Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Paucity of Hope - As I remember the story, a black teen - let's call him Eric - was to be paid to play the piano at a party held at the home of a local white family; this was not entirely unusual, as Eric had practiced the piano for a number of years and also sang with his church choir. As the party was taking place some distance from Eric's rural Texas neighborhood, he wisely took another young friend with him. When the two got to the home where the party was taking place, the patriarch and host was taken aback to see two African American males at his door. Being of a certain age and disposition, this southern gentleman made his displeasure plain, with words to the effect of, "I can't have two niggers at my party." Perhaps not wanting to jeopardize Eric's chance to make a little money, the friend took his leave, and Eric dutifully performed for his audience.

All of this reportedly took place in the early-to-mid 1980s. Since then, much has changed for young Eric Bishop, nearly all of it for the better. He left his Terrell, Texas home for Los Angeles in the late 1980s, working on his music career and performing stand-up in comedy clubs. Along the way Eric changed his name to Jamie. (As he recalls,
"I wrote down all these unisex names at this comedy place because they would always choose the girls to go up... So I wrote down Stacy King, Tracy Brown, Jamie Foxx... And they picked Jamie Foxx. I got up, had a great night and that's how the name stuck.") Jamie Foxx of course went on to star on T.V.'s In Living Color, and transitioned into movie roles in Bait, Redemption: The Stanley "Tookie" Williams Story and Collateral, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Foxx eventually received an Oscar for his performance in Ray, and followed that up with other star turns, to include as of late, a lead role in Dreamgirls.

But given his history of being on the receiving end of the "n-word", it was particularly disturbing to hear of Jamie Foxx defending his own use of "nigger" (or more precisely, "nigga") during a comedy set at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City on January 14, 2007. According to the New York Daily News' gossip page, Foxx pointed out that, "I'm an Oscar winner, but I'm a nigga too." Recalling Rev. Jesse Jackson's admonition against public use of the n-word following Michael Richard's racist rant, Foxx commented, "Then they said we can't use the word nigga anymore. That's my sh_t. I need it... I need the word to describe certain things, because at a certain level of excitement, I need to tell you how the sh_t was, and there ain't no other word that helps me say that better than that word."

In keeping with the fiction of situational appropriateness of the n-word, Foxx then told his audience, "White people, you can't use [nigga]" adding, "I would have booked [Michael Richard's] ass." Jamie Foxx's impassioned defense of his own use of nigger/nigga, coupled with his personal experience with and recognition of the word's destructive power speak to the confused thinking of many blacks surrounding the word "nigger" and its usage. This is all sad enough, but sadder still is that the idea that Mr. Foxx (and others) are so bereft of a language to describe the affairs of their lives that they cannot imagine not including a noun richly laden with historical and rhetorical baggage.

As I observe the cultural landscape of much of the African American community, I am struck by the differences between the apparent and the genuine. On the surface, blacks today have reaped much from the 20th Century's Civil Rights Movement. As a people, we have more wealth, prestige and influence on the society than at any point in our history in America. But what is not readily acknowledged is the fact that, particularly for younger African Americans, there is a palpable sense that the way things are today is as good as they will ever be. For better or worse, we believe that whatever our collective future holds, it will be more of the same.

There is a feeling of black America's having plateaued, and we seem to possess little hope that things will get much better at all. More importantly, we doubt our own efficacy to effect positive change. To be sure, (some) Eric Bishops will still have the chance to rise on the strength of their God-given talents to become Jamie Foxxes. But the idea that many blacks would so stridently defend their use of the n-word speaks to a generalized sense that we can do no better for ourselves and that we deserve no better from the society. On a deep and essential level, many of us have come to see each other in exactly the same way as that southern blue blood saw the two niggers at his door.

More to come...

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