A few years ago, when I was still taking graduate school course work, I got into a “disagreement” with a colleague about race and class. We had just left our course on mid-20th century black literature, and were hanging out in the department lounge for some strange reason–something I’d never do now. I think we had just finished discussing Native Son in class that day, and afterwards the issue of race and class came up. I think I started talking about how unsatisfying the last third of the novel, Fate, is. Or maybe I didn’t. The memory is hazy, as it was a traumatic time in my life, and I’m kind of old now; I don’t much remember my wide-eyed days. Anyway, I think I was making some poorly worded (and perhaps ill-informed) statement about Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and being black and disillusioned with communism. At some point, and this is clear to me, my cohort emphatically said to me with authority, “I’m sorry. It is all about class.” I was pretty much like, no. I might have said something snarky. I might have not.
Though I should have been really offended that this non-black person (of color) was sitting in front of my face whittling down my experience as a black person in the United States to adventures in class struggle, I channeled Jigga, and brushed it off my shoulder. Frankly, I hadn’t really taken the conversation that seriously. Until she sent me emails. (I wish I still had them.) I can’t recall exactly what she said, but it was pretty much about her marching with commies and an overall mischaracterization of what I had said. It was weird and surreal. I called someone (another non-black person of color) who had witnessed the conversation to make sure I hadn’t said what homegirl claimed. But homegirl insisted I had said what I didn’t. So I shut down the conversation; I had run out of patience. In retrospect, I can’t believe I was so tolerant of someone so committed to telling me that, essentially, white people were an occasional pain in my ass because they were bourgie and I was a proletariat. (Has there ever been a more appropriate time for the retort, “Get the fuck outta here”? Faulkner wasn’t lying when he said Dilsey and her people endure[d].) She hasn’t really spoken to me since. That’s ironic, Alanis.
This morning, I thought about what she’d say about this Skip Gates ordeal. Would she–or the circa 2004 her, assuming her position has evolved–say that a woman called the police, that Gates was confronted by the filth because he looked poor? The police report reads like outtakes from Crash (I pray the police officer made up that “Yo’ mama” line, surely a man who wrote a book on signifyin’ came harder than that), the statement on behalf of Gates like scenes from a movie starring Morgan Freeman (as Professor Gates). But one thing is for sure: if race got him into those bracelets, middle-, upper-class access got him out.
There’s a joke black comedians like to recycle about the show Cops. Essentially, they observe that white folks getting arrested on the show say things to the police black folks wouldn’t dare. And they wouldn’t dare say those things not because they are (presumably) poor, but because they know that when it all falls down, being black is akin to committing a crime, and thereby always arrest-worthy. That’s why there’s a primer for black interaction with police–it’s like a family recipe: never written down, but passed on through generations. But perhaps you need a bit of leisure time, a little class privilege to study black people long enough to link things like blackness and criminality. Perhaps we sing an ascension, class-based lullaby that causes some of us to daydream, to forget that many of us are what we study. We are becalmed into thinking we have things like rights. I almost got caught up once. I got stopped by the police for walking down the street in Lincoln Park at night; accidentally gave him my student ID. I guess I got temporarily hypnotized by all those Nobels. Just a pitfall of being young, gifted, and black, I suppose.
Was Professor Gates thinking like my cohort, that it’s all about class when he showed the police his driver’s license and Harvard identification? Was that going to erase the fact of blackness? Were those arm bands not a reminder? How would my colleague account for the fact that “all about class [access]” cannot explain 5-0 running up in the house, putting the manacles on the wrists, but can definitely help interpret why a buzzing internet, Charles Ogletree as legal representation, and–probably–those dropped charges? Can she now see how all of this is like buying freedom papers? And that such action, if I am understating the facts, is heavily seasoned with race?
Either way, it’s not very classy to tell a black person–or for a black person to think–that it’s all about class. Trust me. I know. And if I forget, I will be reminded. I am reminded that for so many, getting arrested or chastised by the police for being black is just another day around the way. And if that’s the case, no one will tweet about it. Or release a statement. Or hire a lawyer for you. Or write a blog about you. Stay black and (or?) die.
And sometimes (Harvard) access isn’t enough. Ask Chanequa Campell. She knows.