MAXWELL:  In a black straightjacket

1/12/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a 51-year-old black professional endowed with at least average intelligence and skills, I am sick and tired of being the guinea pig for social scientists, the exotic primitive for linguists, the “special student” for educationists, the cause celebre for black ideologues and the elixir for healing the consciences of assorted white liberals.

I, like other Americans, want to be permitted to be a normal human being.

For me, along with hundreds of thousands of other blacks, the heaviest burden of wearing black skin is being forced to live with the world’s expectation that I, a lifelong adherent of solipsism, must think like other people of color, that I must be the spiritual double of, say, some wino in Little Rock whom I will never meet.

By contrast, does anyone seriously expect all whites to think alike? Of course not. Why, then, do we foolishly expect all blacks _ some 37-million of us, born to diverse backgrounds and blessed or cursed with distinct propensities _ to be of one mind?

Is the legacy of slavery so powerful that it alone has become the common thread that forever joins us at the social, cultural and intellectual hip?

To be black and to deviate from the philosophical norm is to be labeled abnormal, a freak. What do I mean when I say that I want to be permitted to be a normal human being? I mean that, like the average white person, I want to be able to say, think and do as I please without facing special judgment. In other words, I want to be free to be my own person. And being my own person means regularly traveling roads not traveled by other black people.

Let me demonstrate with a simple example. I became fed up with forced conformity several years ago after I told a black acquaintance that I liked the Tracy Chapman song Talkin’ bout a Revolution.

“That confused broad sings like a dizzy white chick,” he said.

“And how does a dizzy white chick sound?” I asked, expecting too much.

“Like she ain’t got no SOUL,” he said, mocking me.

“That pretty much sums it up,” I said.

He will condemn me for sure after reading this column and learning that I enjoy some of Natalie Merchant’s music and that Toni Braxton’s interminable, sound-alike croonings grate on my nerves.

But conformity in music is benign when compared with conformity in other areas. I am thinking generally about politics and specifically about the tortured public life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He recently turned down yet another speaking engagement with a black audience because some leaders of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threatened to protest. Why? Because, they argued, Thomas “is not a good role model for black youngsters.”

And what is Thomas’ transgression, his deviancy? The man dares to be a conservative, for heaven’s sake _ a condition that, in reality, is just as normal as being a fuzzy-headed liberal. But because he is black, Thomas is diagnosed as being abnormal. Would we call Barbara Bush, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Dole abnormal simply because they are conservative? No, because conservatism is within the realm of normalcy for whites.

For the record, I also have contempt for Thomas, not because of his conservatism but because he became the worst kind of hypocrite by bad-mouthing affirmative action. The truth is that no other black has benefited more from affirmative action than Thomas, who, at the time of his nomination, was an inexperienced functionary unqualified for the nation’s highest court.

As black society grows more Afrocentric, the demand to conform increases and casts a wider net. Journalism is a field that should remain free of such influences. But it has not. Many black journalists, in fact, are ideological zealots who are leading the conformist movement and are the first to call their renegade colleagues abnormal, Uncle Toms and other names.

These writers are black first and journalists second _ a conflict that compromises their ability to write the truth on most subjects involving their own. For these writers, areas that portray blacks negatively are off limits. They simply do not write these stories, depriving readers of valuable information. But I, along with many others, see myself as a journalist first and black second.

“Bill, you aren’t normal,” a black colleague in Fort Lauderdale told me a few weeks ago when I said that I was preparing a piece critical of black leadership in St. Petersburg. “Why do you want to come down on the brothers and sisters so hard?”

My comments about “professionalism” and “journalistic integrity” fell on his deaf ears. Conformity is everything to him. He would not write negatively of other blacks, so as not to give cover to conservatives and racists.

The real horror of black America’s unthinking need to conform is that few of us have developed honest, wholesome relationships with other blacks. In general, we relate to one another on the fringes, in the shadows, in whispered code. Too often, to avoid ugly truths, we lie to one another. Real relationships cannot exist in such a smothering climate, where taboos outnumber freedoms, where normalcy _ thinking for oneself _ is a liability and a cause for ostracism.

Unfortunately, matters will get worse before they get better. The main reason is that increasing numbers of blacks in the nation’s urban centers believe, with compelling evidence on their side, that racism is on the rise. As a result, black groups that fought among themselves just a few years ago are now establishing alliances that place conformity at an even a higher, dubious premium.