If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
Right now everyone is sounding off about the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the oldest and largest national/Southern fraternities for their stirring rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
“<em>There will never be a nigger in SAE. There will never be a nigger in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me There will never be a nigger in SAE.”</em>
I’m angry. My blood is boiling. I’m furious, flabbergasted and disgruntled. This was a case of racist nonsense gone amok. It was nasty, celebratory, defiant—and our response to it is all wrong…and that’s what I’m angrier about. Have the rallies, punish them accordingly, unify as a campus community, get the deep, heart-killing frustration out, but don’t hinge this on “nigger.”
I do not believe in policing beliefs or expressions of belief. If you want to call me a “nigger,” do it if it makes you feel better, but we’ll both be wearing icicle underwear in hell before I answer to it. We are not talking about “sticks and stones…” here. The word and concept behind the term “nigger” is very complicated, controversial and fraught with narratives that position anyone who uses it in any form–of any background-within a certain and pained history.
Without reading the depressing comments on social media defending the S.A.E. chapter, I think it’s safe to say that some will immediately rally to “Rappers get paid millions to say a lot worse yet these boys are going to have their lives ruined over political correctness.” (Let me tell you, thoughts like these–with all their false equivalancies and nonsense—that come so fast and so fluid—remind you as a Black man how well you are trained to prove the validity of your causes) However this whole discussion is not a re-appraisal on the “n word” debate. It hinges on whether we have conditioned ourselves to outcry over a name or word as if it’s use is the epitome of white supremacy, when far more white supremacy is being exercised in ways that demand constant and current agitation.
I’m not playing devil’s advocate when I protest blocking or banning S.A.E. at the University of Oklahoma. What are they learning? “Don’t say nigger. Don’t get taped saying nigger. Don’t say nigger in a way that can be distributed on social media. You can think nigger but don’t say nigger.” This is the wrong message. Apparently we don’t want to eradicate systemic racism, we just don’t want to hear “nigger.”
We will never heal as a culture on the so called issue of race if we keep lying to ourselves and each other. I pity these young men, I don’t fear or hate them. I’m no handkerchief headed Uncle Tom…I’m no apologist…so don’t get it twisted. If The Cooking Gene has taught me anything its about the ability of many white Southerners to search themselves and come to a place where they were mentally able to process seeing their way out of the inheritance of white supremacy they were raised with, or in other cases, the acceptance of the status quo. Know this… The Old South is not dead. It is alive. It is real. It is not an isolated incident. It is not history. It is now. Stop pretending otherwise.
I want to heal the disease not just blast the lesion. If we were serious about matters of racial justice and harmony we would end the cycle of outrage and begun beefing up the grassroots movement of not only resistance but systemic change. I’m extremely proud of the movement that has grown and developed in response to brutality, abuse of authority and overreach by law enforcement. We need more…we have men and women being shot dead before alternative solutions can be found to deal with conflicts. We have a wave of voter suppression efforts aimed at crippling the votes of people of color. The same state that is acting shamefaced about this incident is banning A.P. U.S. history because in their opinion it does not support their ideas and values about American history. You know the same history that neighboring Texas wants to change in every textbook where the Middle Passage gets annihilated as an American memory or where “states rights” trumps the inherent anti-democratic and morally evil nature of race based chattel slavery as the cause and purpose of the Civil War. You’ve done a wonderful job cutting off the head of the Hydra, but trust my words–in a world where systemic racism thrives at every possible level and intersects with gender oppression, class inequality, homophobia, religious hatred, regional prejudice and 100 other ills—you’ve not put to rest a racist trope. In fact it will come back stronger than ever before.
We have amply demonstrated to each other how racism hurts “minorities.” Yet we have failed to show white males how racism hurts them, and that’s why I reserve my pity for this chapter. It doesn’t hurt them when we express our outrage. For some it emboldens a spirit of resistance against what some inherently believe is a reversal of natural or social order. In the Pelosi documentary, “Right America Feeling Wronged,” you could see the fear, depression and despair in the eyes of some of the bigots she interviewed. 400 years of racial animus bullshit and these men were cracking under its pressure and burden. They spat, swore, and cried. One man went from defiant smiles to volcanic tears as he said something to the effect of, “There used to be a time when being a white man meant something in this country.” Racism should come with a dire warning, especially the anti-Black kind among its many varieties, real power+bigotry+the means to harm others and maintain such authority as a matter of birth and privilege will drive you insane.
What does that mean?
“There will never be a nigger in S.A.E.” The pride, the outlandish jubilation at being exclusive, in repeating the past, in referencing the hanging tree. The smiles were those you see in the crowd photographs of lynchings. Had these young men ever seen that? The infamous photograph of Laura and L.D. Nelson, a black Oklahoma woman and her son hanging over a river, a proud assembly having done the ritual of restorative racial injustice acknowledging their kill. A colored wench and her male seed cut down. Or to quote the Ferguson police department, “crime prevention.”
Did they ever meet survivors of Oklahoma’s prosperous Black Wall Street in Tulsa where the presumed “assault” against a white woman led to an outright pogrom against Black economic and social power? Do they know about redlining, housing discrimination, the war against Black farmers and landowners, the conflict over whether Freedmen – formerly enslaved members of The Five Civilized Tribes – should have a treaty honored with THEM…
Don’t punish these guys for saying nigger. Punish them deeply….i.e. Educate their asses. Make them sit down with the elders that saw this. Make them break bread with the people they say will never enter their “privileged” ranks. Make them spend a year making it right by doing something bi-partisan like getting elders and lower income people to places where they can obtain identification so they can vote without fear of being turned away from their RIGHT (not a privilege) to vote their conscience and be able to decide if the people policing them, controlling their children’s education, and making policy about their health care, economic well being and opportunities to achieve the American dream are safeguarded, not abused. (I bet that one won’t go over well…..)
Make these boys take classes in African American history. Make them work with young Black kids with a Black fraternity. Make them understand that working together we have more to gain than we do constantly figuring out ways to misunderstand each other. Make them go to an HBCU in an academic exchange so they can feel what it’s like to be in the minority for a change. Make them see the world differently, make them care.
I am not a universalist. I believe in the power and beauty of owning your cultural, regional, and ethnic “location,” while respecting our common humanity and doing and working towards maintaining that respect. I also believe in crossing borders, being outside the box, and being as complicated as we need to be to solve the root issues of our struggles.
I don’t want these young men to harbor fear, resentment, pangs of lack when they look at someone like me. I want them to see a human, a human who is certainly and especially proud of the miracles of nature that have given him the extraordinary opportunity to be a descendant of some of earth’s strongest–beaten but never bowed, broken but self-mended, insulted but never un-crowned. These young men, many of whom might well call themselves “Southern,” share a heritage with me, a past, a history with connections unusually intertwined and close the way no two other groups with ongoing issues and enmity share. We are kin. If we sat down to eat, we’d probably eat the same foods, be able to tell the same stories about our grandmothers, hear the same hymns, appreciate life’s simple gifts the way only a Southerner can.
This kinship means we don’t throw our cousins out and think we have solved the problem. This kinship means we will resist their fear, their hate, their ignorance and give them a means to self improve. It’s not a free pass, it’s not tolerance for intolerance, it’s the plain notion, here and now that if we do not start telling the truth to each other and ourselves that if we do not find a means of living meaningfully together we will surely die miserably apart.
There’s always a food component here at Afroculinaria.
Now unemployed: The African American chef who cooked for these guys. Read more here.