MAXWELL:  The blacker-than-thou paradox divides

2/13/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I entered college in 1963, the term “black power” was becoming popular on campuses with black students.

At first, it was used as an ideological umbrella under which so-called nationalists, culturalists and pluralists of all stripes were grouped. Gradually, we students used the term to convince ourselves that by uniting as one people, by loving our history and traditions, by pooling our vast resources, we could become a powerful bloc that could influence _ if not change _ the basic nature of the United States and thus improve our status as citizens.

I remember those days well, a heady time when African-Americans took education for granted as the sure route to self-improvement and the subsequent uplifting of the whole race.

On my tiny Texas campus of fewer than 1,000 students, only fools refused to read and study diligently. Only fools destroyed their brains with drugs. Only fools physically hurt their brethren. In fact, “being smart” was in. We called it being “heavy.” We even expected jocks to be heavy. All musicians, especially the jazz types, were heavy.

Black power meant just that: being black and powerful, being armed with education and the drive to improve our lot in a hostile environment where the very concept of racial egalitarianism was still alien to most white Americans. Black power meant sharing the good and eliminating the bad.

In time, the concept of black power changed. Instead of being a sentiment that united us, it became a source of deep division. Those who followed Martin Luther King and his nonviolent movement, for example, were not as black as those who followed, say, Malcolm X’s philosophy or that of the fearless Black Panthers.

No longer bringing us together, black power had become a negative litmus test for one’s degree of “blackness.” We had entered the “Blacker than Thou” era. On campuses nationwide, black students separated themselves into enclaves.

Groups whose members adopted African-sounding names, perhaps wore dashikis and other African garb and spouted words by the likes of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were blacker than those who majored in business and talked of Wall Street.

If you could quote from Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth: The Handbook for the Black Revolution That Is Changing the Shape of the World, you were one black brother or sister.

And if you had an African name, wore a dashiki, sported a huge Afro, followed the Socialist Workers Party, talked like a Trotskyite, peppered your speech with Marxist aphorisms, majored in black studies and planned a trip to Africa, you were the essence of blackness.

The ultimate blacker-than-thou paradox occurred on traditionally black campuses. Nearly all of these campuses had parallel student government organizations. One was the legitimate body elected by the entire student population and was usually called the Student Government Association. It had the blessings of the administration and faculty.

The other was a self-appointed organization, usually called the Black Student Union. Assorted radicals belonged to it. In other words, the BSU was blacker than its duly elected counterpart, the SGA. I was president of the BSU at Bethune-Cookman College and founder and editor of the BSU newspaper.

These divisions _ who is black enough and who is not _ were not isolated to college campuses. The phenomenon defined black life at all levels in black communities nationwide.

When I lived in South Florida during the early 1980s, the supporters of beleaguered U.S. congressmen Alcee Hastings were the blackest of the black. Any black who thought Hastings was a crook was labeled an Uncle Tom or a sell out.

Here in St. Petersburg, Omali Yeshitela and his minions set the bar for blackness during the 1960s. Since then, if selected blacks disagree with him or choose to live a mainstream life, they immediately become something less than black or less African.

As a rule, then, only Uhuru members and the supporters of their ideas and programs are truly black. Everyone else is a “Negro.”

Believe me when I say this situation helped shape the character of south St. Petersburg. Most blacks are reluctant to oppose the Uhurus publicly. Preachers hold their tongues when they should challenge a questionable philosophy. Blacks running for public office often dodge the nitty-gritty issues because they do not want to be labeled less-than-black. Who wants to be called an enemy of his or her own people?

Such blacker-than-thou nonsense should be packed away with other relics of a bygone era. Black History Month is the perfect time to do so.