What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black: Don Lemon, the Politics of Image, and the Stench of Respectability
“What shall I tell my children who are black, of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin? What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb, of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn they are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black. The night is black and so is the boogyman. Villains are black with black hearts. A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs. Storm clouds, black, black is evil and evil is black and devil’s food is black.” ~Margaret Burroughs
As one looks more into the politics of respectability—a discourse that displays how many members of the black middle class strive to silence what they deem to be the moral inadequacies of those most marginalized—we are able to identify historical instances that were stifled in their time period and still today. We must reclaim the stories (and most importantly the histories) of those who have been pathologized throughout the generations. We must begin to highlight the stories that lift up youth of color in a time where society is quick to castigate, cast aside and labeled us deviant. If it did nothing else, Don Lemons comments, only emphasized a social climate that is eager to pathologize black youth, I find it important now, more than ever, to speak the breath of our ancestors into existence, while we—as young people—simultaneously stand up for our own worth, our own dignity, our own expression and our own self-love.
There are two extremes. Those who want to defend the poor and those who want to demonize the poor. Unfortunately, it is these extremities that turn the most nuanced of social issues into reductionism and monoliths, especially in the discourse of impoverished black youth across the country, a narrative that is still tattooed into the my own family history and my personal upbringing.
One extreme is quite common and easy to identify. We all have heard it from the Don Lemons, Glen Becks, Ann Coulters, and Rush Limbaughs of the world. These are the a-historical individualists who ignore the systemic and institutionalized oppression that has been strategically sustained in communities of color since the inception of this country. We know this discourse is usually rooted in racism and capitalism, as those who “have” –seek to paint an image of the poor that blames the individual for his or her impoverished fatality. Yes these discourse has the stench of respectability all over it. And the smell is not worth the lives, choices, and experiences that are devalued in the process.
However, there is another side to this coin. It may not be as harmful as this individualistic paradigm, but it can still hurt poor communities across the country.
The other extreme is what I will call the liberal apologist. This is usually a myriad of white, black middle class, and academically driven liberals who are so busy defending the poor or trying to hide the reality of problems we face; that they have lost touch with the reality what we actually experience. These extremists often over emphasize the politics of image, romanticize the oppressed, and in this process strip all agency away for poor black communities by reducing us to victims. Don’t get me wrong—structural oppression is crucial to understand, but if all we can see is structure, we might lose a full discussion of policy options that have the potential to augment poor communities.
The politics of image in black communities is a tug-of-war contest, leaving the outliers safe in their moral superiority and leaving poor black communities secondarily marginalized, doubly demonized, and exceptionally stranded between a back and forth of ideology, while poverty spreads like an epidemic.
We must continue to rebuke Don Lemons, and Bill Cosbys, and everyone else who want to ignore a historical backdrop, but we also must be careful not to fall into a trap that strips people of their own personal agency and dignity.