by Vincent Thomas
There is a passage from W.E.B. DuBois’ “Returning Soldiers” that has stuck with me since the moment I read it. DuBois wrote: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” It was meant to illustrate how Afros risked their lives in WWI for America and the free world, only to come back to America, still toiling under the oppression of Jim Crow. DuBois’ prose always put the black-plight for that era in focus: the juxtaposition of being called upon to sacrifice for the most grave and seemingly noble of missions, but returning home to a trivial, demeaning and emasculated standing in the good ol’ USA. It was 1919 and, for DuBois and his comrades, it was time for some real talk. “We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade,” wrote DuBois. “We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.”
Times have changed. These are better days. Up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, literary requirements, physical violence and chicanery served to keep blacks from even voting, so 90 years ago — when DuBois penned “Returning Soldiers” — Barack Obama is not even a remote pipe-dream. Fifty years ago, black CEOs, like Bob Johnson, is not an option. Thirty years ago, Will Smith –perhaps Hollywood’s most bankable star — ain’t goin’ down. These are things that typically happen only in America and they are very recent phenomenons.
Josh Howard is a benefactor of the American Opportunity. In 1988, a cat of his talent couldn’t make $10M/year. Yet recently, Josh was YouTubed at Allen Iverson’s celebrity flag-football event, spewing what many are deeming anti-American idiocy. “The Star-Spangled Banner is going on, right now” he said. “I don’t even celebrate that sh*t. I’m black.” His words were trite and his tone disrespectful. Dissent is never well-received when dressed in vitriol. But although Josh might be an idiot, what he said wasn’t necessarily idiotic. America would be surprised at how many of Josh’s peers — at least a generation removed from Jim Crow — still harbor American resentment. Although none as nefarious and grand as slavery and Jim Crow, terrible things still happen on this soil. America is not suddenly rid of hypocrisy. There are still two Americas, probably more. This is why dismissing what Josh said isn’t very a productive reaction. “Josh made $9M last season — he can’t complain.” Word? Who knows what slights or injustices he has privately endured since turning pro. And the fact that he’s filthy rich doesn’t erase his childhood or mean that the bulk of his family, friends and old neighbors aren’t struggling. Even if Josh, in particular, has lived a charmed adult-life (unlikely), trust me, there are rich minorities out here that could tell you American-horror stories that’d make your skin crawl and eyes water.
No matter your access or ascension, there are too many things blacks encounter that remind them of one sobering idea: “No matter who/what/where you are — to some people, you’re still just a nigger.” Take as much time as you need to swallow that. If it’s too bitter or downright disgusting, perhaps it’d taste better set to music. Mos Def gave us that. “Mr. Nigga” is a landmark song off of Mos’ seminally classic, debut album, Black On Both Sides. It is my generation’s most potently distilled social critique of the success/respect chasm that many blacks have trouble closing.
Designer trousers slung low cause his pockets stay swoll’
Could afford to get up and be anywhere he go
V.I.P. at the club, backstage at the show
(Yes y’all) the best crib, the best clothes
Hottest whips on the road, neck and wrists on froze (say word)
Checks with O’s o-o-o-o-o-ohs
Straight all across the globe, watch got three time-zones
Keep the digital phone up to his dome
Two assistants, two bank accounts, two homes
One problem; even with the O’s on his check
The po-po stop him and show no respect
“Is there a problem officer?” Damn straight, it’s called race
That motivate the jake (woo-woo) to give chase
Say they want you successful, but that ain’t the case
You livin’ large, your skin is dark, they flash a light in your face
Leave it to Mos, right? The fictional man in this verse is already “a pro”; perhaps an athlete, could be business man, an attorney, whatever. He’s a jet-setter, makes a ton of dough and has amassed every socioeconomic identifier of the wealthy and privileged. Problem is: dude is black. This means that he’s usually profiled by the police, because, as Mos says later, “They stay on nigga patrol on American roads.” Later in the song, Mos tells the story of an encounter he had in first class where the flight attendant mistakenly alerted Mos that he was in the wrong seat. He was obviously a coach passenger, thought the attendant. Later, once she learned he was a rap star, she asked for his autograph. These “Mr. Nigga” Moments can discourage a full embrace of America for some black folk, instead reinforcing what can seem like a color-based second-class status. That is discouraging. As I touched on in a previous column, there’s a reason that much of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric was met with wild applause when he addressed a crowd of mostly blacks at the National Press Club during the Obama-Wright saga. Black anger has subsided considerably, given this nation’s progress. Black frustration, resentment and cynicism, however, is more deep-seated and still jogged on the regular, usually by happenstance encounters.
When my father sent me off to my first day of pre-school, I doubt he thought: “My son is going to be a sportswriter.” Back then, black sportswriters were a scarcity — and I mean severe scarcity. Now we have Michael Wilbons and Jemele Hills. Getting invited on my big-homey Jim Rome’s television show, at my age, is only a new-millennium option for young black sportswriters. It wasn’t in the cards when I was a high schooler. I’d be an ingrate and blithering tool to belittle how I’ve personally benefited from American Progress.
But that doesn’t shield me from me from experiences like my last road trip where my dudes Trav (an MBA from UVA’s Darden Business School), Terrence (a budding filmmaker) and I were stopped four times while driving through Virginia and North Carolina on I-95. Each time, no tickets were issued (since we had not violated any traffic laws), but the driver was summoned to the police car where a narco-dog barked in our ear while we sat in the front seat waiting for the cop to run our licenses and check the van for drugs. Three black dudes in a van, driving south with Pennsylvania plates? We had to be transporting crack, even though we were on our way to University of North Carolina (Greensboro) to film and engage some college kids in a discussion about the social and cultural relevance of current hip-hop. The blatant discrimination made one of my partners tear up. I was outraged. I have similar stories and could recount myriad smaller instances where the fact that I’m a moral, typically law-abiding, educated citizen of this country is lost behind my skin color. I am not alone. It can often strain feelings of natural kinship to this country.
Who knows what prompted Josh’s idiocy? Maybe he was simply clowning for the camera. Maybe he had blown a bag’o’good and was high. More than likely, though, he fundamentally feels that way. Regardless of whether he does or doesn’t, there’s an important sentiment to be gleaned by his babbling. Everyday, many black Americans have a “Mr. Nigga” Moment. The progress is undeniable, but DuBois’ “fight” wages on.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.