MLK is as deeply embedded in our national myth as J. Edgar Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt and Johnny Appleseed. So there's really not much else to say at a popular level that hasn't already been said. So this King Day is becoming more and more like President's Day, and this and that about King himself is just about as boring and cliche as any other story about cross-dressing, rough riding or tree-planting. King brought us to our senses in many different ways. Most importantly to me, Martin Luther King reminded us that in the eyes of Christianity and in the eyes of the Constitution, there is no place for race, and if the society and the law forget that, there are severe moral and political consequences.
But there's something else about MLK that I think needs to be said perhaps in the same way that the Triumvirate (Crouch, Murray & Marsalis) might say. Which is that he needs to be considered the Negro instead of the Black and that the more enlightened and elevated choice in light of this recent historical period is that of the Negro. Now this is something that is very difficult for me to apply to myself. I prefer some neologism rather than the putative throwback term of 'Negro'. But I can think of a number of ways in which somebody hewing to the framework of the Negro in America would be much better situated than someone who aspires to an Afrocentric or Black cult-nat position.
What's the primary difference between a Black (purposefully using capital letters) and a Negro? It's actually rather simple. It is the matter of radical autonomy. The Negro is satisfied that the end of his journey is that of a well assimilated American. The Black is satisfied that the end of his journey is an autonomous group who may just happen to be in America. This is a subtle but important difference and they are often the markers that distinguish King from X. As time goes by, I prefer to deal with the differences in concept and ideas, rather than the extent to which the persons of King and X represented them to America and in their own lives - so let's set aside the biographical accuracy and get to the conceptual.
The measure of a man, said King, is best assessed when he is under duress, and for the African American throughout America's history, this duress came when one man sees that his liberty is not served and defended by his society. If that man is a Negro, then his political impulse will be towards reform. If that man is a Black, then his his political impulse will be towards subversion. In one way it can be said that the Black is more courageous than the Negro and that the intolerance of the Black man towards the corruption of society is more principled. But the radical autonomy puts the Black man in an odd situation which may not have seemed so odd when the Black idea was new, but as the success of King's legacy of reform becomes more taken for granted in America the radical autonomy of Blackness appears more foolish.
I have had, on every occasion that Haiti has been in the news, time to reflect on the fact that my family believed as a proper Black family should have, that America was doomed to corruption and the best place for us was Haiti. There is, somewhere in my vast collection of family photos, on in particular - a black and white passport photo, taken in 1968. When America was burning down, when my father believed that the FBI was tapping our telephone, when MLK was assassinated, the best place for a Black man to be was out of America. At that time, all the Negroes looked extraordinarily foolish. And Malcolm X, had he been alive to tell the tale, would have put an exclamation on that point. Why should a Black man be patient with America?
Well, things get a bit more complicated from my perspective in answering that question. The great success of Blackness has always been its cultural autonomy, not it's political or economic autonomy. There have never really been successful Black politicians. Such men as Kwame Ture have never stood for democratic election. Such organizations as the Nation of Islam have never put forth candidates. There are no Black Nationalists anywhere in our government, there are only liberal integrationists who occasionally and deniably shout cult-nat rhetoric to the faithful. Could Charlie Rangel be called a Black according to the radicalized leaders of the SNCC and the Black Panther Party? Well, he could certainly be a soul brother, and he could wear a dashiki and say it loud that he's black and he's proud - but not Rangel, not Stokes, nor any of those blokes were Black in the political and economic sense. I would argue that they weren't Pan-Africanist either.
So what am I saying? I'm saying that all 'Black' politics in America that have met with any success since the era of MLK has actually been Negro politics.
What does it take to satisfy a Negro? The fulfillment of the Reverend Doctor's Dream, and that dream has been fulfilled. Middle class merit in the middle of Middle America. That was and is the Promised Land, my fellow Americans. What complaint is left in these days that there is an African American in the big chair of the Oval Office? There is only the Black complaint of radical autonomy - and that is a complaint that, not ironically, fits snugly in the belly of today's multiculturalism. Except when it doesn't, because you'll not often hear anyone asking to rearrange the letters of the NAACP so that 'People of Color' become its primary focus. No, that is an organization which has, in the wake of King's Dream un-deferred sits ignored like a grape in the freezer. And now Blacks who work and hustle the Progressive agenda to increasingly deaf and bored ears find themselves overshadowed by even more loud and radical minorities.
What happened? Blackness as ideological platform failed, but as an existential mask, it succeeded. You don't need to look up in Wikipedia what 'Angry Black Man' means. That pose is well-defined, because it has been well-maintained in our culture. Everybody gets to try it because it's so easy. And because it is so easy to adopt it is also easy to ignore - it is a mask whose shape has not changed or become more relevant as times have changed. It has become like our own panto with Black Mr. Punch struggling against the Devil of America. And because it is so easy to pantomime, it is also trivial to ignore, which is why it's so easy to be called a 'sell-out' or 'Uncle Tom'. What that means most of the time is 'Negro', if it means anything at all. A Negro can be satisfied in the middle of an imperfect America and has no need for radical Black economic, political or cultural autonomy.
Idealistically, there was much promise in the Black agenda. And any honest assessment of a genuine Black agenda will tell you that it has a long way to go. But I question the value of such an endgame more than I question the practical organization of people who might be involved. To invoke Blackness is to invoke a racial autonomy which at this point in history, and I would argue henceforth is foolish. Henceforth because there is very little interest internationally of any Pan-Africanist brotherhood. Nobody was thinking of Haiti two weeks ago, and nobody was asked to. But the Black agenda, such as it is, will present itself at this moment and ask embarrassing questions. Like how can we call ourselves Black if we have done nothing, from our positions of relative power in the US to help our Black brothers of Haiti? The question remains, but there is no Black organization to successfully answer it. Randall Robinson's Trans-Africa might have, but they make less money than Steve Harvey. Well, most of us do.
So the Black pose persists as the Black agenda stagnates, and now we face the consequences of that failure. Everybody likes to pretend that they can be as Black as they wanna be, and a few actually can. But for the overwhelming majority of African Americans, we discard the Black mask and invoke the Christian and Constitutional legacies of righteousness and apply them to American society. Those are our criticisms that are taken most serious because we are clear about what those traditions mean and we are not entirely sure what Blackness means. At the very least, we recognize the wisdom of Christian ethics and Constitutional government, none of which we would trade for Blackness.
I would like to have been a New World Afrikan, and I still might be that kind of brown-skinned international cosmopolite. If and when I hang out and have drinks with Djimon Hounsou and conversate in French over in Ibiza on a yacht, I'll let you know, but I won't throw away my passport. And I will think twice the next time I hear the word 'Negro' used pejoratively. These days, when I think of the term, I think of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. And I think of Sidney Poitier and Martin Luther King Jr. And I think of the America the Negro always desired, and I think that I'm living in it.