Authors: Cornel West
This situation is even bleaker for most black gay men who reject the major stylistic option of black machismo identity, yet who are marginalized in white America and penalized in black America for doing so. In their efforts to be themselves, they are told they are not really “black men,” not machismo-identified. Black gay men are often the brunt of talented black comics like Arsenio Hall and Damon Wayans. Yet behind the laughs lurks a black tragedy of major proportions: the refusal of white and black America to entertain seriously new stylistic options for black men caught in the deadly endeavor of rejecting black machismo identities.
The case of black women is quite different, partly because the dynamics of white and black patriarchy affect them differently and partly because the degradation of black female heterosexuality in America makes black female lesbian sexuality a less frightful jump to make. This does not mean that black lesbians suffer less than black gaysâin fact, they suffer more, principally owing to their lower economic status. But this does mean that the subculture of black lesbians is fluid and the boundaries are less policed precisely because black female sexuality in general is more devalued, hence more marginal in white and black America.
The dominant myth of black female sexual prowess constitutes black women as desirable sexual partnersâyet the central role of the ideology of white female beauty attenuates the expected conclusion. Instead of black women being the most sought after “objects of sexual pleasure”âas in the case of black menâwhite women tend to occupy this “upgraded,” that is, degraded, position primarily because white beauty plays a weightier role in sexual desirability for women in racist patriarchal America. The ideal of female beauty in this country puts a premium on lightness and softness mythically associated with white women and downplays the rich stylistic manners associated with black women. This operation is not simply more racist to black women than that at work in relation to black men; it also is more devaluing of women in general than that at work in relation to men in general. This means that black women are subject to more multilayered bombardments of racist assaults than black men in addition to the sexist assaults they receive from black men. Needless to say, most black menâespecially professional onesâsimply recycle this vulgar operation along the axis of lighter hues that results in darker black women bearing more of the brunt than their already devalued lighter sisters. The psychic bouts with self-confidence, the existential agony over genuine desirability, and the social burden of bearing and usually nurturing black children under these circumstances breeds a spiritual strength of black women unbeknownst to most black men and nearly all other Americans.
As long as black sexuality remains a taboo subject, we cannot acknowledge, examine, or engage these tragic psychocultural facts of American life. Furthermore, our refusal to do so limits our ability to confront the overwhelming realities of the AIDS epidemic in America in general and in black America in particular. Although the dynamics of black male sexuality differ from those of black female sexuality, new stylistic options of self-image and resistance can be forged only when black women and men do so together. This is so not because all black people should be heterosexual or with black partners, but rather because all black peopleâincluding black children of so-called “mixed” couplesâare affected deeply by the prevailing myths of black sexuality. These myths are part of a wider network of white supremacist lies whose authority and legitimacy must be undermined. In the long run, there is simply no way out for all of us other than living out the truths we proclaim about genuine humane interaction in our psychic and sexual lives. Only by living against the grain can we keep alive the possibility that the visceral feelings about black bodies fed by racist myths and promoted by market-driven quests for stimulation do not forever render us obsessed with sexuality and fearful of each other's humanity.
If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States,âthat is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of conditions.
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE,
Democracy in America
I do not imagine that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere. An isolated individual may surmount the prejudices of religion, of his country, or of his race, and if this individual is a king he may effect surprising changes in society; but a whole people cannot rise, as it were, above itself. A despot who should subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke, might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain.
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE,
Democracy in America
X articulated black rage in a manner unprecedented in American history. His style of communicating this rage bespoke a boiling urgency and an audacious sincerity. The substance of what he said highlighted the chronic refusal of most Americans to acknowledge the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this countryâthe incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility. His profound commitment to affirm black humanity at any cost and his tremendous courage to accent the hypocrisy of American society made Malcolm X the prophet of black rageâthen and now.
Malcolm X was the prophet of black rage primarily because of his great love for black people. His love was neither abstract nor ephemeral. Rather, it was a concrete connection with a degraded and devalued people in need of psychic conversion. This is why Malcolm X's articulation of black rage was not directed first and foremost at white America. Rather, Malcolm believed that if black people felt the love that motivated that rage the love would produce a psychic conversion in black people; they would affirm themselves as human beings, no longer viewing their bodies, minds, and souls through white lenses, and believing themselves capable of taking control of their own destinies.
In American societyâespecially during Malcolm X's life in the 1950s and early 1960sâsuch a psychic conversion could easily result in death. A proud, self-affirming black person who truly believed in the capacity of black people to throw off the yoke of white racist oppression and control their own destiny usually ended up as one of those strange fruit that Southern trees bore, about which the great Billie Holliday poignantly sang. So when Malcolm X articulated black rage, he knew he also had to exemplify in his own life the courage and sacrifice that any truly self-loving black person needs in order to confront the frightening consequences of being self-loving in American society. In other words, Malcolm X sharply crystallized the relation of black affirmation of self, black desire for freedom, black rage against American society, and the likelihood of early black death.
Malcolm X's notion of psychic conversion holds that black people must no longer view themselves through white lenses. He claims black people will never value themselves as long as they subscribe to a standard of valuation that devalues them. For example, Michael Jackson may rightly wish to be viewed as a person, not a color (neither black nor white), but his facial revisions reveal a self-measurement based on a white yardstick. Hence, despite the fact that he is one of the greatest entertainers who has ever lived, he still views himself, at least in part, through white aesthetic lenses that devalue some of his African characteristics. Needless to say, Michael Jackson's example is but the more honest and visible instance of a rather pervasive self-loathing among many of the black professional class. Malcolm X's call for psychic conversion often strikes horror into this privileged group because so much of who they are and what they do is evaluated in terms of their wealth, status, and prestige in American society. On the other hand, this group often understands Malcolm X's claim more than others precisely because they have lived so intimately in a white world in which the devaluation of black people is so often taken for granted or unconsciously assumed. It is no accident that the black middle class has always had an ambivalent relation to Malcolm Xâan open rejection of his militant strategy of wholesale defiance of American society and a secret embrace of his bold truth-telling about the depths of racism in American society. One rarely encounters a picture of Malcolm X (as one does of Martin Luther King, Jr.) in the office of a black professional, but there is no doubt that Malcolm X dangles as the skeleton in the closet lodged in the racial memory of most black professionals.
In short, Malcolm X's notion of psychic conversion is an implicit critique of W. E. B. Du Bois's idea of “double-consciousness.” Du Bois wrote:
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,âa world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
For Malcolm X this “double-consciousness” pertains more to those black people who live “betwixt and between” the black and white worldsâtraversing the borders between them yet never settled in either. Hence, they crave peer acceptance in both, receive genuine approval from neither, yet persist in viewing themselves through the lenses of the dominant white society. For Malcolm X, this “double-consciousness” is less a description of a necessary black mode of being in America than a particular kind of colonized mind-set of a special group in black America. Du Bois's “double-consciousness” seems to lock black people into the quest for white approval and disappointment owing mainly to white racist assessment, whereas Malcolm X suggests that this tragic syndrome can be broken through psychic conversion. But how?
Malcolm X does not put forward a direct answer to this question. First, his well-known distinction between “house negroes” (who love and protect the white master) and “field negroes” (who hate and resist the white master) suggests that the masses of black people are more likely to acquire decolonized sensibilities and hence less likely to be “co-opted” by the white status quo. Yet this rhetorical device, though insightful in highlighting different perspectives among black people, fails as a persuasive description of the behavior of “well-to-do” black folk and “poor” black folk. In other words, there are numerous instances of “field negroes” with “house negro” mentalities and “house negroes” with “field negro” mentalities. Malcolm X's often-quoted distinction rightly highlights the propensity among highly assimilated black professionals to put “whiteness” (in all its various forms) on a pedestal, but it also tends to depict “poor” black peoples' notions and enactments of “blackness” in an uncritical manner. Hence his implicit critique of Du Bois's idea of “double-consciousness” contains some truth yet offers an inadequate alternative.
Second, Malcolm X's black nationalist viewpoint claims that the only legitimate response to white supremacist ideology and practice is black self-love and black self-determination free of the tension generated by “double-consciousness.” This claim is both subtle and problematic. It is subtle in that every black freedom movement is predicated on an affirmation of African humanity and a quest for black control over the destinies of black people. Yet not every form of black self-love affirms African humanity. Furthermore not every project of black self-determination consists of a serious quest for black control over the destinies of black people. Malcolm's claim is problematic in that it tends to assume that black nationalisms have a monopoly on black self-love and black self-determination. This fallacious assumption confuses the issues highlighted by black nationalisms with the various ways in which black nationalists and others understand these issues.
For example, the grand legacy of Marcus Garvey forces us never to forget that black self-love and black self-respect sit at the center of any possible black freedom movement. Yet this does not mean that we must talk about black self-love and black self-respect in the way in which Garvey did, that is, on an imperial model in which black armies and navies signify black power. Similarly, the tradition of Elijah Muhammad compels us to acknowledge the centrality of black self-regard and black self-esteem, yet that does not entail an acceptance of how Elijah Muhammad talked about achieving this aim, that is, by playing a game of black supremacy that awakens us from our captivity to white supremacy. My point here is that a focus on the issues rightly targeted by black nationalists and an openness to the insights of black nationalists does not necessarily result in an acceptance of black nationalist ideology. Malcolm X tended to make such an unwarranted moveâdespite his legitimate focus on black self-love, his rich insights on black captivity to white supremacy, and his profound notion of psychic conversion.
X's notion of psychic conversion depends on the idea that black spaces, in which black community, humanity, love, care, concern, and support flourish, will emerge from a boiling black rage. At this point, however, Malcolm X's project falters. How can the boiling black rage be contained and channeled in the black spaces such that destructive and self-destructive consequences are abated? The greatness of Malcolm X is, in part, that he raises this fundamental challenge with a sharpness and urgency never before posed in black America, yet he never had a chance in his short life to grapple with it, nor solve it in idea and deed.
The project of black separatismâto which Malcolm X was beholden for most of his life after his first psychic conversion to the Nation of Islamâsuffered from deep intellectual and organizational problems. Unlike Malcolm X's notion of psychic conversion, Elijah Muhammad's idea of religious conversion was predicated on an obsession with white supremacy. The basic aim of black Muslim theologyâwith its distinct black supremacist account of the origins of white peopleâwas to counter white supremacy. Yet this preoccupation with white supremacy still allowed white people to serve as the principal point of reference. That which fundamentally motivates one still dictates the terms of what one thinks and doesâso the motivation of a black supremacist doctrine reveals how obsessed one is with white supremacy. This is understandable in a white racist societyâbut it is crippling for a despised people struggling for freedom, in that one's eyes should be on the prize, not on the perpetuator of one's oppression. In short, Elijah Muhammad's project remained captive to the supremacy gameâa game mastered by the white racists he opposed and imitated with his black supremacy doctrine.
Malcolm X's notion of psychic conversion can be understood and used such that it does not necessarily
black supremacy; it simply rejects black captivity to white supremacist ideology and practice. Hence, as the major black Muslim spokesperson, he had many sympathizers but many fewer Muslim members. Why did Malcolm X permit his notion of psychic conversion to result in black supremacist claims of the Nation of Islamâclaims that undermine much of the best of his call for psychic conversion? Malcolm X remained a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad until 1964 partly because he believed the other major constructive channels of black rage in Americaâthe black church and black musicâwere less effective in producing and sustaining psychic conversion than the Nation of Islam. He knew that the electoral political system could never address the existential dimension of black rageâhence he, like Elijah, shunned it. Malcolm X also recognized, as do too few black leaders today, that the black encounter with the absurd in racist American society yields a profound spiritual need for human affirmation and recognition. Hence, the centrality of religion and musicâthose most spiritual of human activitiesâin black life.
Yet, for Malcolm, much of black religion and black music had misdirected black rage away from white racism and toward another world of heaven and sentimental romance. Needless to say, Malcolm's conception of black Christianity as a white man's religion of pie-in-the-sky and black music as soupy “I Love You B-a-b-y” romance is wrong. While it may be true that mostâbut not allâof the black music of Malcolm's day shunned black rage, the case of the church-based civil rights movement would seem to counter his charge that black Christianity serves as a sedative to put people to sleep rather than to ignite them to action. Like Elijah Muhammad (and unlike Malcolm X), Martin Luther King, Jr., concluded that black rage was so destructive and self-destructive that without a broad moral vision and political organization, black rage would wreak havoc on black America. His project of nonviolent resistance to white racism was an attempt to channel black rage in political directions that preserved black dignity and changed American society. And his despair at the sight of Watts in 1965 or Detroit and Newark in 1967 left him more and more pessimistic about the moral channeling of black rage in America. To King it looked as if cycles of chaos and destruction loomed on the horizon if these moral channels were ineffective or unappealing to the coming generation. For Malcolm, however, the civil rights movement was not militant enough. It failed to speak clearly and directly to and about black rage.
Malcolm X also seems to have had almost no intellectual interest in dealing with what is distinctive about black religion and black music:
their cultural hybrid character in which the complex mixture of African, European, and Amerindian elements are constitutive of something that is new and black in the modern world.
Like most black nationalists, Malcolm X feared the culturally hybrid character of black life. This fear rested upon the need for Manichean (black/white or male/female) channels for the direction of black rageâforms characterized by charismatic leaders, patriarchal structures, and dogmatic pronouncements. To be sure, these forms are similar to those of other religious organizations around the world, yet the fear of black cultural hybridity among the Nation of Islam is significant for its distinctive form of Manichean theology and authoritarian arrangements. The Manichean theology kept the white world at bay even as it heralded dominant modern European notions like racial supremacy and nationalism. The authoritarian arrangements imposed a top-down disciplined corps of devoted followers who contained their rage in an atmosphere of cultural repression (regulation of clothing worn, books and records consumed, sexual desire, etc.) and paternalistic protection of women.