A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary on African American writer Alice Walker, author of several books, including “The Third Life of Grange Copeland.” I read this book a long time ago but decided to re-read a section of it after talking with some African American friends about the marginalization of blacks in America. In this section of the book, the son of Grange Copeland describes the behaviors of black workers (“Negroes”) in the presence of a white truckdriver who comes to pick up their bags of cotton: “Some of the workers laughed and joked with the man who drove the truck, but they looked at his shoes and at his pants legs or at his hands, never into his eyes, and their looks were a combination of small sly smiles and cowed, embarrassed desperation.”
(“The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?” – Zairean People of Africa)
The book was published in 1970, but the demand for black Americans to exhibit self-disparaging behaviors has not ceased. An African American woman working in an Evanston company was admonished by her white supervisor for looking her supervisor in the face while her supervisor talked to her. This did not happen decades ago; it happened just a few years ago. But this African American woman was not a “favorite Negro.” She did not apologize, grin, look down at her or the supervisor’s shoes or hands, or shuffle her feet. The company did nothing about this supervisor’s abusive behavior toward black employees, even though black employees complained about her.
During the 1960s, there were increased efforts to abolish the use of the term “Negro” for black Americans. The term was considered to be “an inaccurate epithet which perpetuates the master-slave mentality in the minds of both black and white Americans. …There seems to be violent objection to the term among young people, who link the word “Negro” with Uncle Tom” (“What’s In a Name? Negro vs. Afro-American vs. Black,” by Lerone Bennett, Jr., Ebony Magazine, November 1967) Dropping the label “Negro” did not occur without resistance, but it was finally dropped. (“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Frederick Douglass, 1817?-1895; writer, abolitionist)
Some other African Americans and I use the phrase “my favorite Negro” when talking about a black person who “sucks up” to white people; refers to African Americans as “immigrants” in spite of the history of slavery in America; betrays black people who fight for fair treatment and civil rights for black people; justifies discriminatory practices against African Americans; accepts negative stereotypes about black people as truths; laughs at offensive “black jokes” told by non-blacks; shuns black people; derides African Americans; etc. “It is a fool who does not love himself and his people.” Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975; black American religious leader.) “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” Sally Kempton, American writer.
Black History Month ends tomorrow, but black history continues.