In the late 70s, my Dad found a new barber. This meant I had a new barber. I was fine with that except for one little thing: my Dad would get me up at 5:30 as in AM. On a Saturday. At the tender age of eight, I learned I was not a morning person.
We would make our way to the barbershop off of what was then Detroit Street in Flint and waited until the barber opened around 7:00 am. Other men were sometimes waiting ahead of us. When the doors opened up, it was time to either hop on the barber chair or wait until it was our turn. As Dad and I waited our turn, I would look around the shop. Since this was an African American barbershop, I might pick up the latest copy of Ebony, Jet, or Black Enterprise magazines and read the stories of African American businessmen, stars, and sports figures. There was also at the back of the Jet magazine a picture of that month’s woman in a swimsuit. That probably interested a lot of other young boys, but even though I didn’t know I was gay yet, that never really fascinated me.
If you were seated in the barber chair getting your trim, there was a simple black sign on the opposite wall. I can’t remember how long that poster stayed up, but at least throughout the late 1970s, it stared at me. It was one sentence in pink letters that said, “Black is Beautiful.”
Black is Beautiful. That phrase was everywhere throughout the 1970s. It was the first full decade after the passage of laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 which allowed African Americans to be able to live their lives. Racism still existed, but people could sleep in any hotel they chose or any restaurant they cared to visit. Born in 1969, I was part of a generation that had no memory of Whites Only signs or other signs of segregation. There was a flowering of black pride from the late 1960s onward. James Brown called us to “Say it loud, ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud.’” Nina Simone talked about being “Young, gifted and black.”
Pride was everywhere in my world. During my elementary years, my Mom borrowed or purchased books to help me to see that there were African Americans that were doctors, statesman, inventors, and business leaders. I learned about Charles Drew, the discoverer of blood plasma, or Elijah McCoy, a prodigious inventor. After decades of being told we were stupid or incapable of doing anything, there was a push among African Americans to stand tall know that after everything was thrown at them, from slavery to Jim Crow, we survived and thrived.
If Black Pride was the name of the game when I was a kid, it is not any longer. Pride has given way to victimhood and resentment. I’m not sure that people think Black Is Beautiful.
In my youth, African Americans were defined really by a sense of perseverance. No matter what was thrown at us, we worked to thrive. Of course, not everyone was able to overcome barriers placed in their way, but there was this spirit to try. Over the last two decades or so, African Americans have become defined by slavery and discrimination. For African Americans, these two evils are part of our experience. They were part of who we are, but not all of who we are.
But now they are. We are defined by these experiences and we are viewed as damaged by the past. There’s a lot of talk about escaping whiteness, but the talk tells us we can’t escape it. Every accomplishment is diminished because of the white man.
The wider culture tells us that African Americans are always held down by the white man. One example is the YouTube series Extra History. To their credit, they have done a wonderful job of being more inclusive and telling stories about African Americans. But sometimes the videos don’t make African Americans feel proud of themselves. A recent episode talked about famous Black boxers like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. There was that flash of pride as you see these black men stand up to racism, whether it’s the Nazi propaganda machine or protesting against a war you don’t believe in. But the way the video presented the stories there was a sense of sadness that they dealt with racism. Every success was diminished because of the whiteness.
What has happened? How did black pride become black victimhood?
With the advent of what John McWhorter calls “Third-wave antiracism” there seems to be less talk about how we have overcome and more about how we are still in thrall to white supremacy and white privilege. When I was growing up, it was important to be an achiever. “You have to work twice as hard as a white person to be half as good,” was the phrase I heard over and over. Now it seems that hard work or being on time is considered a part of whiteness. During those days of my youth, African Americans strove to define themselves. That was empowering. It seems like we have taken a step back in defining ourselves in relation to whiteness.
Conor Friedersdorf recently interviewed, Ndona Muboyayi, an African American mother of two kids in Evanston, IL. She’s been shocked at the school district’s anti-racism curriculum. She attended the Evanston schools as a kid. Moving back to town after years away she was looking forward to her children experiencing the same empowering, racially inclusive education she received as a child.
It didn’t turn out that way. What she found was a curriculum that disempowered black kids, making it harder for them to succeed. In the interview, Mboyayi explains how this anti-racist curriculum has affected her kids:
My children have always been so proud of who they are. Then all of a sudden they started to question themselves because of what they were taught after arriving here. My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, “But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.” That’s what they’re teaching Black kids: that all of this time for the past 400 years, this is what [white people have] done to you and your people. The narrative is, “You can’t get ahead.”
Of course, I want my children to know about slavery and Jim Crow. But I want it to be balanced out with the rest of the truth. They’re not taught about Black people who accomplished things in spite of white supremacy; or about the Black people today who got ahead, built things, achieved things; and those who had opportunities that their ancestors fought for.
I wonder how this emphasis on “we can’t get ahead” will affect other black children across the nation. Black Is Beautiful was something that forced you to be successful. You wanted to be the best and even if you didn’t get as far as you hoped, you knew you gave your best because of all those African American inventors and business people and scientists who broke barriers built pride.
I worry that the current generation is being taught they will always be under the heel of white privilege. That they can’t be someone that makes a difference in the world. That they won’t ever succeed.
I still believe Black is Beautiful. I hope that someday soon other African Americans will believe that again as well.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on April 6, 2021.