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Step Into a World

By Kathy Y. Wilson · July 7th, 2004 · Your Negro Tour Guide
I am not jealous. Squeaky Negroes get ignored. But when majority culture sets out searching for "black power" and returns with sepia images of itself, something's gone terribly, horribly wrong.

"Whenever white people start telling us who our leaders are, look out," says Marcus, a black single father from my building.

When The Enquirer publishes a page-one story about its black hyphenated citizenry that's not about black death by cop or co-opt, it feels as disingenuous as the Martins, Malcoms, Tupacs and Biggies immortalized on mirrors and velvet at Findlay Market.

Black people, we can't get any farther from ourselves than paint-by-number heroes. White people, you can't get any farther from black power than by celebrating paint-by-salary Negroes.

Those are precisely the black folks who coddle your definition of success and racial progress, because they don't require any work to figure out; they're non-threatening, neutered and spayed. They're aliens who speak your language.

"Not all black leaders view everything through a racial prism," said Des Bracey, corporate Cincinnati's main man in Over-the-Rhine.

To paraphrase a great American, Saul Stacey Williams, middle class Negroes got peace treaties with Martians, and we be keepin' 'em up to date with sacred gibberish like: "We're not all race-obsessed niggers; some of us know how to mind our manners."

Finding a gaggle of blacks to support a presupposed view denies the presence of off-the-radar blacks mining non-traditional power. They're excluded from this newfangled black country club VIP list of look-alike board sitters, private members, golfers, check writers and their bored wives and jealous husbands.

In their ranks, there's no diversity or texture.

More tellingly, it exemplifies why in Cincinnati we've made anemic progress in how we consider one another.

Stories like The Enquirer's "Greater Cincinnati's New Black Power" are why the black middle class protrudes into self-congratulatory nothingness.

"It seems like they went to people with positions and not people with influence," Marcus tells me.

That's because we love accepting empty accolades for our basic accomplishments, and majority culture knows it. Hell, they're counting on that shit.

It's like too much turkey at Thanksgiving -- we're lethargic off the tryptophan of white acceptance. Then we burn calories running to keep pace with white America's favor.

"More please, sir." (Say this with a Cockney accent.)

The landscape of the black middle class finish line is littered with hysterically black educations, jobs with corner office promises, plasma TVs broadcasting oxymoronic high definition reality shows and SUVs that sit high and look low. But we cross over.

And white America pats us on the backside, scooting us out of the way of real power, which resides somewhere between ownership, personal freedom and self-knowledge. It's a tripod of mathematical proportions.

White America knows we'll never align them so long as they keep our eyes on the prize: the bullshit of American capitalism. And while the black middle class holds its nose against the stench blinging off the necks and asses of gaudy niggas denied class acceptance because, well, they're niggas, the black middle class has its own set of bling that doesn't sparkle quite the same -- yet it's cold enough to keep white America at bay.

Janet Reid found the hard way that, though she envisions herself a hyphenated fantasy, she's still a nigga. The chair of the board of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce must've felt like Prissy, exchanging the apron and head rag for "baubles, a fancy suit, mink coat, all my bling-bling." No matter.

A retired rich white man on the same elevator at the Queen City Club ignored the irony of an African American dripping with diamonds from African slave mines and still asked, "Do you like working here?"

See, white America knows we're preoccupied with material excess -- that the black middle class, like Reid paying for a lunch with rich old ladies, has picked up the check on the conversation about reparations while the rest of us are still looking for parking.

I see why blacks lounging in middle-class comfort admire mainstream white America. There's a lot in common.

Further, they feed off one another: Blacks on white acceptance, whites on appropriation. Difference is, white acceptance is a lifelong and slippery pursuit. A newspaper article here and there stems (and betrays) residual self-loathing.

Not that the black middle class in toto suffers under the weight of itself. Most of us are just fine, thank you. And that's precisely the problem.

We're besieged by beige in white-hot pursuit of whiteness. We recruit sameness.

White America knows us by our works. It reminds me of a song by a Great Brit, Ms. Dynamite: "They've got you, 'cause while you're rappin' 'bout your badness you're just avoiding adding to the real shit that's happening to us."

Help me sing it.

Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.


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