I was looking forward to a break this week. I wanted to write something happy and not so focused on current events. I think that sometimes we all need breathing room. Alas, there is none to be found.
Local pastor Dr. Kevin Cosby has been in the news this week with controversial statements about black youth. Pastor Cosby believes that young blacks should “stop twerking and start working.” The unemployment rate for black youth is greater than 40 percent. However, about 53 percent of young African Americans are employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the number of unemployed black youth is exorbitant, it in no way indicates that young blacks are wasting their time. We have to observe other indicators such as available opportunities within the reach of a young population that lacks access to regular and reliable transportation other than the city bus.
With Louisville’s black population being concentrated in the West End and Newburg, without being scientific, observations from a drive through either neighborhood illustrate the absence of businesses that hire young people other than fast food. This is a workforce that has yet to develop a set of employable skills living in a job desert. This is also a population of youth that historically has suffered educational disparities at disproportionate rates — due to uncontrollable factors like the lack of proper nutrition, schools less equipped and teachers who come to classrooms ill-prepared for a diverse population that includes ethnic and impoverished children.
The indicator we need to discuss in relation to Cosby’s claim is that MOST young African Americans are, in fact, working — not twerking. Cosby’s claim fits neatly into the parameters of the Politics of Respectability. By suggesting that youth are “twerking” instead of seeking employment, he invests in the same racist economy that believes African Americans are lazy or shuckin’ and jivin’ to avoid participation in society. Cosby finds himself firmly in the company of people like Piers Morgan, Bill Cosby and Charles Barkley. Morgan, in fact, believes that if blacks eliminated the N-word from our vocabulary, then racism will magically cease to exist. Morgan has never read Yahoo comments.
Both Bill Cosby and Barkley are similar to Pastor Cosby in that they are blacks who believe that their achievements and status put them in a class above others like Michael Brown or Eric Garner. If we accepted the respectability speeches from these three, we would understand that these dead shiftless Negroes should have been trying to be more like them and if they had, might still be alive. According to the Politics of Respectability, blacks need to assimilate and erase ourselves. Participate in erasure and we will disappear.
Perhaps status and wealth allow these men to forget that blacks come to this country with no knowledge of our direct histories. As James Baldwin noted, our first entry into America was a “bill of sale.” Everything that came before this transaction is lost. It doesn’t exist. Our only ties to Africa are those of fantasy and a general understanding of the manner in which we arrived in America.
We are expected to pantomime certain behaviors even though our agreement to do so does not guarantee us employment or safety under the laws of this nation. We’ve been shown this repeatedly.
These behaviors did not save Martin Luther King, Jr., nor did they save Medgar Evers. Both were killed while wearing the trappings of respectability.
I’d like Pastor Cosby to step outside of his box and remember the teachings of God. The Bible says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you.” Pastor Cosby, as evidenced by his Twitter feed, often delivers contradictory messages. The Politics of Respectability puts “on blast,” the very thing the Bible says to avoid.
For some, and not just young black women, twerking is work, and moral judgment does not need to come from a Cosby, a Barkley or any other self-declared navigational beacon. For those who feed their children with their twerk, a jerk, or by whatever means they bring bread to the table, moral reconciliation lies between them and their relationship with their creator, if they desire one at all. We do not have to agree but we do have to be authentic and look at the full spectrum of a person’s experience.