Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:

sterling-north

Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

BEA 2012: The African American Literary Marketplace

There were only six people who weren’t panelists sitting at the start of a Thursday morning discussion devoted to the African-American literary marketplace. But the spectator shortage didn’t faze the participants. “Less is always more in my world,” said moderator Vanessa J. Lloyd-Sgambati, a publishing consultant called “the literary diva” by peers. She said that there were twelve African American bookstores operating in Philadelphia when she started her business and that, today, there was one solitary merchant serving the City of Brotherly Love. As I was to learn from Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literature Book Club, magazines and websites devoted to African American books have also closed up shop in recent years. What you needed to get by was hope and grit and stamina and hard work and whatever flash you could pluck from the bottomless barrel of ingenuity.

“There may be a different way that is not book-centric to reach the African American marketplace,” said Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man, a bookstore in Harlem. She expressed frustrations that people don’t always know how to promote African American books. Did people really not know how to sell books to this audience?

Enter radio personality and author Michael Baisden, a bowtied Robert McKee acolyte who had a few admirers planted in the crowd as it mushroomed from two handfuls into several dozen.

“I always know there’s a purpose in what I do,” said Baisden. “You’re looking at the old school in the business.” He compared the book industry to a team sport and insisted that it needed stars to bring people on. Baisden had sold two million books because African American bookstores had supported him when other booksellers would not. “Target doesn’t value African American literature. It can’t be guaranteed that it will be in stock.” He was understandably skeptical about BEA, which he didn’t even know was going on until his manager informed him about it. “The expense of this is too much,” he said. Baisden said that African American booksellers needed their own convention and was a bit rueful over losing so many African Americans to other industries.

Baisden certainly has a point. But Nakea S. Murray of the As the Page Turns Book Club (and the Literary Consulting Group) said, “What others have to remember is that a book club is a selling opportunity.” But it’s also a place for quality discussion. As she was to elucidate later in the conversation, her book clubs “have zero drama” and Murray has adopted a “no frolic with the talent rule” to maintain the caliber of talk. This regulation came about because of unexpected entanglements between smitten women readers and the authors who arrived at their homes. “I know male authors use this to their advantage,” said Murray, who did not expand upon the nature of these mysterious hookups.

But while such peccadilloes are inevitable in any industry, some of the larger concerns offered by Troy Johnson were also quite serious. Troy Johnson noted that two thirds of independently operated African American bookstores have bitten the dust in the past five to ten years. “In 2012,” said Johnson, “there should be more competition in this space.” The books that got attention in the African American market were devoted to celebrity and scandal, with even established authors finding it difficult to nab a deal.

“The profit-driven market discourages talented writers from entering the marketplace,” said Johnson, who initially clutched some paper like a life preserver but whose offerings became looser and more vital when he stopped reading so closely from his sheet. “Readers need more than ever to critically assess and identify quality product.” But without the critical mechanisms in place (those dying review venues for African American books), this was increasingly difficult to do. “If we’re going to move forward and improve and regain what we’ve lost,” said Johnson, “we’re not going to do it in isolation.”

“You have to create an experience for that consumer,” said Allen, who cited a Tokyo bookstore that had appealed beyond its physical space. “Beyond the Americas, there is a huge audience. The geographical boundaries must be removed to reach all of our audiences.”

Baisden believed that expos had allowed African Americans to reach audiences. “You have to go where the people are,” he said. “You have to find out where the organizations are and go to where the people are. You’re looking at the ultimate hustler.”

Baisden wasn’t interested in hundreds showing up to an event. He identified himself as “a thousands guy.” He felt that taking an event on the road with only authors wasn’t going to be successful. You needed music and social activism as well. “One thing I’m going to say,” said Basiden, “and it’s going to sting. We’re not writing enough good books.”

But Baisden’s notion of “good books,” as befitting a man more keen on Robert McKee than Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, was more about “the entertainment business.” He insisted that audiences were “not coming for your blackness or your soul or your issues. Go to a college campus and speak power to the people.”

“My bestselling books,” said Allen, “are The New Jim Crow, things like Sister Citizen and The Warmth of Other Suns.”

This led Baisden to get somewhat defensive.

“But I can’t stay on the radio if I’m not entertaining you and playing music,” he said.

“But that’s a different medium,” countered Allen. Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that literacy was down everywhere. Getting people to read wasn’t just an African American problem.

But as one audience member observed, “If we don’t have a naked lady on the front of the book, or somebody with muscles or something, they think we know nothing but that.” But Baisden had to catch a plane for another gig. And as this entrepreneur retreated, it was not only clear that the African American literary marketplace needed to be considered by those still in bed nursing last night’s hangovers, but that it needed far more than a hour of BookExpo programming.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to panelist Nakea Murray of As the Page Turns as “Lynda Johnson of the >Go on Girl! Book Club.” Murray replaced Johnson at the last minute. We apologize to Ms. Murray and Ms. Johnson for the error.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Maggie Anderson

Maggie Anderson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #445. She is most recently the author of Our Black Year: Our Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: The universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Ms. Anderson from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet Ms. Anderson in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute. Nevertheless, I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Ms. Anderson over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe conspired with similar health interventions against Ms. Anderson’s family. I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Ms. Anderson and the listeners for any lapse in quality.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Becoming more conscious about his volatile spending habits.

Author: Maggie Anderson

Su0bjects Discussed: The Empowerment Experiment, the decline in African-American owned grocery stores over the past few decades, how far the dollar goes by ethnicity, median wealth and income disparity by race, the decline of black labor in Milwaukee, African-Americans targeted by advertising in the 1970s, WEB Du Bois’s The Talented Tenth, the increasing popularity of Polo Ralph Lauren among blacks, Quiznos’s exploitation of franchise owners, the burden of attempting to persuade blacks to support black business, the Venn diagram between supporting black businesses and independent stores, buying local, Oak Park affluence, trying to rehabilitate the Chicago West Side, attempts to keep Karriem Beyha in business, the fading of black entrepreneurs, class divisions within the black community, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson, class and race, the disintegration of black solidarity over the last few decades, hypocritical pride, factors that help create a racially divided economy, Magic Johnson’s business savvy, the problems in spending $48,943.89 to buy black over the course of the year (as Anderson did in her experiment) which cuts out working-class blacks, the privilege of shopping where you want, subscribing to The Chicago Defender, gentrification, Hyde Park and Bronzeville gentrified, attempts to find unity between working-class blacks and middle-class lifestyles as prices go up during gentrification, efforts to start a progressive chamber of commerce in Bronzeville with Mell Monroe, trying to balance progressive idealism with realism, securing affordable services in the black community, the original name of the Empowerment Experiment (Ebony Experiment) and legal threats from Ebony Magazine, interactions with Linda Johnson Rice, Bill Cosby, and hateration.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?

Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…

Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!

Anderson: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.

Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.

Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.

Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.

Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)

Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.

Correspondent: Sure.

Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.

Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?

Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]’s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.

* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.

** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:

The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.

The Bat Segundo Show #445: Maggie Anderson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #318. Mr. Joseph is most recently the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he lands on Plymouth Rock, or Plymouth Rock lands on him.

Author: Peniel Joseph

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not the bold declarations within Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech has been entirely heeded, the progress of African-American politics, revolutionaries vs. political pragmatists, Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson’s critiques of Obama, Jeremiah Wright’s perception, Obama’s failure to confront race, the February 19, 2009 New York Post cartoon, race as portrayed in Obama’s speeches, the Henry Louis Gates arrest, whether the beer summit was more of a symbolic gesture rather than a practical confrontation, black revolutionaries being denied publication in prominent mainstream outlets vs. Stokely Carmichael getting published in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, color-blind racism, the Nation of Islam’s bootrap and racial uplift strategies, Nixon seeing “black capitalism” as a promising prospect of Black Power, Fubu’s co-opting of Black Power slogans, black women and activism, misinterpretation of the Black Panther Party, the plasticity of ideology, Stokely Carmichael’s November 7, 1966 speech in Lowndes County, the fluidity of Black Power, Claiborne Carson’s In Struggle, Carmichael being wrongly accused of being the main influence on the SNCC Black Power position paper, misconceptions about Carmichael, Obama’s dismissal of Kwame Toure as a madman, the failure to celebrate Martin Luther King as a critic of American democracy, what Carmichael’s FBI file says about limited perspectives of black power figures, Carmichael’s antiwar stance, false government conclusions about Black Power, Tavis Smiley being taken to task for criticizing Obama, and prospects for new forms of Black Power radicalism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When Malcolm X delivered his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, you point out that newspapers ignored his more tangible call for one million new black voters for a black nationalist political party. Now black voters, as we all know, were instrumental in getting Obama elected in November. I’m wondering though — because they were not necessarily black nationalists — whether Malcolm X’s call was entirely heeded.

Joseph: Well, I think his call is going to be heeded into the next generation at least. When we think about when Malcolm said that in 1964, there was no congressional black caucus. There were no black senators since Reconstruction. There were no black governors. There wasn’t the wave of black mayors that we started having — starting in 1967, with Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana; Carl Stokes in Cleveland; by 1970, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey. In the early ’70s — ’73, ’74 — you’re going to have Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. By 1983, you have Harold Washington in Chicago. And that’s the Chicago that Barack Obama comes of political age in at least — even though he grows up in Hawaii, he’s born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. So I think African-American voters in the 1970s, in the 1980s, take heed to these politics of racial solidarity, for the most part. There’s going to be exceptions. People like Edward Brooke, the first black Senator elected in a general election in 1966 from the state of Massachusetts. Tom Bradley becomes Mayor of Los Angeles after the 1973 election in a city that only has 10% African-Americans. But for the most part, there’s really a racial script, where you’re going to get black elected officials in places like New Orleans. Mississippi becomes the state that has the most black state representatives and officials. It doesn’t have a senator. It doesn’t have a governor. But it has the most elected officials out of any of the states decades after the segregation of Freedom Summer and the assassinations of those three civil rights workers — Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman; two white and one black.

So when we think about Malcolm’s call, it is heeded during the ’70s and ’80s. But as we get into the ’90s and the 21st century, there’s going to be some real notable exceptions. People like L. Douglas Wilder, who becomes governor of Virginia in 1989. People like Deval Patrick, who becomes governor of Massachusetts in 2006. People like Barack Obama, who becomes a Senator out of Illinois in 2004. People like Carol Moseley Braun, who becomes a Senator in 1992. So when we think about racial politics, the politics of racial solidarity for elections is still there. When you think about Bobby Rush, who Obama ran against in 2000 for the South Side of Chicago Congressional District, that’s a black district. Most likely, you’re always going to have an African-American representative there. So the politics of racial solidarity are there. But at the same time, there’s a new class of African-American elected officials. People like Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, who are really doing a pan-racial appeal. There’s saying, “Look, I’m an elected official. I am also black, but I happen to be black.” They’re not coming out in a very robust way talking about black solidarity and that the reason why I should be Mayor of Newark is because I’m black. Michael Nutter in Philadelphia’s the same way. Deval Patrick, the same way. Where they’re saying, “I happen to be black, but I’m going to be an elected official for all people.”

Correspondent: I’m curious if it takes someone like a Harold Washington or an Obama to create that one particular figure who both revolutionaries and those who believe in the pragmatism — revolution can be pragmatism too in its own ways — but those who believe in elected politics. Because there’s always been a fractiousness going on between the two within the black power movement of the last four decades, in particular. So does it take some brand new figure to unite? Or is it possible to have someone who can leave a legacy beyond the elected moment?

Joseph: Well, I’d say that it depends upon the time period. Because when we look at the late ’60s and early ’70s, black militants and black elected officials had real coalitions and ties. I think the best example of that is Amiri Baraka and Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey — and also the Gary Convention in March of 1972. The Gary Convention was a national black political convention attended by 12,000 people. And the co-conveners were Congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan, Mayor Richard Hatcher from Gary, Indiana, and Amiri Baraka, who held no elected position and who was just a black nationalist poet and an organizer. So there was this coalition. But by the middle ’70s, that coalition is going to fracture — really amid mutual recriminations. Politicians are going to accuse militants of being wild-eyed dreamers who don’t understand the politics of governance and the pragmatism that governance really precipitates. I mean, to be an elected official is to be somebody who is pragmatic and to compromise. Militants are going to accuse black elected officials of being the worst kind of sellouts. People who really utilize the politics of racial solidarity to get into office. And as soon as they get into office, they use the power of municipal politics and City Hall to enrich themselves and their cronies. And I think you’re going to see that tension over the next forty years. But there’s going to be notable exceptions. One is Harold Washington, who has a coalition of pragmatists and militants and somehow, in four and a half years as mayor, manages to please them all. Because Washington is re-elected and dies of a heart attack right around Thanksgiving of 1987, but is very much well-regarded in Chicago. Another mayor is going to be, surprisingly, Marion Barry of the 1970s. At least the initial Barry. So Barry, before the huge controversies over crack cocaine and adultery and all this different stuff, had militants and moderates in his camp. And he managed to please both of them.

Correspondent: A very [Adam Clayton] Powell-like resurgence as well.

Joseph: Absolutely. Absolutely. And when we think about militants and moderates in the 2008 presidential election, you saw the social movement that surrounded Obama draw in pragmatists. And it also drew in revolutionaries. So sometimes you do see these transcendent figures. And, finally, the best example in the 1980s of that is Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson runs for President in ’84 and ’88 — really inspired by what Harold Washington was able to do. And Jesse gets three and a half million votes in the Democratic primaries in 1984. Seven million in 1988. And he really inspires both pragmatists and militants in that campaign.

Correspondent: But inevitably there still remains a fractiousness — possibly tied in, in Obama’s case, with the failure to discuss race, which you bring up in the book and which Michael Eric Dyson recently appeared on MSNBC in response to the Harry Read fiasco, pointing out that Obama was “a president who runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” You point out, in your book, that Obama’s reluctance to embrace race is especially ironic in light of the fact that he has a public admiration for Lincoln. You note that “his appreciation remains a simplification in as much as it largely fails to deal with the sixteenth President’s extraordinarily complicated racial views.” So the question is whether that observation and Dyson’s remarks come from the same particular place. Does Obama’s many political compromises — which we were talking about earlier, the necessity of being a politician — essentially make his failure to confront race untenable?

Joseph: Well, it’s very interesting. I think that we’re living in a time period in which politicians can talk about race in a less open way than forty years ago. And I think that’s interesting. Because we usually think of progress as something that’s linear — it’s a linear narrative. So if it’s 2010, we should be able to talk about race better than we could in 1968. That’s not true in this case. We can talk about race in the late ’60’s in a much more candid way because of the civil rights act, because of the voting rights act, because of the race riots that we’re going on, because of the Kerner Comission. The New York Times used to be an organ in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where you had black militants who had a podium in the New York Times, were writing op-eds about black thinktanks and about the Gary Convention. The Washington Post was the same way. In a way that we would find — our generation — extraordinary. Because those august institutions won’t give black militants that kind of platform anymore. So the President of the United States, in terms of Barack Obama, one of the reasons why he won, race was a positive and a negative. It was a positive in the sense that, for a whole new generation of voters, especially those under 30, they found it quite refreshing that this man was running for President and took him very seriously. It was a negative, as we saw in the case of Jeremiah Wright, when critics of Obama, especially the right wing, could connect him to what was perceived as black extremism and anti-American sentiment. Including things like the Black Power movement. Because Jeremiah Wright is certainly coming out of a tradition of black liberation theology, which is rooted in that black power movement. People like James Cone. People like Reverend Albert Cleage out of Detroit. So I understand Dyson’s critique and, on some points, I actually agree with Dyson’s critique and others.

BSS #318: Peniel Joseph (Download MP3)

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