Excerpted from The End of Blackness by Debra J. Dickerson. Copyright © 2004 by Debra Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Debra Dickerson
Author of THE END OF BLACKNESS
Why did you write the THE END OF BLACKNESS?
One simple reason: I am sick and tired, physically sick and tired, of being spoken for by what passes for leadership in the black community. Mostly, I refer to local ‘leaders’ more so than those at the state or national level (though most of them annoy me, too. It’s just that, to maintain their positions, they have to be more judicious in their pointlessness). If I hear one more underemployed, overeducated child of the over-entitled black bourgeoisie spend 70% of his speech on white people and what they need to do or stop doing, and the other 30% denouncing any black who dares disagree with the party line, when his speech is entitled “Restoring the Black Family” or some such, I’m going to lose it. Rolling my eyes and sighing dramatically just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Ditto the kente-cloth-ed ‘New Afrikan’ and his demands that half the continental US landmass be given to blacks as the New Motherland.
Someone should tell those folks that there was a Civil Rights Movement and that it worked. There was a time when black uplift was impossible without white involvement, but that time has long passed. It simply no longer matters whether or not whites hate blacks. It only matters whether blacks are determined to achieve their goals or whether they are determined to prove how racist some whites are. We’re free. Not home free. Just free. Free to work our bums off for the dream for which so many gave their lives. Only public humiliation will make these malcontents either hush up or grow up, because attention is all that really motivates them. That, and a terrible secret: they believe the lie that blacks really are stupid, ugly, incompetent and deserving of abuse. That’s why racism must be endlessly hunted for so that these kinds of blacks can explain away black problems. The other option, of course, is to hunt down black problems and, like, fix them. The End of Blackness is my vote for Plan B.
That title, THE END OF BLACKNESS, is really provocative. What do you mean by it?
When I told my sister the title, she said with mock alarm, “How long do I have?” What I mean is that for four centuries, ‘black,’ the lowest caste, has only really meant the opposite of ‘white,’ the highest caste, with all the political, cultural, aesthetic, psychological, and financial overtones that implies. It serves no purpose beyond maintaining hierarchies of privilege (with whites at the top) and shoring up the status quo. It most benefits whites yet it is blacks who are most determined to hold on to a tautology they have morally, intellectually and culturally demolished beyond all repair – why else demand that Tiger Woods consider himself ‘black’ or think of Bill Clinton as the first ‘black President’? Mind you, we’ll still be black. Maybe we’ll always be black. We just need to redefine what ‘black’ means. ‘Black’ should only mean those descended from African slaves brought involuntarily to labor in the USA. Everything beyond that is up for grabs. It doesn’t mean Democrat. It doesn’t mean protestant Christian. It doesn’t mean caring about civil rights. It certainly does not follow from the discovery of a scintilla of dusty African DNA in your gene pool. It also does not mean, as it does now, that our moral failings cannot be address until all of whites’ have been admitted to and redressed. It means what any individual black person says it means. You’re black if you say you are and not if you say you’re not, whatever you look like, wherever you live, whatever your mother, or a traffic cop, thinks. Redefining blackness obviously doesn’t mean the world will treat you in accordance with your preferences. It just means that you will not be told by anyone who you are, what you think, how to organize your life. On both the individual and collective levels, we have to stop living our lives and building our personas with whites in the equation. Remember, it’s the content of our character, not the color of our skin. A lot of air will be let out of the balloon of racism the moment blacks stop paying attention to it and focus on their own internalities.
Why do you include so many quotes from thinkers like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison?
The more disillusioned I became with this current crop of post-Movement leaders, the more I despaired that all we’d ever had in our moral and intellectual kit bag was gospel songs and bewailings of white racism. Who are we apart from our history of oppression? Are white folks all we’d ever thought, sang, or prayed about? If the answers are ‘no one’ and ‘yes,’ then weren’t the racists right that we added nothing to the world, that we truly were a useless race? I decided to read our foundational thinkers just to see what was behind those Chicken McNugget-ized bromides from Black History Month. Having done so, I felt so robbed. We have been lied to about our true heritage, and not by The Man. All those people we invoke so sonorously every February were offering intracommunal critiques, not analyses of what exactly was wrong with white people and how good life would be for us once the white man changed. I was also struck by how unreactionary they were and bowled over by how much they truly loved and respected black people, not that they ever put it that way. They assumed black leadership and excellence and just plain wonderfulness. When you listen to our current leaders, you realize they don’t assume these things because it’s all about how white people have to stop doing what they’re doing for us to get ahead. Woodson actually commended whites for taking such good care of themselves and exhorted us to get similarly busy. He ordered us to get even, by competing and winning, not by wailing so loud no one else could get anything else done. Pre-Civil Rights Act, pre-Rosa Parks, pre-Freedom Rides and pre-Tiger Woods, he assumed we’d win as soon as we stopped trying to make folks love us. Reading all these thinkers, I realized we’d been bamboozled, but not in the way we thought. Our black leaders today think we’re losers. They really do. That, as long as white racism exists, blacks will always be on the bottom of the pile. That’s not what the son of slaves, Woodson, thought and I want my people to know that. We used to believe in ourselves, not the unstoppable evil of whites. Now, blacks are the white supremacists.
Given that most folks aren’t nerds like me who like hundred year old books, I decided to salt the End of Blackness with as much of that knowledge as possible. I have never been so proud to be black in my life as while reading the incredible wisdom and transracial humanity of which black men facing the distinct threat of public lynching were capable. I developed a distinct crush on Douglass (circa the 1850’s) and Woodson (circa the 1930’s), in particular. These are men so ahead of their times as to be mind boggling. They thought ‘race’ was silly, whether coming from ‘us’ or from ‘them’. It annoyed and bored them. These are elders blacks really need to get to know.
You also use a lot of pop-culture references. Why?
I’m a nerd. Most other folks aren’t. I think lots of folks will either skim or skip the archaic language of our geniuses, knife in my heart though that is, but might be enticed to read a download from Africana.com or a quote from Vibe magazine. Knowledge isn’t relegated to dusty books which is why I read compulsively. I see so much that’s important in our culture reflected in odd places, like sitcoms and Top 10 lists, that I just couldn’t resist making the connections. Hopefully, I was able to illuminate the weird interstices of pop culture, literature, history and politics that define all our lives. What we say we think about our world and each other is not always, or even often, what we actually think. When we’re being less serious, as in mass market movies, we let all sorts of interesting things slip out. I see pop culture as the way America talks in its sleep.
What do you expect the response to be?
Shock. From whites and blacks (there being no other races), liberals and conservatives, young and old. My analysis is not unique or even that new (just chat with any black person 35 years old or younger), but it has yet to bubble up beyond the political and hip hop margins with much force yet. The preview audiences I’ve spoken to certainly seemed shocked in that positive way for which we writers pray. I drool over the prospect of lots of energized young blacks sidling up to me and exhaling because, finally, someone’s saying what they’ve been thinking but thought they couldn’t say without bringing about the re-enslavement of their people. As news of the book dribbles out (mostly through my eponymous website) that’s happening more and more. Hooray! Of course, from the other side, I expect to be fitted for a lynch rope. The reactionary, groupthink black wing of the community says it considers people like me a danger to the community. What they mean is that no one is allowed to disagree with them or, more importantly, fail to participate in the cartel that controls invitations, speaking opportunities and networking in the grievance industry. It’s about money and power, basically. I’m not playing the game and I’m endangering their hold on power and access to microphones and do-nothing jobs. Oh, there’ll be vocal denunciations of me. Very few debates, but lots o’ insults. I look forward to brawling with them, so they can bring it on. I got some Douglass and some Al Murray for them to contend with so I’m not too worried about Derrida and Foucault.
Who do you suspect your audience will be?
This book will be funny in this regard and I must say I’m looking forward to hearing people justify why my analysis of white political dysfunction is brilliant while mine of blacks’ is demented and vice versa. Can’t wait. I hope The End of Blackness will find its way to the open minded, future-focused black leaders in the next generation. It’s a new era: how are they supposed to know when to be black, when to be Americans, when to be fiscal conservatives, when to subsidize a group or program, when to be pacifists and when to fight? Do we even need a politics of blackness anymore? Our leaders need guiding principles for a new day but which remain true to blacks’ core principles without reference to the preferences or behavior of outsiders. The Movement models should be studied and revered, but not necessarily emulated. Different strategies are required today (otherwise, aren’t we really saying that the martyrs accomplished nothing?). I want them to have a reference tool to combat the foolishness both from within and from without our community. I want them to have some guidance, gleaned from our own sages, on how to conduct themselves and how to know to know what’s best for our people, our country, our world because I submit that nothing can be truly good for any of those entities without being good for all of them, so often, there’s no need to be ‘black’. Not if we believe in the transcendent principles we claim to. I know I’m not alone and I want to help those who agree with me find their voices and the courage it takes to stand up to both the conventional wisdom and to deal with only that racism which presents an actual, tangible problem. Let whites take responsibility for their own hearts and minds as long as it doesn’t affect blacks’ actual lives. Ignore the polls, deal with concrete problems concretely. If there isn’t a discrete measure to be taken (like firing someone or finding a way to fund more day care centers, for example) it’s really not a black problem though blacks might prefer a different outcome and though it may well be a black mark on some white person’s soul.
I hope it’s read by that majority of Americans of all races who are decent people and know that neither the NAACP or the RNC, the LADP or the ACLU has it quite right. I suspect, however, that one member of what I call the Black Politburo will skim the book, then use the jungle drums to spread the word as to which pro forma, preformatted, by-the-numbers denunciation of me to start spewing on their McCarthyite listservs, obscure conferences, and foaming-at-the-mouth talk radio shows. Can’t wait to see whether they pronounce me more self-hating, insane, or money hungry. All three probably, those being the only reasons any black person would ever think differently from them.
What is the one thing you hope people take from THE END OF BLACKNESS?
I know that America will tick me off by ‘hearing’ what I’m saying incorrectly. I am not saying that black people bring all their problems on themselves by expecting handouts or by blaming others for their problems or that whole run of nonsense. I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to get right wingers to stop patting me on the hand for supposedly thinking that. Here’s what I am saying: however blacks got to this point in history, whoever’s fault it is (read: whites’), the only way out and up is by ‘divorcing’ both the past and whites, qua whites, and starting all over again psychologically. We have to take responsibility for our actions, not monitor whites’, and decide that it’s time we actually began acting like we really were free, autonomous, moral and rational human beings rather than the group constantly protecting itself from a rapacious oppressor.