Saturday, August 28, 2010
Out of all the older people gathered in the school library to hear me talk about how I was going to be supervising them, this Black woman was most clearly trying to distinguish herself as not a fuddy duddy. Her short hair was immaculately styled. Her eyebrows were impeccably plucked and thinly penciled to her brow. Her ears sagged with gems. She wore a purple and rose-red jumpsuit, satin soft. The thickness of her lenses could never undermine the stylishness of her gold frames. Her smile was church-pleasant as I offered my hand to shake.
This was my first official foray into the purgatory of public school education. After kicking around Minneapolis for a couple of years as a journalist/strip mall clerk/Notary Public extraordinaire, I signed up for Americorps Vista. Back then I was shocked by the events of 9/11, but I was even more shocked at the world that was being formed in its aftermath. I remember being in a park near my house, shooting baskets with some shorties when it struck me that this was just the beginning of a lot of suffering. That these youngsters would be growing up in a new type of world. Although I felt sadness for the people who lost their lives in the Towers, I couldn't help but dread the deaths yet to come. Prodigy of Mobb Deep described it perfectly on Survival of the Fittest, There's a war going on outside, no man is safe from. So instead of joining the military, I signed up as an Americorps VISTA in Baltimore Maryland. I worked in a school as a programs coordinator. One of the programs brought retired seniors in to tutor elementary school students. I acted as site supervisor, which mostly involved a lot of paperwork. I hadn't had much experience, but I always enjoyed talking to older people. They tend to be wise, and willing to candidly share that wisdom.The word "wisdom" is, of course, at times open to interpretation.
Her hand shake was soft and firm. Her teeth bright.
"Hi, my name is Abdel," I said.
"What did you say?" she said. Her hand flinched back to her ear, like she had been suddenly struck deaf.
I'm used to people clowning with my name. White people usually just have a pronunciation issue. In Minnesota people heard either "Ed" or "Bill" when I told them my name was Abdel. They didn't have the linguistic palette to hear what I was saying, so I often had to repeat the pronunciation. Having a name like mine requires one to have a sense of humor, but sometimes it's a struggle.
"It's Ab-del," I said to the woman, trying my best to reassure the anxiety I saw brewing in her eyes.
"Abdel?" she said, her voice quivering. "What are you, some MUSLIM?"
For the record, I am not a Muslim. Even though my name is Arabic for "servant of Allah," no one in my family is Muslim [not that there's anything wrong with that!] and I have never actually been inside a mosque. My name, Abdel Shakur, is a product of two non-conformist individuals who wanted me to have a unique name that would signal a new age in both of their families. So they gave me the last name of Black liberation icon Assata Shakur. If I was a girl, I would have been named Assata Shakur, and probably would appear at the top of every government no-fly list ever. So, my name is an expression of belief on the part of my parents, just not in the way you might think.
I couldn't tell if the library had gotten colder or whether it was just perspiration cooling my skin. We stood in the aftermath of her question, standing close, both confused. I thought at first that she was joking, but I could see that the fear and disgust curling within the folds of her face was genuine. It made me sad because I got the sense that I was always going to be an Other to this woman, no matter what I said. Despite my wanting to build a sense of connection with this woman, I was destined to only be a young man of indistinct nationality with a terrorist name. I smiled broadly and tried my best to change the subject.
That incident comes to mind as we witness the NeO narrative enter an ominous phase. Before your eyes you are seeing our first Black President transformed into the Other. First there was doubt about his origin. Then doubt about his Blackness. Now it's about his god.
I guess I'm not surprised. In 2008, Barack used his special mulatto powers to bend himself into whatever hopeful shapes people could imagine. It's called passing--duh, our people invented it. Even as he stood taking that oath, supported by throngs, I knew it would get bad. Every president is destined to reach a point in their presidency where they are unpopular. Everything has a season, politics are no different.
Despite his seeming transcendence, one of the primary tenets of race still remain: a white man's cold is a Black man's flu. My father often notes that a Black man's negatives are easier to exploit than a White man's. In our culture, very few of the narratives about Black men don't end in some kind of depravity. Michael Dukakis lost the presidency because of one of those narratives. Barack is essentially his own Willie Horton.
Now, it's important to say that I count myself among those disappointed in the NeO presidency thus far. Health care was a major victory, but we thought 2008 would mark a turning point in the battle against the complete corporatization of our political and economic systems. We had the crazy dream of keeping the wizards of finance from actually going ahead and selling our country away. But day by day it becomes more clear that the bill of sale was given a long time ago. Our President has become merely a delivery man in a messiah uniform. I still love the brother and find inspiration in his intelligence, strength, and swag, but I realize the jig (so to speak) is up. In the words of Biggie, things done changed.
Despite my disillusionment, I realize the consequences of abandoning a prominent and controversial Black man during a time of strife. Black people on the whole were ambivalent about Martin and Malcolm at the time of their deaths. Everybody loves them now, but as their narratives were shaped by powerful unseen forces, Black people had mixed feelings. First, Malcolm was too militant. Later, Martin was not militant enough. Both died much less popular than they had been previously.
And let me also be clear: I'm not suggesting we issue the "R-Kelly Pass" for Barack. You know, the pass that makes a prominent Black man morally immune to any kind of scrutiny in the eyes of Black folks? Those who claim to be our advocates need to not be our pimps, no matter how much swag they have. NeO promised us a lot and has not delivered like he said he would. Although not recognized as such, civil liberties is one of the most important Black issues in this country. Historically, we have bore the brunt of the coercive power of American government. At one time we were actually owned by our government, so there is no bigger priority than Never Again. And our President knows this. And yet after almost 20 months in office, it's still not clear how the Obama presidency is indistinct from the Bush presidency on the issue of civil liberties. And that sucks.
A lot of people doubted the wisdom of the president's remarks regarding the so called "Ground Zero Mosque". People said he wasn't involved in the controversy until he propelled himself into the debate, but they're wrong. The controversy has been ginned up to get people to reset their consciousness back in time to 2001. In the ruins of the towers, Bush waved his bullhorn and told everyone that we wouldn't forget the events of 9/11, but he really meant we wouldn't forget what we felt that day: fear and anger.
NeO realized that the intolerance being shown in the political discourse was not disconnected to his own political fate. NeO and Tinkerbell have one thing in common: their existence is dependent on our ability to believe in the fantastic. Whatever you want to say about him, our President doesn't draw his power by catering to the baser instincts of his constituents. He's no fearmongerer and he's too intellectually proud to become one. Contrary to popular belief, NeO didn't invent the idea of hope, he's just the most gifted manipulator of it in American political history. If he's going to be a two-term president, he's going to have to get people hoping again. That's why the mosque is important.
I felt a lot of pride when I first read his comments :
As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
The message underlying the speech is quite simple: We are a nation of laws. One of those laws prevents discrimination based on religion. You can't discriminate. End of story. Nothing really controversial there, but in desperate times even the idea of religious freedom becomes controversial. But NeO knows that he couldn't stand on the sidelines on this one. He made a beautiful and very clear statement about what he believed. And then he equivocated. And equivocated about his equivocation. And then he just stopped talking about it.
There's a part of this narrative that NeO has very little control over. If America is determined to erode all of its civil rights, than there is only so much he can do, especially considering the state of the economy. But whatever he does, he shouldn't equivocate. If he wants us to believe again, he's got to show us that he's willing to take slings and arrows for greater purposes besides political expediency. It probably won't get him a second term, but it's probably the only way he'll be able to leave that big White House not haunted by his own presidency.
And we can't afford the luxuries of bitterness and apathy. We have to realize the need to speak out for those outside of our communities who are being Othered. Whether it is about gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or national origin, we've got to fight for the civil rights of everyone in our society, even if they have a name that's scary or hard to pronounce. Second term or not, if we don't take up these fights, we'll lose the only thing that can save us: hope.