MAXWELL:  A foolish suspicion of learning

7/7/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



A recent New York Times article about the concern among educators that the academic achievement of middle-class and upper-class black students perpetually falls below that of their white counterparts prompts me to revisit a volatile issue in American education and African-American culture: black people’s suspicion and dislike of fellow blacks who achieve in school by virtue of their brains, especially those who speak “proper” English and write well.

The article quotes several over-achieving black youngsters describing the taunting they endure from black schoolmates. An Illinois girl who is taking advanced placement and accelerated classes said of her experiences: “People were like, “Oh, you’re an Oreo.’ Getting good grades was always connected with white people. So they’re like, “Are you going to be white and achieve?’ ”

Another Illinois student, whose parents are from Panama and Belize, describes the stigma of speaking perfect English: “You learn to switch it off. When you’re on the streets, you speak Ebonics. When you’re at home, you speak Creole. When you’re in school, you speak proper English. But when you talk too proper, your peers will call you white and say you’re a Cracker.”

Accusing others of “acting white” is one of the most self-destructive problems in black society. It has been worsening in many urban centers since the 1980s with the rise of hip-hop, a rap subculture that celebrates negritude _ genuine pride in the positive aspects of black life and tradition. Too often, though, hip-hop celebrates pseudo-negritude _ misguided pride in the negative or self-destructive parts of our culture.

Because of pseudo-negritude, too many black teenagers embrace unwholesome sacred cows, emulate unsavory personalities, adopt self-defeating behavior and rationalize selected forms of criminal and anti-social behavior.

Worst of all, pseudo-negritude generates a cult of silence that prevents us from honestly and openly discussing serious problems, such as our contempt for intellectual and well-spoken sisters and brothers. Black children and adults alike know firsthand that the “acting white” admonition paralyzes thousands of our children each year. Yet, I rarely hear anyone, including leaders of important organizations, publicly confronting this problem.

As a result of our silence, black children must hide behind a veil of mediocrity or stupidity to please their peers. Having and using a brain should not be a liability. Making excellent grades should not bring ostracism. But it does.

How did our thinking become so convoluted? Like many other deep-seated cultural problems in black society, our dislike of intellect and articulateness comes directly out of slavery and the racism and other forces it has spawned through the generations. From the moment the slave population grew into the thousands, owners used hand-picked slaves to help organize other slaves.

Most often, these privileged few were the most articulate and intelligent. In time, they became a class apart, many becoming highly cultured and learned. They often lived in or near the master’s home, met the rich and powerful, ate good food and traveled throughout the colonies and abroad with their masters. Indeed, many had more material possessions than their fellows.

During Reconstruction and later, this class of blacks, smart, articulate and financially better off, became leaders of their communities whom whites depended on to keep other blacks in line. They became the “spokesmen for the black community,” the voices whom whites used to conduct business on the other side of the tracks.

And, in too many cases, many of these very blacks became snitches, the eyes and ears of the white power structure. Because they possessed more, they lived better and naturally incurred the envy, suspicion and wrath of the less fortunate. History holds many tales of articulate blacks profiting by helping to repress others.

All of the traits, especially intelligence and proper speech, that typified the white man became the very traits that blacks who “acted white” manifested. They became symbols of racial disloyalty, shorthand for blacks with “white” minds, everything that the descendants of slaves despise. A list of contemptuous terms grew out of this dynamic: Uncle Tom, Aunt Thomasina, Aunt Sally, handkerchief head, Oreo, hincty, sellout, yard jockey, house nigger.

Unfortunately, as the New York Times article indicates, race and its vestiges continue to influence our perceptions of ourselves _ especially our perceptions of academic performance.