Date: Sat, 4 Mar 1995 19:43:15 -0500
From: email@example.com (jonas broth)
Subject: Race: Meditations, Discourse, Solutions
I know that probably most of you would rather that this topic simply die
out and fade away but I feel that the current calm is a rather uneasy cease
fire which can (and will) become volatile again. Exhaustion and
frustration have smothered the flames of conflict here but the embers are
still smoldering and all it takes is a strong gust of wind to start a blaze
It has been suggested that the question of race is out of the scope of this
list. But I think we would all do well to recognize that techno music is-
as the saying goes- "a Black thang." As Ernest Hardy reminds us in his
_Request_ magazine article of last July entitled "Why I Hate Techno":
"Techno music didn't start in England or Germany or any other repository of
Aryan wet dreams." It started in Black, Gay clubs in Chicago, worked it's
way through the dark sides of Detroit, was picked up by working class youth
in England and only then did it begin to enjoy recognition by white
Discussions about electronic dance music are therefore inextricably linked
to questions of race, class and yes even gender. But I think the question
of race is within the conversational scope for even deeper reasons as I
hope will become clear below.
Some of you may remember a post I made to this list last year which quoted
Professor Cornell West commenting on the need for young people today to
come up with a broader defintiton of rebellion (sorry I never got back to
you on that thread David, the answer is house). In case you aren't
familiar with him, Cornell West is a professor at Harvard University and
has received nation wide attention for his leading role in a rising group
of Black intellectuals for his analysis of race in America. He also
authored the nation-wide best-seller _Race Matters_.
This past week I had the honor of attending a lecture given by Cornell West
and some of his comments seemed particularly useful in gaining insight into
what has been happening on this list of late. The following are some
excerpts from his speech that I HOPE will serve to raise awareness and
offer a means to quench the thirst of those hot coals waiting to either be
fully extinguished or re-ignited.
This is long and if you don't have time to read it I would request of you
to save it and read it later. I think that what this man has to say is
important for each and every one of us to hear.
Cornell West, speaking at the Ohio State University on 24 February 1995:
"I began my own struggle with the psychic scars and existential bruises of
the viscious and pernicious practice and ideology of white supremacy trying
to respond and resist that white supremacist ideology that begins first and
foremost with the degradation of the black body. Debase it, devalue it.
Attacks on black beauty trying to convince people of African descent that
they have the wrong hips and lips and noses and hair texture and skin
pigmentation. That cuts deep, it's not just individual racism and
discrimination, we are talking about the aesthetic dimensions of this
viscious ideology that was concocted and constructed at 180 years after the
beginning of the nations of Europe. An age which began in 1492... and the
encouter with indigenous peoples in this part of the world. Shaking hands
with Christopher Columbus when he showed up lost.
"And in 1688 for the first time in the history of the world the idea of
race was put forth trying to divide human kind based on discernible
physical characteristics to try to infer something about intelligence.
"Trying to rationalize and justify what sits at the center of the age of
Europe: The trans-Atlantic slave trade in which Africans themselves would
be transported . Recall the great dedication of the great classic by Toni
Morrison of 1987, _Sixty Million Or More_.
"The attack on black beauty goes hand in hand with the attack on black
intelligence, we see this even in 1995. _The Bell Curve_ is but one voice
in a long long list of forces of trying to convince people of African
descent that they are _less than_. Part of that bombardment.
"One of the best things about mankind, especially those that suffer, is
that we have such a sense of humour. You can show up in any black beauty
salon or any black barber shop and people will say, 'You know, leading
Euro-American intellectuals in the 18th century said we had no intelligence
whatsoever, in the 19th century they said a few of us had some and now they
say all of us are less than average we are actually making progress.'
"I will go further and argue that to raise the question of race in America
is to raise one of the most fundamental philosophical questions about the
nature of instituional and personal evil in the modern world.
"Trying to understand what it means to be human. And what it means to be
modern. And what it means to be New World, and American, to talk about
Race In America. Of course you can't talk about race in America without
going back to the great W.E.B. DuBois. The greatest scholar ever to emerge
out of the African American community. I want to highly encourage young
folk to go to the bookstore- preferably an independent bookstore, help them
out- and buy the souls of black folk. Buy that before you buy _Race
Matters_. Buy Du Bois' book. Why? Because he takes us right to the very
heart of discussion about race in America.
"DuBois begins with thirteen lines, eight references to the crying of water
echoing off the pride of Africans who jumped off or were tossed off those
slave ships-- Remember only one in five made it. DuBois is suggesting
what? To talk about being a human being of African descent is to talk
about an encounter with the absurd... in America. And the absurd as
America. And black folk did not have to read Albert Camus, Paul Sartre or
go see a play by Samuel L Beckett to know what the absurd was.
"And yet it is moments in which black folks would be pushed against the
wall and life would knock them to their knees and all they could do was to
sing a song or let out a guttural cry. You can still here it in praise and
prayering in black Baptist churches. You can still here it in Bessie Smith
singin' the blues. Or in Louis Armstrong's West End Blues. Or in the
sublime melancholy of John Coltrane's _Alabama_. Or when sister Aretha
calls for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
[or might I add in the wailing diva of a soulful house track, jb]
That history of guttural cries and wrenching moans and visceral groans that
is still laying in a system trying to hold off madness.
"It's no accident why music has played such a special role in the lives of
people of African descent as a way of soothing and correcting as well as
unsettling us. Not only that, it is no accident that black music
constitutes one of the grand if not THE grand artistic body of work of the
Twentieth century so that the whole world sings the songs and melodies and
harmonies and rhythms of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and Sara Vaughn
and Billie Holliday. And, yes, the contemporaries. The Babyfaces and
"DuBois... then goes on. He says, 'Between me and the other world there is
an unasked question that most of my white fellow citizens flutter around
it, they avoid it, they evade it. They want to come right to it and
instead of stating it the say, "I know an excellent colored man in my
town."' Well, what a diversion. What are they evading and avoiding?
DuBois says this, 'How does it feel to be a PROBLEM?' How does it feel to
be a problem in an American civilization that puts such a premium on being
"You hear it every year in the State of the Union, 'There is no problem
that we can't solve, no limitation we can't overcome, no constraint that we
cannot transcend.' And yet you've got a PROBLEM PEOPLE who are viewed as
distinct rather than PEOPLE WITH PROBLEMS. Big difference. All human
beings have problems. It is impossible to be the nebulous, two-legged,
liguistically conscious creatures born between the urine and feces that we
are and NOT have problems. We all start off 'in the funk.'
[I'll interject here with a plea for some thoughts on recent comments
regarding "Zheam the racist," "Zheam the trouble maker," "Hey, Jonas,
lighten up on Miles, he isn't as bad as Zheam." Zheam... the PROBLEM.]
"And not only that, but in the short time that we're here we better find a
little meaning and value and love and care and concern because there is
inevitable and unavoidable and inescapable extinction waiting for each one
of us. Some day very soon. Some may look for life on the other side of
the Jordan, but that's another lecture for another day. That causes
anxiety. That's human beings in general.
"Problem people are something else. A problem people are selected as a
group of persons who constitute an undifferentiating blob. A homogenous
block, a monolithic conglomerate. Meaning what? Meaning that those
people- like black people in America- become indistinguishable, and
substituable and interchangeable. All of them the same. Only need to ask
one what all the rest of them think.
"All black people got the same values, same viewpoint, same perspectives,
same orientation, just ask one of them. I used to experience it all the
time in class. In college, I'm the only black person in class they'd all
look at me 'Well, Cornell what does black America think about this? Could
you speak on behalf of your people?' I don't know what all black folk
think about! I haven't engaged in some wholesale empirical investigation.
I can tell you what THIS brother thinks.
"Black folk are like anybody else. Diversity. Multiplicity.
Heterogeneity in the community. Shoot, we got some black folk that like
"What DuBois was talking about was this: what Ralph Ellison calls
Invisibility. The condition of Invisibility. Black folk have an epidermal
which is most visible but their humanity is invisible. Which is to say
their individuality, their pesonality, their personhood is invisible. In
fact we become simply objects and abstractions. And become simply a
container into which white fantasies and white desires and white fears and
white anxieties are poured.
"So that the dominant images of black folk in America are what? Exotic,
transgessors. Closer to nature, so spontaneous, full of vitality. Those
black folk are always so full of energy. And of course as part of the view
which claims black folk being so close to nature as also being further
removed from intelligence. A certain slice of the white supremacist view.
Some black folks themselves succumb to that self deception. They think
that it is some how less black to be in a laboratory or be in a library or
read DuBois or read James Baldwin or Audre Lourd. SAYS WHO?
"A condition of namelessness. James baldwin's two great books, again I
want to recommend this to young people, _Nobody Knows My Name_, his other
book written 1917, _No Name In The Streets_.
"The democratic sensibility says, 'Look, the lives of everyday people
ought ot be the focus upon which we understand the world. And it's no
accident that Democracies are so rare in human history. And when they are
created they tend not to last too long. The main reasons why they are
undermined is because of two fatal viruses: Poverty and Paranoia.
"Increasing poverty producing escalating levels of despair. Inreasing
papranoia producing escalating levels of distrust. No democracy can
survive with poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust increasing. There
will never be enough security systems in vanilla suburbs. There will never
be enough police. There will never be enough prisons, to deal with
overwhelming despair and distrust in a democracy. No way.
"There will never be policies for dealing with the distrust and suspiscions
that makes it diffcult for the body politic and which makes it difficult
for public life to take on any substantive role.
"What happens to a democracy when it loses the very art of public
conversation? Where citizens can no longer talk to or communicate with one
another but instead engage in name calling and finger pointing and pigeon
holing with no serious exchange going on.
"The strange thing about democracies is that either they recognize that all
persons are on the same ship on the same turbulent sea, and if that ship
has a huge leak in it they go up together or they go down together... OR
that society just slides down the slippery slope to chaos and anarchy as
people attempt to find space in their private communities and THINK that
there is somewhere to run and somewhere to hide. As if their destinies are
not interwoven with other fellow citizens... especially disadvantaged ones.
"To talk about race in America is to talk about what? Poverty-- too many
black people, too many people in general-- and paranoia-- too much
suspiscion and distrust.
"Again, the reason to talk about race is not to talk about some marginal
issue on the side confined simply to the plight of brothers and sisters in
choclate cities. To talk about race is to take us to the heart of the
multi-layered crisis of American democracy.
"I conclude that we are living in one of the most frightening and
terrifying moments in the history of this nation. We are witnessing an
unprecedented linkage between relative economic decline, undeniable
cultural decay, and a pecuiliar sense of political lethargy that renders
more and more of us feeling helpless and powerless.
"Depression like levels of unemployment and under-employment, especially in
urban centers. Hardly reflected in national statistics of the labor
departent which does not count part time workers looking for full time jobs
or those frustrated workers no longer looking for jobs. Mass unemployment
and under employment. Then of the US labor force, 21% of that labor force--
all colors all races, all people-- working more than forty hours a week
not receiving one penny from the Federal government but still living in
poverty, called the working poor. In a society in which 1% of the
population owns 48% of the total net financial wealth. One Percent. The
top ten percent owns 86 per cent of the wealth. The bottom 45% own TWO
percent of the wealth.
"25% of all of America's children live IN POVERTY. And 42% of young brown
brothers and sisters live IN POVERTY. And 51% of young black kids under
age six live IN POVERTY. In the richest nation in the history of the
world. And all we hear form conservative precincts is, 'It's the
illegitamicy. Stop having those babies.' As if the babies themselves
deserved the punishment. Yes, the parents might be irresponsible, they
ought to be responsible, but why you gonna penalize the kids that show up
as part of a natural lottery?! They didn't choose to come.
"But one out of two in poverty? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT? In terms of the
despair and desparation. And they see on television the well to do living
lives of comfort and convenience.
"In the moment of economic decline more and more people experience downward
mobility, social slipppage. And what are you going to do? It brings out
the worst in each and every one of us. We begin to look for scapegoats.
"I was talking to some deeply reactionary white brothers, members of the
National Socialist party actually, you know, I'm a democrat I belive in
dialogue. They looked at me and they said, 'Mr. West, I just lost my job.
I was fired. And people like you are responsible because those black folk
are the ones that took my job.' I said to them, 'Well... how many black
folk own factories in your town?' 'Well, none that I know of.' 'Well....
maybe you need a bit more complex analysis.'
"'Affirmative Action! That's what did it!' Blame it on the most
vulnerable. 'Those black folk are takin' my job.' 'Well what is the
percentage of black people in your work palce?' '3.2, but they're takin'
my job.' 'Takin' my slot in the unversity.' 'Well, what is the percentage
of black students at you're university?' 'Oh, about 4.1.' Oh, they're
really takin', over aren't they?!'
"The problem is we're looking down, we need to look up. I'll give you an
example, at Harvard college 10,000 applications for 1300 slots, what are
you gonna do? 3,00 meet minimum qualifications 7,000 are not ging to make
it. Many will be mad and upset. And they will claim, 'My rights have been
violated.' And you will say, 'No, you're expectations have been
frustrated.' You're rights have not been violated! I'm sorry for ya. Go
to Yale or something.
"But you still got 3,000 left, right? You only got 1300 slots what are you
going to do? Well, the first thing, alumni's sons... oh that's very fair
and democratic, isn't it? Another natural lottery. What's the next
criteria? Geographical diversity, well we want some students from Montana,
"But as SOON as you introduce race... all hell breaks loose. That one
factor. A group that has undergone 244 years of chattle slavery... then
eleven years in the sun in which we had more black senators then than we do
now and then another 87 years of Jim and Jane Crow in which every two and a
half days for 52 years some black child or some black man or black woman
was hanging from some tree.... WHAT'S GOING ON?
"Scapegoating. Young people themselves do it. They talk about the 'hood.'
I grew up in a neighborhood. Young folk talk about 'tha hood.' What's
the difference? A neighborhood's a place with neighborly people. People
down the street keep track of you. Sister Johnson telling me what I ought
to do. Deacon Hicks giving me counsel and advice... as well as some
physical interaction I won't go into right now ;^) But I had some
guidance you see? That's a neighborhood.
"But the hood is somthing else. The hood is survival of the fittest.
Social Darwinian. Damn near Hobbesian. A war of all against all. It's
hard in tha hood, to find bonds of affection and affirmation. People who
fundamentally believe in you and give you a sense of possibility. To find
networks of support and ties of empathy and chords of sympathy and yet, WE
ALL NEED IT.
"And it is a result of what? It is a result of a distinctive feature of
most cicilizations we know in decline going back to the Sumarians and
Mesopotamians and Egyptians in northern Africa and it is this: The erosion
of the systems of nurturing and caring with devastating impact on young
people. It's not just the American family in crisis, though it is indeed
in crisis. It's a matter of neighborhoods, civic associations, churches,
mosques, synagogues, weakening and what kicks in? The Market.
"We are living in the most highly crystallized market culture in the
history of the world. And young people are influenced by that market
culture more than any generation in the history of this country.
"So, what do we do? The first thing one attempts to do is to try tell the
truth about the situation so that others can see how urgent the situation
is. Get a position and an analysis so that people see that what is at
stake is the relative success or the relative failure of American
democracy. Maybe we're just living in a twilight civilization and like any
other civilization it comes and goes and ebbs and flows and there is no way
out. Who knows?
"For me the only way out is something profoundly un-American. Namely a
sense of history. There is no way out without recognizing what we can
build on from the past. To live in a market society is to live in a
society asundred from it's past.
"There's no such thing as all the good on one side and all the bad on
another side. No, with a sense of history things are intermixed.... I
always like to remind people of African descent that most of the black
brothers and sisters I know of dream in English.... You are already
culturally hybrid. Just like no jazz without European instruments.... A
sense of history provides us with an undrstanding of how that mixture takes
"I hope you've been told over and over again that the unexamined life is
not worth living, that's true. But Malcolm X adds, 'the examined life is
painful.' It's going to hurt.... Remember that line in Malcolm X's
autobiography, 'my life has been a chronolgy of changes.' It takes
courage. To grow mature and devleoped. Self Criticism. Not simply a
matter of having the courage of one's convictions but having the courage to
ENACT one's convictions. That's part and parcel of trying to locate that
social democratic process that has been unrested from the people by white
supremacy and male supremacy and vast economic inequality.
"Last, but by no means least we need now more than ever a sense of
audacious hope. Vision is not a vision thing. Vision is a form of power
based upon generating hope. In a world in which it looks as if there is no
possibility, vision comes in and shatters this and provides a hope so that
you can get in motion and start doing something and get some purpose and
some meaning in your life. An audacious hope in a democracy means trying
to regenerate purpose in public life. And I call for public conversation
confronting problems to generate new forms of public action and of
organizing and of mobilising.
"And for me this sense of audacious hope has nothing to do with optimism.
I am not optimistic. Hope and optimism are not the same thing. Optimists
go around looking at evidence and seeing if they can infer from that
evidence that things are going to get better. I look around and see the
evidence and I say, 'Doesn't look too good.'
"But- I'm a prisoner of hope. Isn't that something? That's part of that
combative spirituality. It has to do with looking at the evidence and
taking a leap of faith beyond the evidence in time to energize and
galvanize that hope of keeping on anyway. Because if you believe that the
world is incomplete and history is unfinished and completely open ended
then what you think and what you do can make a difference.
"The kind of hope I'm talking about is the kind that sees that it IS always
dark and daybreaks forever above me and still at this very moment the sun
is about to peak. It's the kind of hope that like Earth, Wind and Fire
says no matter what I'm gonna keep my head to the sky. Or like Vihalia
Jackson that I'm gonna keep my hands on the plow even if what I am doing is
unadveritsed service, nobody sees it, nobody thinks it's important but I'm
still making a difference anyway.
"It's the kind of hope that talks about, even keeps-- even in our
inadequacies and shortcomings-- puts our eyes on the prize. On something
bigger and grander than us that can appeal to the best of us at a time when
the worst in us is being accented. A vision that can appeal to the better
end of our nature. Maybe then we can meet the challenge. But T.S. Eliot
reminds us, 'Ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business.' We're
not gonna save the world. We're not gonna save each other.
"But like my grandfather used to tell me, he said, 'Lil Cornie... If the
kingdom of God is within you then every where you go you ought to be
behaving from the inside.'
"I don't know about y'all but I'm going down fighting. Thank you."
[And for those of you that made it through this far I thank you, jb.
Following the speech Dr West took some questions from the audience, one of
which seemed appropriate to questions of the derogatory nature of terms like
jungle and tribal in describing types of electronic dance music. Zheam,
I trust that you are still with me at this point. This is specifically
directed as something addressing your concerns.]
"You had mentioned the struggle for names and all that and I take it you
object to black people and any one else using the word 'nigger' because you
understand that it is a form of derogatory defamation. But Ethiopian means
'burnt face,' Africa means 'divide and conquer' so when you tell me or some
little boy to call himself an African-American you are telling him to call
himself a divided and conquered young man. Negroe means a dead corpse. So
if you object to using the word nigger, then why would you tell little boys
to call themselves divided and conquered?"
"Now, I appreciate that question brother, very much so. Well, one thing
that we have to acknowledge is that words have shifting meanings. That
words never have one meaning in every context. You are absolutely right
about the term 'nigger' being linked to a history of self-loathing and
self-hatred and so forth. But you also have witnessed the term 'nigger'
being used as a term of endearment in the black community. And that is not
solely about hatred of ourselves. There's ways in which people take words
which are viewed as negative and subvert them. So that when we look, for
example, at 'negroe,' when W.E.B. DuBois argued for the term 'negroe,' it
may have meant dead corpse in the dictionary but it didn't mean dead corpse
to him. It meant an assertion of the humanity of these particualr people
over against color. Now then later on when black people in the sixties
said we are going to call ourselves 'Black' when black had been viewed as
something so negative and we're going to take that negativism and turn it
into something positive... it goes on and on and on... So that even a term
like African-American, the meaning itself may be 'divide and conquer' in an
abstract sense but when it is part of a movement it is redefined and
recast. When it no longer plays that role that is when it can easily fall
back into this divide and conquer. See, for example, I would ask you my
brother, well what term would you prefer?"
"For all of us?"
"Kemitan Nubian. Collectively. And individually maybe Shelban, Ghani,
Mali, Salban, Shemi...."
"Wooh, work it, work it, work it, brother!
"You see my point is this. That there will be contexts in which even those
words, as precious as they are to you, will be cast in a negative vein.
Because you or I don't have control over those words. At the moment those
words mean much to you because you are responding to the situation in which
black suffering has been invisible. But there is no way that those words
will have that same meaning all the time. There will be contexts in which
even Kemit itself will be associated with something negative. It's just at
the moment for you now, and understand that for the soul it has that
empowering effect. And I can understand that. And I would affirm you
calling yourself that.
"But on the other hand, if my grandmother wants to call herself 'colored'
it is not as if she is somehow being completely duplicitous with white
supremacist powers. She came at a time in which she preserved her sense of
dignity in a church in which colored was used but something else subversive
was also going on when she appropriated the term. So, that history is
moving all the time. So, in that instance, even as we criticize one
another we want to do it empathetically in terms of the context in which
other folks find us in. Do you see what I'm saying? Thanks for asking
I think I'd also like to add my personal beleif that what makes terms like
'jungle' and 'nigger' hostile are the intentions behind the use of the
words and not the words themselves. The word is just an abstract symbol of
an individual's thoughts. It is the intentions of that person in using
those words that really matters.
*Schwew* (wiping sweat from brow)
Well, I'm pretty beat from typing all that in. I think I'm going to take a
nap here then go out and blow off some tensions on the dance floor tonight.
I hope that I have provided a basis for a more enlightened analysis of
problems within our scene. I hope that with these thoughts we can move
closer towards actualizing the unity we always talk about rather than
continuing empty rhetoric. And I hope we can find a grounds for unity
based in respect and an understanding of our differences and most
importantly an acceptance of those differences based in mutual respect.
Thanks again for listening.
jonas eric broth |from the 1992 AAA travel guide,
firstname.lastname@example.org | on Columbus, Oh:
|"...a main distinction of the city
| is that it is not too distinctive..."