MAXWELL:  Black self-preservation

11/13 /1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When a buddy from high school and I first saw the composite drawing of the phantom black man accused of abducting the two young boys in Union County, S.C., we stared across the room at each other, exchanging here-we-go-again glances.

Immediately, we thought of the 1989 Boston case when Charles Stuart, a white, shot his pregnant wife, who later died, shot himself in the stomach and blamed the deeds on a black stickup man.

We did not for a second believe the mother, Susan Smith _ who, several days later, confessed to having drowned her own children. My friend and I were certain that the Union County sheriff would drag in dozens of black men and humiliate them. But investigators followed their professional instincts, rejecting the white community’s equally instinctive call for a black scapegoat.

The case took a truly positive turn when Smith’s brother tried to make peace with Union’s African-Americans in a public statement: “On behalf of my family, I would like to apologize to the black community. It is really disturbing to think that this would be a racial issue. It is a terrible misfortune that all this happened.”

A misfortune, yes. But the experience should teach whites and blacks across the country _ who are naturally on opposite sides of the cultural divide _ some essential lessons both about themselves and their respective white and black neighbors. Most decent white people nationwide felt a tinge of guilt and/or shame after this latter-day Medea confessed. Across the tracks, the confession left most African-Americans feeling angry and/or betrayed.

Most whites will move on with their lives, some perhaps a bit wiser, somewhat more wary of automatically believing that a black man did it. That said, I worry about the lessons today’s generation of young, nihilistic black males will take from this incident. The initial reactions on the street and in the media are discouraging.

The usual lineup of black demagogues is hard at work giving predisposed, impressionable black youngsters even more reasons to hate and to voluntarily remove themselves further from mainstream society. The result, of course, is that many of these young people will cling more fiercely to the self-immolating psychology of the victim. Moreover, rappers, the most effective demagogues among the young, suddenly have another powerful source of gut-wrenching lyrics to excite their inexperienced devotees. They have a new hypodermic needle with which to inject their fans with raw passion and misdirected anger.

But rap artists and others of this ilk are incapable of helping young black males react responsibly to the Union County hoax or any other racial calamity because these opinion leaders themselves are not mature enough to view black-white relations dispassionately. Instead of reveling in the syncopated nonsense of hip-hop, young black males must face the unforgiving reality that, because of the efficacy of stereotype and myth, they are not the first and will not be the last generation to be rounded up as criminals. Throughout history, especially in the United States, black males have been portrayed as fearsome outsiders, brutes, exotic primitives, gargoyles and devils.

Truth is, many whites will always fear us, especially young black males who, by their own behavior, lend credence to the myth and the stereotype.

Am I blaming the victim? Absolutely not. I am, however, advising the victim not to be the victim twice, to protect himself, to look down the road, to recognize the traps, to avoid them. I am telling young black males to consciously minimize everything that lessens their ability to control their own destinies. In his essay “Black Men and Public Space,” New York Times editorial writer and book author Brent Staples describes how, on near-deserted streets, he copes with the rage he feels when white women flee from him, when they frantically lock their car doors as he approaches an intersection.

But before coping with the rage, Staples first had to grasp why white women were afraid. He had to learn that when white women fear him, his safety is jeopardized, too. “I understand . . . the danger they perceive is not a hallucination,” he writes. “Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence.”

By understanding the burden of his black maleness, Staples could then protect himself and manage his rage. What did he do? He methodically created a less-threatening Brent Staples: “I move about with care, particularly late in the evening. I give wide berth to nervous people on subway platforms during the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans. If I happen to be entering a building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return, so as not to seem to be following them.

“I have been calm and extremely congenial on those rare occasions when I’ve been pulled over by the police. And on late-evening constitutionals I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers . . . my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”

Whether in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle or a sleepy town in South Carolina, American streets are bear country for all black males. Like it or not, we are perpetual suspects and, like Staples, must transform our relationship with an environment inherently hostile to our existence. We must learn when circumstances require us to whistle classical music, when to cross the street to avoid unnecessary trouble, when to say “yes, sir” to cops, when to avoid eye contact with, say, a scared older white woman.

Why not accept the fact that a hiker’s cowbell is a lifesaver, not a shameful symbol of emasculation? Why not accept the fact that if you want to be a successful black man in America, you must make whites feel safe by constantly managing your private rage? To do less is to invite a life of misery _ or annihilation.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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