15 August 2008

Recarving Our Cultural Totem Pole

As much as some of us in black America may want it to happen, there will be no Shaft candidate for president, kicking ass and taking names.

The president is an executive. He is usually a seasoned politician, no matter what moniker the press or the peanut gallery hangs around his neck. A black candidate who doesn’t understand his strengths AND his weaknesses in appealing to mainstream America will be pigeonholed and marginalized, not only by the press, but by the professional operatives who help to run his campaign and by the big money donors whose contributions make or break a candidate’s fundraising efforts.

The respect we are looking for, the status we desire in this society, the accomplishments and achievements we long to accumulate in the same manner as our paler brethren, can be obtained. But it will not be a Barack Obama presidency that gives us this opportunity. “We are the ones we have been waiting for”, one of the hallmarks of an Obama campaign rally speech, is not just an empty aphorism, it is a literal truth – we black Americans hold a lot of our community's destiny in our own hands.

Has our history anchored us so securely to the past that we cannot make any more forward progress?

To take that question a step further, how do we rearrange the mythological constructs that shape how we view others? More importantly, how do we get others to do the same when they encounter us?

One of the many people I've met on the internet recently, who is a woodcarving enthusiast, had this to say about carving around the occasional knots she finds in the fine hardwoods she works with:

    "A stubborn knot, metaphorical or real, requires patience -- and a very sharp tool. You work it from all angles (the wood around a knot does not grow in a single direction as the rest of the grain does) slowly, slowly paring it down; you resharpen your tool (knots are very hard -- yeah, literally and metaphorically -- and blunt a fine edge quickly) with care and precision. You go at it again from all angles.

    Once you've leveled it out, the evidence of the knot is still, always, there: it becomes part of the pattern and beauty that is the wood itself. Imperfections in wood are what make it most fascinating.

Making the changes we need to as a people to more fully participate in the more desirable aspects of American life doesn't mean that our culture will disappear. If we can agree that a culture can be shaped - that it can retain some characteristics and discard others over the passage of time - then I will be pushing mightily to pare away the dogfighting, the crack selling and the baby mama drama that we have been passing off as black American culture lately. These negative images we have raised to the level of cultural signifiers are a type of metaphorical posing, a commitment to "keeping it real" that ignores the literal truths we see before our very own eyes everyday.

What I really think we desperately need to get from all of this is a realignment of the "natural order" of things, not just in America, where we are still fooling ourselves when it comes to racial equality, but in black America too. I want to see our own cultural totem pole recarved, with a smart black man in a blue suit at the top. With black men and women who teach our children, who heal our sick and keep our streets safe just below that image. I don’t want to take the rappers and the singers off of the totem pole – just slide them down a few notches from where they are now.

Segregation of our bodies didn't work. Neither will segregation of our minds. Integration has allowed blacks and whites to look at each other up close and personal. The question is, can we believe what we see, because what I SEE out here in mainstream America are people who look a little different, but want the same things I want - safety, security, prosperity, and an opportunity to enjoy living on a regular basis.

Collaboration has to be the next step. Which means our lives won't look like they do now. The things we will have to give up as black people will not make us less black, the same way the Greeks and the Germans and the Polish and the Irish and the Italians and the Dutch are no less themselves for leaving behind the parts of their cultures that don't fit in this society. And some of us, who will not be able to cope, will find ourselves, like the rednecks and the hillbillies and the long haired radical hippies, relegated to the fringe of our society.


  1. When I was a kid my older brother told me "No one will believe you until you do it." I think in order to get others to respect us we just have to get up and start making the change. If you met a guy who joked around all day you would think he was a joke. But if that guy stopped joking and started dressing different, worked hard, and you saw him driving a BMW, you would know he stopped joking. It's simple one person at a time we change what people see and thus they will treat us different because they see something else.

    We don't have to say anything because no one will believe what we say until we do it.

  2. A guy I work with had a habit of saying "that is racist" whenever he perceived he was being slighted by a white coworker. I'd hear him say it to someone - in the break room, at the copier, at his desk - at least once a day over the simplest shit.

    So we were talking one day in the parking lot after work, and I mentioned it too him.

    "Hey man," I said, "you know, I swear I hear you calling something or someone in the office a racist practically everyday. It got me thinking - when was the last time I'd called someone a racist? - and I have been having a hard time remembering when."

    He looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

    "You're articulate, you know what you're doing, you're well dressed, you get here earlier than everybody else - just like all the other black people who work here."

    He had to laugh at that, because he was the only other black employee at the time.

    "Maybe I'm wrong, but nobody here, as far as I can see, calls you 'the darkie from Alabama' behind your back. It seems more like you are 'the guy who can help me with this software glitch' when I have a problem. The guy who is going to answer the phone if I need to call in sick. If there's something that happens and you need to address it, yeah. But the woman stopping by your desk to tell you that she picked up a tray of watermelon slices for the office and if you want some you can find it in the break room is not a racist. Saying that kind of shit two or three times a day is really working to put everybody's guard up - and if they can't get to know you better, and you can't get to know them better, you might as well be living in the sixties."

    We've talked about this a couple of times since. He has rethought his stance, and now uses this incendiary epithet sparingly.

    Thinking more critically and less emotionally will get us where we want to be faster - much faster than the speed at which we are progressing now.

  3. Obama has done this, and moved up quickly. He may be an aberration, but having done all the right things in terms of education and dress, I've done well too, although I have suffered real racism on the job.

    BTW, Brown Man, would you mind blog rolling me under your Opinion Links?

  4. Done diddly - when do you work? The posts on your blog are a mile long.

  5. I began the blog in early May of this year and average three posts per week. It looks like a lot because I didn't configure the archives in the typical manner; I wanted to keep all of my articles in view since the Hard Rock Love series and the sociological ones are fairly timeless.

    Many of my older political category of posts are forward-looking and futuristic and still worth a read, ie the stuff on the upcoming Great Depression, how there's a plan to treat urban blacks like insurgents, and the plan to consolidate to the US, Canada and Mexico into one nation, the North American Union, etc.

    I just wish I knew how to reduce the font of the posts in the side bar. If you know, let me know. Also thanks for the blog roll ad.

  6. I am a white female artist, who has committed to painting a lifesize Obama once a month in different themes. Unbelievably this month is Sky Cheif at the top of a northwest Totem pole. I find this an uncanny coincidence. I welcome your readers to see the whole series, 8 so far, and hopefully 40 more folkart portraits to come.


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