I wasn’t going to post on the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I still don’t want to post about it. Going through my Facebook feed today, I saw so many comments on the issue from my close friends and loved ones, all voicing my personal feelings on the issue. The videos, the tributes, the think-pieces were all a lot to digest. I found myself searching for the specks of levity in my feed – memes, cooking videos, anything to distract my mind from the traumas of collective mourning. There was a negative energy in the world today which was inescapable. People were quiet, reflective, fearful. Everyone seemed to ask themselves and one another in private, just above a whisper: when will it stop? How can we make it stop?
respectability [n] – the state or quality of being respectable; social standing, character and reputation deserving of respect and decent treatment.
So as I mentioned in Desire, I’ve been watching my sister’s panel show The Grapevine lately. Today they released the final part of their four-episode conversation on Bill Cosby, with this episode concerning the issue of Cosby’s infamous respectability politics. I have wanted to write a piece on this issue for a while now, but have been either too busy or too motivated by other projects to truly dedicate a couple of hours to put my thoughts down on the page. Now, after having my catalyst, I can lay my thoughts bare for the world to see.
The Pound Cake speech is but one facet of Bill Cosby’s long-lasting legacy. Renowned for his comedic genius, his prolific image and his philanthropy, Bill Cosby is without a doubt an important figure in African-American culture, regardless of his political leanings or recent sexual assault allegations. After having taught an episode of the Cosby Show to a class of sixteen-year-old high school students last summer to demonstrate how African-Americans have attempted to use media to demonstrate counter-narratives of the ways which White Americans imagine our existence, I for one must acknowledge how important Bill Cosby has been towards introducing Black faces into the white spaces of American media.
That aside, I am not obligated at all, as a Black person, as a fledgling scholar of Black studies or as someone who avidly consumes and analyzes Black media, to like or even agree with Bill Cosby’s politics or messages, and the Pound Cake speech is the reason why.
I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.
You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours.
It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.
When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.
I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.
Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.
Reflections on blackness, class and privilege.
Anyone who sees me around campus is likely to see me in this navy “Pace University Alumni” t-shirt. This t-shirt is one of my favorites, not only because its comfortable and well-worn (that is, it fits my body well from me stretching it out just enough so that it doesn’t lose its shape or look sprayed-on) but because of the symbolism behind it. I never really paid attention to the fact that my parents had both graduated from college until I arrived at Swarthmore. It was an unspoken part of my reality, an unseen privilege which was only made apparent to me when I realized that other people didn’t have it as well. And I suppose it may have been due to the fact that I was embarrassingly naive in high school or simply out-of-touch with the world around me, suspended in the little bubble that is my town.
And it didn’t really mean all of this to me when I started wearing the shirt around the house, at that time during this weird weight loss journey of mine when the shirt was still too tight for me to wear it in public. It didn’t even dawn on me when I noticed for the first time that I really liked the way I looked in that shirt, or when I realized how upset I was when I found a hole in the armpit. It wasn’t until this summer that I sort of became cognizant of it all, to be honest.
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