Black Like Me.
Like many Americans, I'm horrified by the damage done by Hurricane Katrina. Like many Americans, I have family missing - my entire family on my mother's side, in fact, who all live in Picayune, Mississippi. And like many Americans, I'm sickened and angered by the callous indifference shown to the victims by our deplorable "President" and his miserable, incompetent, racist administration.
I am angry beyond measure that Barbara Bush, our resident Marie Antoinette, glibly told the press that things were working out very well for the underprivileged, because, after all, they'd lost everything but now they got to live in the Astrodome in Houston. Are things "working out very well" for my family, too, wherever they are? The last we heard from my Aunt Georgia, they had a bathtub full of fresh water to drink. That was a week ago. I can't go and get them - I'm not even sure where they are, but even if I did, the roads are closed except for emergency vehicles, because carjackers are stealing cars for what remains of the gasoline. There is no electricity because there is no gas to run the generators. There are no phone lines, and the cell phone towers have been blown down. Are things working out well for them, Mrs. Bush? How comforting that is for me to hear.
I'm angry beyond measure that in the face of this disaster that New Orleans' poor, mostly black, full-time residents are left to drown, their bodies floating down rivers, being eaten by rats and alligators, while the survivors were systematically dehydrated and starved to death by those who used the city as their own personal place to puke during Mardi Gras in past years. (Unless, of course, you're a teenaged girl willing to whore yourself to the police in order to save your life) Are things working out well for them?*
And I'm angry beyond measure that almost 50 years after John Howard Griffen shaved his head, blackened his face, and walked through Mississippi as a black man, Katrina shows that the attitudes of many white people haven't really changed all that much when it comes to the suffering of the poor and the black.
Black men told me that the only way a white man could hope to understand anything about this reality was to wake up some morning in a black man's skin. I decided to try this in order to test this one thing. In order to make the test, I would alter my pigment and shave my head, but change nothing else about myself. I would keep my clothing, my speech patterns, my credentials, and i would answer every question truthfully.
To say that Black Like Me made an impact on American society - published before the Selma marches, before Rosa Parks, before Medgar Evers, published right at the tail end of Jim Crow - was an understatement. He was burned in effigy in his hometown, the town he lived in his entire life, his family had to leave the country due to death threats, and he himself received death threats until the day he died.
The most common criticism I hear of Griffin is that it isn't right for a white man to get so much attention for saying the exact same things black men had been saying for years. Unfortunately, the simple fact is that in 1957, white people were the ones insisting on defining what is or is not racism. Black people, when they weren't ignored or murdered, were dismissed as complaining, as lazy, as whiners, as troublemakers.
Black people like Kanye West, who stood virtually alone as one man who had access to international media as well as the courage to employ what civil rights activist Dick Gregory referred to as "knee-knocking courage," to speak the truth with a shaking voice. His reward so far has been this, from NBC:
Tonight's telecast was a live television event wrought with emotion," parent company NBC Universal said in a statement issued to the Reporters Who Cover Television after the broadcast.
"Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion.
Except it isn't one man's opinion. It's the opinion of millions of black people, who are demanding justice and telling their truths, once again to be accused by whites of "making it racial." 47 years after the publication of Black Like Me and the white people of the United States still feel entitled to declare what is or is not a racial issue.
Do I think George Bush hates black people? I don't know. I know he hates poor people. I know he blames my Aunt Georgia for her poverty, for her inability to leave Mississippi, and can therefore wash his hands of her, and she's white. It would be so easy for me to use her disappearance as proof that the tragedy of New Orleans isn't a racial issue. But I can't pretend that I haven't heard black people being blamed for FEMA's refusal to allow the Red Cross to enter New Orleans, due to the looting and the shooting they all apparently couldn't wait to do (despite the Red Cross' statements contradicting it). I can't pretend I haven't heard that it was black people's fault that FEMA wouldn't drop food packages down to the survivors because the Army was afraid of getting shot. I can't pretend I haven't heard that it was black people's fault for being too lazy to hitchhike out of New Orleans. And of course, we've all heard that black people loot, white people find".
I can worry about my white family and still believe that they were unwittingly caught in two hurricanes; one caused by nature and one by racial indifference. I can believe that Kanye West displayed "knee-knocking courage." And I am so sad to believe that the greatest progress the United States has made is that West will not be murdered for his beliefs - he'll just be accused of being a black man who dares to decide what constitutes racial discrimination.
I suppose he should be grateful, really, that things are working out so well.