my life:
I drive to Locke High School to teach a poetry workshop to a group of 10th-graders. Locke is a terribly underperforming, sometimes violent school in a poor, significantly black neighborhood in South Los Angeles, yet it is only 15 minutes from my middle-class, also significantly black neighborhood in Inglewood. The campus is clean, if a bit shabby. The black girls in my group are reserved, though not sullen; they are willing, often eager, to write. The boys tend to speak out of turn, but only in service of poetry--they volunteer ideas, answers, reasons why something is a metaphor or is not. They write, too. Nobody's grammar or literary analysis is perfect, yet I leave Locke feeling buoyed, connected, hopeful.
I stop at a gas station and switch almost unthinkingly to a grim face because some young black men loitering near the pumps, men who resemble the boys I just left, are looking hard at me and, caught between ethnic fear and familiarity, I go with fear; I learned early that I must survive first and reason later. Back on the road, a black motorist in a gleaming SUV has rap music, foul language and all, turned up to a deafening assault, shivering everything within a four-lane radius from the tires up. I flash on a well-worn anger: Why we got to be like this? On the way into Hollywood I notice that almost every homeless person I pass is black, and the anger flares again, this time with more sorrowful indignation than exasperation: Why we got to be like this?
By the time I get to work--an office in which I am the only black person doing what I'm doing--I'm convinced that what I do at Locke means almost nothing at all, that however willing the students, they will eventually be swallowed whole by the monster that has stalked us from one generation into the next, a ravenous chimera of lesser schools, lack of trust, indifference, idleness, low ambitions and low-hanging pants that sag like still-unrealized freedom dreams. I put myself beyond that monster's reach decades ago and am relatively safe; many other black people are not. But however prudent it may be to not go back to Locke, to cut ties or close my eyes, I know it's not possible, because in spite of the miles and sensibilities that separate Hollywood from South L.A. and South L.A. from Inglewood, we--me, the students, the driver, the vagrants and loiterers--are all somehow in the same place. With a mix of weariness and wonder that I can't characterize at all, I think, for the last time: Why we got to be like this?
So there it is: As often in my writing life as I've chronicled being black, I am confounded by it. I was at a particular loss a year ago, when Bill Cosby, in his remarks at an NAACP ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, declared to the well-dressed black audience that it was more or less the black poor and ghetto-dwelling who were holding back--well, holding up--the progress of the race. As everybody now knows, Cosby excoriated "these people" for a dirty-laundry list of things that have become synonymous in many people's minds with the black condition: bad parenting, bad English, unplanned pregnancies, high incarceration rates, high dropout rates, even fanciful names "like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap" that attempt to reach back to Africa via a certain American inventiveness--more bad English, I suppose.
Taken by surprise, the audience responded as it would to a typical Cosby performance, laughing and applauding. Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who followed Cosby on the program, officially kicked off what has become a yearlong debate when he jettisoned his prepared remarks and instead cautioned against demonizing the black poor by ignoring a bigger picture of racism and neglect. In the immediate media aftermath, many other black notables shouted or mumbled their assent, from conservative columnists such as Thomas Sowell to then-NAACP CEO Kweisi Mfume. And just one said no, in a voice as loud and unequivocal as Cosby's: Michael Eric Dyson. Far from despairing or keeping silent about black issues that feel to many of us like existential riddles, Dyson savors them. He eats them for lunch. The 46-year-old University of Pennsylvania humanities professor is known for his sharp social and political analyses, his gift of metaphor and quick wit, all of which he deployed as Cosby's opponent in this new front in an old culture war.