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Cincinnati: Negroes 'R Us

By Kathy Y. Wilson · March 21st, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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In their feeble attempts to paint Cincinnati in diverse brush strokes, Mayor Charlie Luken and Vice Mayor Alicia Reece -- heretofore known as the "black back-up" -- have mounted a media-fueled juggernaut.

They call it cheerleading. I call it damage control.

If you haven't seen the "Cincinnati ... We're on the Move!" pamphlet touting this as a "diverse and proud city" -- in which an anonymous "we" are "working hard to make our city a model for urban communities" -- get ready to guffaw.

With this sepia cheese-fest, Luken and Reece are making it clear that Cincinnati has its share of Negroes and, no, they don't all live in Over-the-Rhine, throw rocks at the cops or require a curfew.

The cover is splashed with adorable black children smiling widely, black Bengals crouching at the scrimmage line, a middle-aged black couple in repose and even a high-kicking black drum major from a historically black college.

It gets darker. Inside it's a veritable dog-and-Negro show of black vendors, black entrepreneurs and Negroes at play.

With all these Negroes, the campaign should have been titled: "Cincinnati ... Negroes 'R Us!" Or "Cincinnati ... Negroes? You Want 'Em? We've Got 'Em!" Or how about "Cincinnati .... Our Negroes Ain't Just For Killin' Anymore!"

Flip the thing open three turns and you'll see a hastily inserted image of Valerie Lemmie, Your New City Manager, superimposed leaning on the roof of City Hall. (Let's hope she'll actually lean on City Hall when she gets here.)

The back page is a perfect kiss-off, with four jauntily arranged photos of famous, once-famous and "who's that?" black athletes.

Aaaah, now that's more like it, Negroes as we know them: athletes.

This campaign with its whispery have-you-heard-about-April-please-ignore-the-boycott undertones and its off-the-scale laugh factor is reaching surreal proportions.

But let's get real. Please.

Luken, Reece and their cohorts are trying to feed us literature dipped in shiny, happy Negroes when, for more than the past year, the Negroes I know have been walking around in a numbed state of post-traumatic stress disorder.

See, the Negroes I know and observe are trying to figure out how just how much of the April rebellion they want to own. They want to know their culpability. And they know now -- regardless of zip codes, social memberships and cultural alliances -- what it really means to be black here.

Do you know? I do. To be black in Cincinnati is to be in a constant and conflicted state of identity, as in, "Am I a target and, if not, why not and when will I be?"

To be a black Cincinnatian means being defensive while keeping your hostility in check. It means making your way but having an explanation at the ready for your position.

It should mean being honest about your blackness, and that's only part of what's troubling about this chirpy campaign. We can expect the "black back-up" to play politician, because that's what she is. Don't be mad if you're black and you voted for her and now she's not acting black enough.

I heard the public relations brain trust behind the pamphlet is a black man. You should be mad at him.

Maybe he feels like he's doing some good. Well, he can figure it out after the check clears.

Finally, though, being black in Cincinnati means being disposable. And if you're a black Cincinnatian and you haven't been in some way disposed of properly, then you're fresh for the exploiting.

We all are. We're Pop 'N Fresh Negroes, stored in a clean, dry place until it's time to rise and shine for the imagemakers and image manipulators.

There's little difference between the politicians' name brand of exploitation and that of the auctioneers who used to pull back the lips of slaves to show off their strong teeth to prospective owners.

While Luken and Reece -- standing back to back on the pamphlet's opening flap like a Peaches and Herb Reunion Tour photo -- trumpet all of our attempts, accomplishments and successes, we're left to cluck our teeth, roll our eyes and try to laugh it off. Ain't shit funny, as we say in Hamilton.

It feels like another body blow in this long-running dysfunctional relationship between us (the people who know and live with the truth of who we are) and them (those who keep heaping manure on the not-too-distant past so they can try to plant flowers to disguise the stench).

This sorry pamphlet is like a hot gun winding its way through the streets. Street hustlers wonder how many corpses are attached to the gun. So it is that we must ask ourselves: How many bodies are on this pamphlet?

If you get your hands on one of these pamphlets before April 7, drop it back off at City Hall. Let them count the ways.



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

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