Friday, February 10, 2023

The Rise and Fall of Great Race Men

This should have been published a month ago, the weekend after that insanity over the election of a new Speaker of the House. So, in the spirit of believing that just because you missed your intended stop the first time, that doesn't mean you can't go back, or keep riding until the train turns around, I decided to publish it now. Something about the start of Black History Month and watching the State of the Union address brought this train back around:

Now that the fun of electing the new Speaker of the House is over, we need to have a serious talk about a few matters. MLK weekend just passed and February is here, so we're entering that zone of time where folks need to be reminded that having Black friends and rooting for Black ballplayers is not a license to say anything to or about Black people. So for my second PSA in this new year, the Busy Black Woman has a few choice words of warning. If you read this piece or my initial commentary on the Facebook page, then you might know the matter of Rep. Byron 'not Brian' Donalds (R-FL) being trotted out as everybody's Black friend bothered a lot of us coming so soon after y'all tried it with Herschel Walker.

Our ancestors are displeased, and if you think it was hard work just to convince a handful of zealots to end their second insurrection attempt in two years, just try that so-and-so was a Republican and that makes us not racist schtick again! Y'all think this is a damn joke???

Don't play with us, and don't mock real American heroes for your political shenanigans. It is bad enough having to hear y'all misquote MLK every January because you think it deflects from the fact that you're still saying/doing something offensive. It only gets worse when you send in clowns like Byron 'not Brian' Donalds who allow themselves to be showcased like some Pet of the Week. We are neither amused nor persuaded to join your ranks because you happen to know a little Black History trivia, as if we don't have access to the same information. Google is free. 

Furthermore, Black folks don't need to be reminded or told about Abraham Lincoln, our past allegiance to what used to be the Republican Party, conservatism, or any other topics you feel compelled to educate us about regarding politics. We're not new to any of this. I keep telling you that some of our roots are deeper in this country than yours, so we know American History. Despite what some of you were taught, our stories are integral to this country. So to every twit who jumps onto my TL to 'teach' me that the Republican Party freed enslaved people in 1863, according to my calendar, this ain't 1863. In Washington, the Lincoln Administration also authorized reparations to be paid to their former enslavers for the loss of their human property. Unless you are willing to confront hard truths, then I don't owe anyone political loyalty for emancipation since my people never should have been held in bondage in the first place. 

But let's be exceptionalists and act like the point isn't whether American chattel slavery was ever right or wrong. Instead, let's continue to promote this idea that Black people (along with our Indigenous siblings) are perpetually indebted to the same folks who believe it is their burden to tolerate us since they couldn't totally annihilate us. 

I don't know much about Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), but after I listened to the entirety of his floor speech when he nominated Rep. Byron 'Not Brian' Donalds for Speaker, I decided to give Rep. Roy the benefit of the doubt by assuming that his intention was not to mock us. However, I fail to see how alphabetically picking the first Black guy on your side's roster wasn't intended as some kind of see, we've got Black people too stunt. Sure, for a brief moment, everybody in that chamber applauded, but then someone scrolled down that same roster to later nominate Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), presumably to keep the game going by having two Kevins on the subsequent ballots. If Rep. Donalds' nomination really was about judging people by the content of their character, then support of Donald Trump was based on what, his hair?

No sir, we are not fooled. We know our history, but more importantly, we know yours.

We know that there have always been members of our community who were misled into believing that by aligning with certain interests, it would improve their individual/family condition. Just as long as they didn't agitate for more, some benevolent boss would gladly hand down their used clothes and leftover table scraps. In exchange for a more dignified job guarding the door instead of plowing the fields, this would allow them access to see all of the nice things they might eventually deserve. All they had to do was remain loyal servants with modest ambitions. 

Now the issue has never been whether one should remain loyal (because that is a personal choice), but rather if one should regard kind treatment as anything other than basic human decency. That should be expected, not earned, so the lie has always been that we had to be deemed worthy of respect. Think about that for more than a moment--how we are expected to prove our humanity to people who sold our children away like cattle. Lest we forget, white people passed all kinds of codes and laws to control every aspect of our ancestors' lives, all the way up to a Supreme Court declaration that we had no rights. This notion that it will be different now, as if we never had to fight for every single inch of ground, that we ought to trust the same forces that have subjugated us for centuries?

Miss me and my people with ALL of that nonsense! It is 2023.

Great Race Men made that same mistake too, such as Booker T. Washington, whom conservative Black leaders love to point out was practical, honorable, and misunderstood. At the turn of the 20th Century, he was definitely one of the most well-known and respected. A formerly enslaved man who literally pulled himself Up From Slavery, Washington had become a national figure after he gave an address to the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. His powerful speech, often referred to as a Great Compromise, was in fact, a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality based on his lived experiences. 

See, Washington had witnessed Reconstruction as a student at Hampton Institute in Virginia. When the federal occupation of the former Confederacy came to an abrupt, but politically expedient end in 1876, he was working as a teacher in West Virginia. He was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama to lead a new school in 1881, where he served until his death in 1915. The time period of Washington's formative education is a significant one during which Black men figured prominently in the social, economic, and political reconstruction and reunification of the former Confederacy with the Union. Yet, these men, all Republicans, lost their positions through Redemption tactics that ran the gamut from intimidation to political maneuvering to outright disenfranchisement. The Grand Old Party opted not to fight for its rightful place in Southern politics until nearly a century later.

Thus, by the time Washington was sent to Alabama to found and lead Tuskegee Institute in 1881, its lone Black representative in Congress, Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL), had lost reelection and the others would eventually lose their seats as well. Washington, the honorable, pragmatic Race Man must have thought he had received some long-awaited sign of approval from heaven when he was given a primetime speaking slot on the program. So he did what any intelligent person would do when trying to make a favorable impression on those whom one feels needs to be persuaded. He read the room and gave the kind of speech he believed would reassure those in power that the Black community knew and understood its place. 

The speech was a success, but his words didn't result in long-lasting change. Washington's prominence as a Black leader in what we know of as the nadir of Black life in this country, didn't shield Black bodies from the noose, the chain gang, or other exploitative forms of labor. Although he didn't publicly condemn white mob violence like his peers, he worked behind the scenes to support education and Black entrepreneurship. Yet, when he was invited to the White House as a dinner guest of President Theodore Roosevelt (R) in 1901, just six years after the address, it caused an uproar. When Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913 and ordered the segregation of civil service jobs, I'm sure Washington was not on the invitation list for the screening of Birth of a Nation (1915) at the White House. Ten years after Washington's death, how many of those same men who applauded the speech at the Cotton States Exposition borrowed their wives' bedsheets for this March on Washington in 1925?

Here is where some of the amateur Twitter historian would declare that political party affiliation matters since Roosevelt was a Republican and Wilson was a Democrat. And those identifications are indeed true and reflective of the ideologies of both parties a century ago. However, fifty years after Wilson left office when John F. Kennedy was President, the ideology of the Democratic Party had continued to shift in favor of civil rights. And this is the part that is conveniently forgotten or intentionally misrepresented, but it simply proves how some of us are much better students of American History than others. Or why some people are so insistent on shielding their children from the facts that don't flatter their grandparents.

Therefore, I have a few words of warning to these modern-day Race Men like Rep. Byron 'not Brian' Donalds, because I would hate for him to suffer the same fate as most of his ideological forefathers. It won't end well for you, never does. And you're no Booker T. Washington.

In one of my all-time favorite movies, Glory (1989), there is a Black character named Thomas, who had grown up in Boston with Colonel Robert Shaw and Major Cabot Forbes. When Shaw receives his promotion to command the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Thomas is there to celebrate the news with them and volunteers as the unit's first recruit. During basic training however, Shaw becomes cold and detached from his childhood friend. This is demonstrated in two powerful scenes: one where Thomas is chastened to mind the proper protocol for addressing a superior officer; and another encounter with a fellow enlisted man who mocks Thomas for thinking that he was still 'friends' with Shaw. 

Your gambit to align with the Insurrectionists got you noticed, and now you have a new position on the Republican Steering Committee. And that is quite the come up from obscurity, so you must feel honored, much like bearing the regimental colors in battle. It is certainly symbolic, but meaningless if you don't ever become more than just the Black guy who guards the door. When McCarthy goes down, what do you think will happen to you?

Black conservatives have argued for over a century how just being in the room was progress. But we've always been in the room, but how much advancement occurred by following the go-along-to-get-along approach? Not much if individual accomplishments only rewarded those deemed exceptional, but never paved a wide enough path for others to follow. We've adhered to the conservative rules of respectability--we got educated at HBCUs; our grandfathers and uncles put their bodies on the line for this country through military service; we established Black businesses; and we worshipped the same Jesus who promised to wash all of us white as snow. Yet, it took agitation, not accommodation before we could even eat at the lunch counters where we cooked the food but were not allowed to be served. 

Rep. Donalds, you got on national television to denounce what you deemed was disrespect from a Black woman because she didn't celebrate the Faustian deal you struck. You're both in the same congressional class, and in the time that you've served together, how many times has she been attacked and been able to look to you as her defender? You know as well as the rest of us that you weren't brought into the GOP leadership because they hope you will recruit more Black voters to their side. They have made it abundantly clear that they would rather suppress or delegitimize Black votes than win our support. So how dare you even suggest that your triumph ought to be celebrated when all you've done is rise to the top of a trash heap? 

Your name shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as Frederick Douglass, let alone in the same sentence as Booker T. Washington. You will not be vindicated by history for siding with the Insurrectionists. Even with your new position, I don't see you becoming the first Black Speaker of the House, ever. I am not hoping for your demise, but as I have seen how prominent Black conservatives tend to fly head-first into that concrete might want to buy some insurance. 

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