February 7, 2014
J. W. Ward, Jr.
WE HAVE NOT STRUGGLED FOR THE RIGHT TO BE STUPID
Time. Time or awareness of duration imposes a dreadful question for us. Are we better off than we were fifty or sixty years ago, better off than we were fifty or sixty seconds ago? Part of the dreadfulness of the question is its lack of Sankofa properties which compel us to ask: Can we be better off fifty or sixty years from now? Unless our critical thinking looks at the past with the future in its mouth, we occupy an interesting but unproductive space. Both questions are subversive, because they challenge our clichés regarding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as our definitions of life and liberty and happiness.
The agonizing questions are collective, because they pivot on the idea that the plural pronoun “we” has different meanings in time. At the location marked by May 17, 1954, “we” did not have a common meaning for the indigenous person in California, the Negro person in Mississippi, and the white person in Utah. Any talk about the aftermath of an American Supreme Court decision in 1954 regarding Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas must take that fact into account. Please notice that palaver about civil rights in America very casually relegates the topic of human rights to the margins of consciousness.
The answers or responses to the Sankofa-marked questions are arbitrary, governed or determined by the individual who tries to formulate responses. In this sense, the answers are individual rather than collective. “I” stands in opposition to “we.” The answers have a strong existential flavor, especially in relation to a need for clarity about what the phrase “better off” might mean. Better off for whom? The potential for infinite refining of that question is brought to a halt by saying “Compared to what?” with Roberta Flack or “So What?” with Miles Davis. Time.
When Dr. Howard Jones, Executive Secretary of the Southern Conference on African American Studies, Inc., asked that I say something about “The Aftermath of the Brown Decision: 60 Years Later,” he also said “just give us some of your ‘literary master-wisdom’.” I doubt that I have master-wisdom, but I am certain that our ancestors did. Thus, I turn to David Walker for the wisdom of his Appeal, In Four Articles; Together with A Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to those of The United States of America (1829).
Were the world of 2014 blessed with a happy state of affairs, I might entertain you with a short story about how Walker’s appeal inspired Frantz Fanon to write The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The contemporary wretchedness of our global state of affairs forbids such indulgence. It is quite noble of our Kenyan American leader, President Barack Obama, to propagate the audacity of hope against palpable odds. After all, one of his many responsibilities is to prevent our nation from having a shock of recognition from which it might not recover. I do not bear that onus. I have another cross to carry. Our ancestors, yours and mine, coming from many sectors of Planet Earth, have imposed the burden of memory upon me.
David Walker bids me to transform four states of wretchedness -----1) in consequence of slavery; 2) in consequence of ignorance; 3) in consequence of the preachers of the religion of Jesus Christ; 4) in consequence of the colonizing scheme ---into 21st century items of concern. Although it is possible to find evidence of physical slavery in certain parts of the world according to United Nations reports, the issue that ought to beget anxiety is cultivated enslavement in the Age of Information. Ignorance, which Walker described as “the mother of treachery and deceit” (Walker 21) still nurtures humanity, and trains human beings to love self-delusions. An overwhelming number of American preachers and self-ordained ministers dispense drugs of forgetting , in the names of Supreme Being, God, Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Adoni (if vocalization of the tetragrammaton YHWH is forbidden), with greater efficiency than international cartels. Colonizing schemes may now seem to be the dream stuff of speculative fiction or science fiction, but the motives and structural features of such schemes of population control have morphed into neo-colonial enterprises and neo-segregation gestures to which many of us attend far less than we should. Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board decision, the citizens of the United States of America thrive in the wretchedness of global warming, internal and external terrorism, the global collapse of decency and common sense in the dynamics of growing inequality and imitation “progress. “ The rigorous and principled study of benign genocide ought to be a required course in American public education. But what ought to be vehemently resists materialization.
We have not struggled for the right to be stupid. In this instance, in using “we,” I refer to people who have not fallen victim to cultural amnesia; who have not lost the ability to remember; who have not been ravished by the seductions of “progress” in the aftermath of the Brown decision, by unfreedom that wears the mask of freedom, by the quaint notion that human beings “perform” life but do not live it, or by the queer, more dangerous idea that the realities of narratives we call history need not correspond with the actualities of lived experiences. We still believe “history shows,” as Carter G. Woodson said in 1933, “that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over a government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning” (186-187).
From hindsight, we recognize the myth of solidarity (unity in pursuit of goals) among black Americans was powerful and purposeful from the advent of slavery in the Americas through the declining years of the Civil Rights Movement. Traces of that myth are still with us, but we no longer speak with any confidence about a unity of interests among African Americans. We have to negotiate diverse communities of interests among black folk, because the idea of the black community is embodied in the mind but rarely does it breathe, speak, move or act in the everyday conduct of life. In the aftermath of Brown, we harvest the strange fruit about which Billie Holiday so poignantly sang.
Our lamenting how poorly current public education serves the complex needs of black and non-black children in our thoroughly racialized nation notifies us that Papa Jim Crow is not dead; he has a brand new bag. The desegregation of public education did not produce exceptionally wonderful results. And the resegregation of the American body politic we witness in 2014 does not make things better. Michelle Alexander says it better than I can in The New Jim Crow:
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it function more like a caste system than a system of criminal control. ….Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race. (13)
Michelle Alexander speaks to me and for me. So too did David Walker and Carter G. Woodson.
I recognize, of course, that how Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas permanently altered the American body politic was, all things considered, a good thing, a wise re-orientation of destiny and the course of American history. Nevertheless, pure reason instructs me that social gains can become social losses. Under natural law, we do have the right to be stupid. Natural law has an endless supply of Trojan horses and drones. Being stupid is a right that I reject and flush into the sewer.
David Walker, Carter G. Woodson, and Michelle Alexander are the true sources of “literary master-wisdom.” It is their language that enables me to answer the questions “Are we better off than we were sixty years ago?” and “Can we be better off sixty years from now?” in two words: HELL NO!
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
Walker, David. Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. 1829. Ed. Charles M. Wiltse. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.Woodson, Carter G. The Miseducation of the Negro. 1933. Washington,