Message to the People: In defense of a Black Vanguard

My article on the Michael Vick situation last month prompted a lot of responses — both positive and negative. Most of the negatives were seemingly set off by two things. One, the article rested on the belief that many black and white folk often view the world differently. The second was my closing statement that “this race thing is real, and we’d all better do our level best to address it.” Poor, misguided me.

At the heart of some notes was increasingly evident white anger when black folk mention race. These people often argue that blacks are actually the ones keeping racial divisions alive. Tell the “Jena 6” that. An Erosia letter was representative of the sentiment. The reader opined that I believe everything is “about race.” He corrects me and even pulls the now tired trick of flipping the racism issue back onto black folk by deploying King’s “content of their character” argument (as usual, taken out of context). He fires up toward his finale by asking, “How would Jones react to a columnist whose e-mail address began with ‘white vanguard’?”

Well now, my friends — let’s talk. First of all, I wouldn’t really care if someone rocked the “white vanguard” moniker. But, it would be a bit different. You see, black people and other marginalized groups in America are still suffering to a degree many whites cannot begin to understand. You all don’t have to label yourselves “white this” and “white that” in the arena of struggle. That’s the power of whiteness — it is ever-present, invisible, privileged, and its dominance is understood intuitively. It is other groups that are trampled upon by historic and contemporary hegemonic whiteness that need clear, identifiable and brave leadership.  

In the early 20th century, when fighting against the same type of oppression heaped upon Sardinians by mainland Italians, Sardinian philosopher Antonio Gramsci nicely articulated the need for an intellectual vanguard. He maintained that oppressed groups must generate intellectuals whose work should always be grounded in the social and political struggles affecting that group. Gramsci believed this made sense because intellectuals were best equipped to examine complex issues involving their people. Without such an investment, peripheralized people would be set adrift socially, politically and economically.
I am such an intellectual.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike or wish to oppress white people. Hell, I have white friends (sound familiar?). In fact, make no mistake — I am everything white folks say a black man should be. I was raised in the projects but fought and flourished. I worked my ass off in school. In fact, I went on to earn a Ph.D. before I was 30. I’ve never been to jail or even arrested. I don’t have illegitimate children strewn over the countryside. I’m tall, smart, successful, heterosexual, own a home in an integrated neighborhood, and even cut my own grass. Problem is, I haven’t forgotten about the struggling and suffering black masses along the way. No Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Shelby Steele, Bill Cosby or Michael Jordan here, baby. Sorry.

Yep, I present problems. I am not a tall, smart, successful man who happens to be black. I am a tall, smart, successful black man. I know — self-identifying as black is screwed up now. Almost as bad as calling yourself a liberal. But, there will be no apologies and no escapism here.

Every indicator — from poverty to education to incarceration to health — says black folk are still catching massive hell in this country. I don’t think it’s all because of our own misbehavior. When I think so, I say so. You don’t get angry when I criticize black folk though, do you? Like Gramsci, I think we still need our best and brightest in the vanguard to truly balance the scales and level the playing field. I am proud to be a part of that group.

So, to all my readers who are only cool with a black man who meets every criteria of success as long as he keeps his mouth shut about race or agrees with them that race doesn’t matter — you’re not going to be cool with me … ever! By the way, O.J. was set up.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.

Monthly Homework Assignment: Read the book “White Privilege” by Paula Rothenberg (who is white). And yes, there will be a quiz!

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