Thursday, August 7, 2008

Keeping it in the family

Back in June, Barack Obama addressed the congregation of a Chicago church and in a Father's Day speech challenged black men who are uninvolved in their children's lives. In response, Jesse Jackson threatened to turn the presidential candidate into a eunuch. Last year, on BET's "Hip Hop vs. America," hip hop artist Nelly chastised Spelman college students who, offended by the denigration of black women in the artist's "Tip Drill" video, protested his appearance on campus. The women should not have complained publicly, the artist said, but should have "pulled him aside" to discuss their issues privately. For the past several years, Bill Cosby has been calling out black people for, well, some of everything, which has made him persona non grata in many circles.

Now, some people have argued with the substance of Obama's speech, the Spelman sisters' protest, and Cosby's 2007 book and Town Hall meetings. But some have a different beef. Black folks know the rule: You don't put "family" business in the street. America will always malign and demonize black people for our blackness…for being "other"…for serving as living reminders of the sins of the country's forefathers. Living under the weight of biased appraisal, always coming up wanting, takes a tremendous toll on the psyche and self esteem of black people. And so, members of our community should not join the chorus of criticism. Public silence is protective.

Except that it is not. On the contrary, I think that rather than protecting us, black folks' code of silence ultimately hurts the community.

There is but a short leap from not discussing critical issues in public and not discussing them at all, allowing problems to grow unchecked. In my experience, when a topic becomes taboo, it becomes taboo in public and private. For a long time, discussion of HIV/AIDs in the black community was verboten, not just in public, but in our homes, our churches and our schools. As it often does, the code of silence has caused more suffering and more prolonged suffering related to black Americans' health than it has prevented. In the end, how many lives will be lost because we remained silent on this issue?

Let's pretend, though, that we are committed to frankly discussing the challenges within our community in a place where the rest of America cannot hear. Where would that place be? What newspaper, place of worship, town hall or TV show can reliably reach an African American community that is more than 35 million strong, according to the 2000 census? What institution can speak to, gather feedback from and mobilize both the black executive and the black working poor? The code of silence defeats change because we are not 100 black people on a plantation, but an increasingly disparate community spread over urban centers and rural towns all across the country. Forget talking to the mainstream, public silence makes it even harder for us to communicate with each other.

And about the mainstream or, rather, white folks—we have to talk about them, because they are the impetus for the culture of quiet. We can't speak about irresponsible fathers or sexism or the culture of violence in some communities for fear of what white people will think or how they might twist our words or use the behavior of a few to make assumptions about us all. These are all legitimate fears. What is folly is the notion that we can stop any of it by being publicly silent. Fox's Bill O'Reilly wasted no time in co-opting Obama's Father's Day speech for the "personal responsibility" crowd. But, here's the thing, if Barack Obama never gave another speech, O'Reilly would still be hollering that black folks' problems are all of our own making. That's what he does and he ain't stopping anytime soon, no matter what black people do.

My concern is not that talking about our community's problems in public will give blowhard talking heads ammunition, I worry about this: If a community's problems fester in public, then failure to openly address those challenges gives the impression of uncaring. It gives the mainstream an excuse not to care (as if it needs one) and gives weight to foolish stereotypes about our culture.

You may be able to eloquently discuss the social biases and governmental ills that lead to absentee fathers, sexism against black women and other challenges in the black community. Good. There are many compelling arguments to be made. But see, I think any strong social movement needs a two-pronged attack: one part points out the flaws in the system and seeks to correct them; the other addresses the flaws in the community and seeks to correct
them. One without the other spells doom. The only way to successfully address the challenges in the black community is to talk about them, yes, publicly. We cannot succeed any other way. And we cannot put off solving problems and risk our social health because of what white folks might say. Don't argue that black people should be silent. In this case, silence is not golden.


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