Former Major League Slugger Sammy Sosa several years ago before and after his controversial skin lightening procedure he underwent. The Black Dominican’s seemingly extreme efforts to erase his identity drew criticism from Black Americans and was a visible example of the fear still held by some people of African descent to be comfortable in their own brown skin. (Photo courtesy of ESPN.com)
Article by Kim Gordon–Associate Editor of the Capital City Courier, Springfield, Ill.
When author Sam Greenlee wrote his powerful yet controversial novel, “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” in 1969, he was drawing on years of experience as one of the first Black officers in the United States Intelligence Agency, a position that would take him all around the world.
The novel tells the story of a Black man, Dan Freeman, who takes advantage of the new “affirmative action” policy of the CIA to apply for a position as an agent. Passing their strict training program to become the agency’s “token” Black operative, Freeman takes all of their information and specialized training to create an army of Black nationalist freedom fighters in a well-orchestrated and executed plan to free Blacks from racism in this country.
Greenlee’s novel was rejected by more than forty publishers before a British publisher finally agreed to print it. In 1973, Greenlee produced the book as a film and it was an overnight success, but just as quickly it was pulled from distribution due to its “politically controversial message.”
(Yet the violently anti-Black 1915 propaganda piece, “Birth of a Nation,” that showed hooded Klansmen as “heroes of the South” murdering Blacks… portrayed by Whites in blackface… was played in theaters all across the country, even becoming the very first movie ever to be shown in the White House, and was the highest grossing film of its time.)
It wasn’t until 2004 that Greenlee’s film was re-released (edited, of course!). However through the years, “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” has had one consistent audience…the F.B.I., who uses the movie as a training film for their own agents!
What was the main objection to the film? The fear seems to be that the movie would lead to a cohesion of Blacks joining together in a militant protest against the established system of white supremacy and racism.
Now, I hate to keep drawing comparisons here, but nobody seemed to give a rat’s ass about the virtual explosion in the number of lynchings of Black men, women, and children that followed and continued for years after “Birth of a Nation” was first shown, not to mention the swelling of the membership ranks of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups immediately after its release.
Or the ridiculous, asinine charges that formed the flimsy excuses to burn, mutilate, and destroy Black men… charges such as “reckless eyeballing” (looking in the direction of a White woman)…that mirrored the main theme of “Birth of a Nation,” which was that all Black men want to rape White women.
Or the prosperous Black towns that were destroyed by angry, violent White mobs (Greenwood, OK in 1921; Rosewood, FL in 1923; etc.) because a Black man supposedly raped a White woman. Why wasn’t that racist film pulled from theaters when the viewing of it obviously led to such hate-filled crimes?
In looking at it from the KKK point of view, the sheet-wearers were showing loyalty to their race. They were Whites who were acting in defense of their families and White womanhood.
And in order to protect their race, they felt it was necessary to take up violent arms…that’s what “Nation” defenders have insisted is the plot of the movie. Therefore, why does it seem so unreasonable when a Black filmmaker portrays the exact same thing? Black men pick up arms to protect and defend their families and Black women.
Why is that such a bad thing punishable by censorship, ostracism, and banishment? Sam Greenlee was “blacklisted” and prevented from teaching in any college or university in the country, severely cutting into his future means of making a living. Was that his punishment for being “too Black?” But before we can answer the question of how Black is too Black or not Black enough, we have to first figure out what it means to be Black.
And so, we have to agree on a few basic concepts…or agree to disagree if you don’t like what I have to say. First of all, Blacks are those who can trace their ancestry back to the continent of Africa, the Motherland. But as science and genetics have shown, every human being derives his or her mitochondrial DNA from the mitochondrial DNA of a single African female in ancient history… a Black Eve, so to speak.
Which leads assimilationists to scream out that we are all African, then, and we are all one race…the human race, and “race” is an artificial construct, and can’t we all just get along?
However, this “Let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya” approach doesn’t work in the real world. In the real world, real people face real discrimination, are denied jobs, money, food, loans, shelter, healthcare, even life itself, and a myriad of other real things because of an obvious genetic ancestry.
Therefore, we have to admit that there are differences based on where our ancestors came from, and move on from there to solve our problems. So, we know that Europeans trace their ancestry back to France, Germany, or any of the other countries in Europe; and when they “go home,” they head back to Europe.
The Chinese trace their ancestry back to Beijing, Shanghai, or anyplace in China, and when they “go home,” they go to China. Indians call India “home,” Brazilians call Brazil “home,” and Blacks call…or should call…Africa “home.”
Another concept, one that I’ve mentioned in previous articles, is that all color is Black. In other words, dark and brown-skinned Indians, Native Americans, Native South Americans, Native Australians, and all people of color throughout the world can trace their ancestry back to the African explorers and travelers who settled all across the globe.
But regardless of what language they speak or whether their land has been colonized, the blood which flows through their veins is still that of the original people, and Africa is still their home.
Now, that defines Black as a noun, but what about the definition of Black as an idea? Through the centuries, we’ve had people who were Black on the outside, but whose minds were anything but Black! Such as George Wilson, a church leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, SC, who in 1822 sold out his fellow church leader, Denmark Vesey.
Vesey, a Black man who had purchased his own freedom, planned to free his people in what would have been the largest slave rebellion in the country that would have liberated countless Blacks from slavery.
Wilson ran to his master and told him about the plot; an action that resulted in the death of all of the conspirators, but won Wilson his freedom for his “loyalty.” In a twist of “Judas Iscariot” irony, Wilson later went insane (guilt?) and committed suicide.
Unfortunately, there have been plenty more where he came from! There are those Blacks who, like Wilson, would rather sit around and wait for a handout to be given to them (in this case, freedom) instead of standing up and taking what is rightfully theirs.
There are Blacks who look in the mirror and hate what they see; people who go to incredible, unbelievable, and painful lengths to bleach, fry, cut, maim, and torture away any trace of their African ancestry.
There are Blacks who join in conversations or organizations with the express goal of turning over information, such as Black F.B.I. “undercover” agent, William O’Neal, who delivered a floor plan of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s apartment to the Bureau with an “X” marking Hampton’s bed, so that the Chicago Police Department and the F.B.I. could go in on December 4, 1969 and shoot Hampton in the head while he slept next to his girlfriend, who was eight months pregnant with Hampton’s son. O’Neal was serving as Hampton’s bodyguard at the time, and was in charge of security on that night.
He had also slipped a barbiturate into Hampton’s drink to ensure that he wouldn’t wake up when the F.B.I. broke in. And years later, O’Neal would also commit suicide, running out into traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.
I think it’s fair to say that anyone with African ancestry who can call Africa “home” is Black; but to be truly BLACK, it’s necessary to have a Black mindset. No self-haters reaching for the Clorox. No “I don’t even see color!” “We Are the World”-singing, doubting Uncle Thomas’s, either. In order to be Black, you have to first know that you’re Black. Although, even the ones who try to hide from it eventually learn that they’re Black by the way the non- Black world treats them. In the colonial world of Saint Domingue, the most harsh form of slavery had existed for centuries. And, as was typical of all areas of the world that suffered under imperialist domination, two “classes” of people of color had been created, mostly through the brutal rape of African women.
The darker-skinned Africans were treated as cattle and beasts of burden, while the lighter-skinned “gens de couleur libre” (“free people of color”) were given low-level positions of authority and were treated as if they were “nearly white.”
This class of mulattos acted as a buffer between the African slaves and the white masters. And when the revolution started that would be the first successful slave revolt and would free half of the island of Saint Domingue (renamed “Haiti”), the mulattos turned their noses up at the “rabble” and aligned themselves with the wealthy, white slaveowners. They discovered their mistake soon enough, though.
In one instance, the sadistic French general Rochambeau invited the free women of color to an elaborate party, and at the end of the evening of feasting and laughing, he presented each one of them with a brightly-wrapped box. Inside the box was the head of each woman’s husband. They quickly learned that “nearly white” truly meant “not quite good enough,” and despite their “mixed” genetics they were, in fact, Black. Shortly after that, the people of color joined in the slave rebellion that freed Haiti.
Now, when the Haitian army took the fight over to the other side of the island, the enslaved people of what is now the Dominican Republic didn’t see themselves as Black, and they fought to keep their white Spanish slavemasters alive, claiming the Spanish brand of slavery “wasn’t as bad.”
And even today, there is a definite division between the Haitians, consisting of mostly Blacks who retain their proud fighting spirit as the first Blacks who freed themselves and their people from tyranny, and the Dominicans, consisting of mostly mulattos who don’t feel they have anything at all in common with their Black neighbors.
Some of these mulattos, like Dominican-born Sammy Sosa, today spend thousands of dollars on skin-bleaching products to erase every trace of melanin in their skin. Sadly, as I said, you have to first know that you’re Black. So then, it’s possible to say that being Black also consists of knowing that you are Black and acting in a manner that demonstrates a loyalty to our positive African values and traditions.
Too many times, some who appear Black on the surface betray their race in one form or fashion, from politicians who talk a good game but sell us down the river, to ambitious celebrities such as athletes or entertainers who make their dollars from their Black fans, only to turn their backs on their fan base and chase those greenbacks from foreign pockets (and pocketbooks!).
In fact, we find plenty of these Black deniers, down-the-river-sellers, backturners, and back-stabbers…so much so that you would almost think there was some kind of school that teaches such Uncle Tom-foolery. (An interesting “tidbit” is that the original character of Uncle Tom was intended to be a “longsuffering, noble hero” in the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and indeed, he sacrifices himself in the end rather than betray the slaves who have run away.
The nature of the Uncle Tom changed as a direct result of his portrayal in popular “Tom Shows,” which were minstrel stage shows, based on the book, in which the Uncle Tom character was shown as a subservient Negro who did everything he could to please Whites.)
American society certainly rewards betrayal, though; if you can place a price on selling out your own people. As an F.B.I. informant, William O’Neal was paid for his role in the assassination of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who was also shot to death on that fateful night.
George Wilson was given his freedom for his part in betraying Denmark Vesey, but freedom is awfully lonely when everyone you know is still enslaved and all of your friends have been hanged.
Where do you turn? Besides the obvious rewards that are offered to those who deny their Blackness, another thing that causes some to not want to be Black is fear.
Fear of ridicule, fear of being singled out, fear of being rejected. And the fear sometimes cripples a person to the point of wanting to disappear into the outer society through either “conscious” passing or “unconscious” passing.
“Conscious” passing occurs when a light-skinned Black person consciously erases all traces of Blackness by straightening the hair, lightening the skin, etc. and pretends to be White in order to blend in with White society. “Unconscious” passing occurs when a Black person of any shade attempts to blend in by taking on all of the outer characteristics and trappings of White society.
They dress White, talk White, marry White, and in all ways completely ignore any signs that they might be Black. Eventually, the “unconscious” passers even begin to talk negatively about Blacks, totally forgetting the fact that they are, themselves, Black.
They write books and host radio shows spouting off every negative stereotype they can think of about us. There are several who make it into the public eye, mainly because they’re the ones the mainstream media and the politicians like to trot out whenever they want a “Black” opinion…and a good laugh.
Many Blacks have found that ambition brings hard choices, as some have been asked to leave their Blackness at the door of the executive boardroom. It’s not just clothing and hairstyles that must reflect a European rather than an ethnic (Black) appearance; this “request” often includes political and social loyalties and opinions that move away from an Afrocentric base.
The political field, in particular, is notorious for producing people who talk out of one side of their mouths, telling us what they think we want to hear, yet not having our best interests at heart.
And in order to move up the ladder to higher positions, some feel it’s necessary to de-emphasize their Blackness, while others are called on the carpet for not having enough Blackness to begin with.
Either way, it often seems that a strong, Afrocentric stance runs contrary to status and power in business, politics, entertainment, and any other highly competitive field. This is how many Blacks in the limelight are accused of not working in favor of Black interests, or even worse, working against Black interests.
Such charges have been leveled at Blacks like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was, himself, an Affirmative Action pick, yet he came out against the very system that put him in the position he now holds! These are folks that you see moving up the ladder of success, while you have to question what they’ve done for Blacks.
Even our current President has come under fire for not getting together with the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss ways to help Blacks in this country, and for helping all other special interest groups with their agendas… but what has he done for Blacks?
The question still hangs out there. Meanwhile, people such as former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney, those who work tirelessly for Blacks, and who question the policies that negatively affect Blacks, have stumbling blocks and obstacles placed in their way. McKinney’s long history of standing up for the underdog, speaking out about injustices, lies, and malicious policies, and “walking the talk” made her one of the few politicians worthy of the office.
This country should seek more people like Cynthia McKinney to have in public office instead of ostracizing, criticizing, and hounding her out of her position. It’s the fear of being ostracized that prevents many of us from “being openly Black.”
Blacks and Native Americans are the only ethnic groups that have been encouraged, and in many cases even forced, to assimilate into White society, giving up our culture, our language, and our heritage. Therefore, when we embrace our African-ness too tightly, we risk being accused of being too ethnocentric… as if that’s a bad thing. The criticism implies that we are rejecting all other cultures as invalid, and fostering hatred or some type of “reverse racism.”
But what these critics fail to realize is that being pro-Black is not the same as being anti-White. It’s possible to love your own culture and honor your own heritage without putting down other cultures.
Unfortunately, that’s the charge that has been unfairly hurled at Black organizations that exhibit Black pride, such as the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and the UNIA…the organization that influenced them all. Tony Martin’s book, “Race First,” provides a detailed insight into the life of one of the most influential Black men in the 20th century.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was the descendant of Maroons in Jamaica, those proud Africans who escaped the excessively cruel bondage of British slavery on the island and formed their own communities high up in the hills.
He was born in Jamaica in 1887, and everywhere that he went, he saw the suffering of Black men, women, and children under the system of racism and oppression. In 1914, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with its philosophy of “Race First!” and “self-reliance” and at its height had over 900 chapters and more than 8 million followers throughout the world.
The UNIA organized the Negro Factories Corporation that managed a number of UNIA businesses such as laundries, restaurants, a doll factory making Black dolls for Black children, tailoring and millinery establishments, and a printing press. Garvey traveled the world giving lectures on Black self-determination.
In 1920, he organized the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, held at a packed and overflowing Madison Square Garden in New York, with a crowd of 25,000 on the opening day alone.
At this convention, delegates who came from all over the Black world adopted the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, in which they served notice to European colonialists that “Africa is for Africans,” and the Black man had an “…inherent right to possess himself of Africa.”
They demanded an end of lynching and other forms of discrimination, the capitalization of the “N” in “Negro,” and the teaching of Black history in schools.
The red, black, and green were adopted as the colors of the race. Garvey also called for Blacks to repatriate to Africa, and developed the Black Star Line of steamships, partly as a shipping business venture, but mostly to transport Blacks back to Africa.
Marcus Garvey, whose name is not mentioned in schoolbooks today, embraced his African culture and his Black race very tightly, and as such developed a number of enemies set to destroy him.
The U.S. government was against him because they thought all Black radicals were dangerous and needed to be stopped. Don’t believe me? J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. had a whole series of operations called COINTELPRO designed to subvert Black activists, organizations, and leaders. Marcus Garvey was at the top of the government’s list.
European governments were against him because of his “take back Africa!” demand, which they saw as a threat to their colonies. Even the N.A.A.C.P. was plotting his demise, led by board member W.E.B. Du Bois, who was advocating a kind of Black “caste system” with light-skinned Blacks on top (his “Talented Tenth”) and the dark-skinned “masses” at the bottom.
Garvey’s “Race First!” philosophy didn’t fit into the plan. And in the end, it was Du Bois and the N.A.A.C.P. who tirelessly worked to destroy him, eventually succeeding in having him arrested on a trumped-up charge of “mail fraud,” imprisoned, and deported.
Yet, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, whose dream of a global mass movement and economic empowerment of Blacks nearly came to fruition and inspired such organizations as the Nation of Islam and the Rastafarian movement, was not afraid to be Black.
Marcus Garvey’s philosophies and writings should be required reading, if not in the schools, then at least in Black homes. He demonstrated what could be achieved when those who know they are Black act like it, and pull together in a concerted effort to lift ourselves up and establish our own businesses, our own financial institutions, our own means of self-reliance.
Much like the true message of the Million Man March, there is power in numbers, and when those numbers decide to move in one direction for the good of the people, who can stop them? And also like the Million Man March…which had no fights, no altercations, and no violent episodes…when Blacks come together to accomplish something positive, acting Black is a beautiful thing.
We just need to make up our minds not to allow fear…of rejection, of being ostracized, or even of being attacked… to keep us from showing who we truly are and where we really came from!