Lately I’ve been noticing a number of social media posts that ask people to choose between what are perceived to be competing issues, perspectives, activities, individuals or viewing choices. The last one I saw was “Empire” or “Black-ish?” Why can’t I like both? Why does there have to be only ONE representation of Blackness available to me? This choice that I’m sure was all in light-hearted fun did remind me that Black people often are caught in that trap. One some level I understand the deep desire to be in solidarity and present a united front, but in general this pattern of pigeonholing Black folks is almost never good for us.
I remember when Eddie Murphy was asked if he were the next Bill Cosby (of course, that now has multiple meanings) or the next Richard Pryor and he correctly responded, “No, I’m the first Eddie Murphy!” We would be so much poorer culturally if we only had one Black comedian. Today, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, Wanda Sykes, Mo’Nique and many others regularly demonstrate a wide range of comedic talent.
Whenever a Black person is set up as “the one and only” they get called upon to represent Black people in areas far beyond their expertise. Why on earth do people ask Charles Barkley what HE thinks about race relations when basketball is his acknowledged area of expertise? Now, because John Legend and Common have won an academy award for their song, “Glory,” we are supposed to rely on their perspective as the valid one for improving problems of racial discord.
The technique of “divide and conquer” is an old one. W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were pitted against each other and Booker T.’s seemingly more accommodating approach was seen as the “correct” one. But, a perusal of some of the correspondence between the two indicates that they had a longstanding friendship and respect for each other. Booker T. was a pragmatist. He knew White folks would give no money to build Black schools unless they believed these schools would produce more manual laborers. DuBois was perceived as arrogant because he was pushing for Black people to have access to elite education. But we did not have to choose between the two—we can have people who do either, or both!
During the 1960s we were being pushed in the same way to choose either Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. They had different strategies and tactics and we could learn from both. It did not have to be either-or; it could easily be both-and!
Our children should have a world of choices available to them. They don’t have to be relegated to one vision of themselves or their futures. It does not matter if they choose the arts or STEM related fields. It does not matter if they wear their hair natural or straight. It does not matter if they are light complexion or dark skinned.
Our survival is dependent on a full embrace of our humanity. That means that we must have access to a full range of choices for each and every human endeavor. This also means we have the right to say that we don’t like some people or that human beings are complex by nature and we can like some things about them while abhorring others…can you say Kanye West?
When “Black-ish” first aired I wrote a blog suggesting it was a little weak but I also said I would reserve judgment because it was new. I pointed out that the beloved “Cosby Show” started out slow and gained speed as the actors surrounding him got better. “Empire” hit the ground running. It’s two main actors—Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson were veterans who had worked together before. The inclusion of hip hop music with a classic melodramatic plot made it a phenomenon. And, with the invention of DVRs and On Demand I can enjoy them both. But for real…Cookie Lyons or Olivia Pope, y’all?
Stay Black & Smart!