I am a good Black man. I grew up in Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in South Central, Los Angeles. I have always maintained at least a 3.5GPA, and, after graduating from Crenshaw Senior High School’s Teachers Training Magnet Program with honors, I earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication Studies from the California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies (with certificates in Gender Studies and African-American Studies) from Northwestern University. I earned numerous awards at each stage of my collegiate career, been a part of more honors societies than I can remember, and earned four national titles in intercollegiate speech and debate, All-American honors, and one year was awarded the Brovero-Tabor for being the top ranked competitor at the end of the academic year. I now hold a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Southern California where I teach courses on race, gender, sexuality, class, and pop culture in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. I have written blogs as well as newspaper and academic articles on critical issues facing Black people. In addition, I am the Curator and Program Manager of History at the California African American Museum, and I co-founded Say Word, a non-profit in Los Angeles that mentors inner-city teenagers and teaches them self expression and how to use their own voices through spoken word poetry. I am a spoken word poet who has won two national slam poetry titles and, among other things, appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, BET’s Lyric Café, and most recently TVOne’s Verses & Flow. I stay abreast on most political issues, especially those that pertain directly to Black people. I am generally respectful and I usually address my elders with sir, ma’am, Mr., Mrs., or Ms. By most accounts I am a good Black man. Hell, I even tip a little extra to help offset the stereotypes of the penny pinching Black diner.
While I both worked hard for and enjoy my success, I, for so many reasons, must denounce the title of “good Black man.”
When comedian Chris Rock quipped in his 1996 hit HBO special Bring the Pain, “I love Black people, but I hate niggas,” he effectively fanned the flames of the “civil war” he claimed was “going on with Black people.” Mostly concerned with whether Rock was right or wrong, much has been written about this controversial piece in his otherwise brilliant stand-up routine. Certainly Rock is able to exercise his First Amendment rights, but given that the single most defining characteristic of his “niggas” are those criminals and criminally minded dark bodied human beings in this country, and that Black men are both unhealthily and unfairly caught up in what activist-academic Angeles Davis calls the “prison industrial complex,” Rock essentially “niggafied” most Black men in the U.S. and declared war on those “niggas” on behalf of all of us “good” Black people.
Rock went well beyond what Evelyn Higginbotham calls “the politics of respectability,” or the demand “that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral, self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines.” Rock’s decontextualized joke misses the deep and complex histories of the ways in which Black men in the U.S. have been and still are criminalized, or simply labeled “bad,” as exhibited in Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Even worse, Rock testifies for the “need” of the state sanctioned violence enacted on Black men, good or bad, on every day basis. And, he is not alone on this position.
“The goal…to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes,” writes Higginbotham, sets up situations where some Black people are not only disregarding startling studies and statistics that show how Black men are treated as criminals before we are treated as citizens but discarding, not unlike the morning garbage, entire groups of “other” Black people. Despite the fact that Black males face harsher punishments than their White counterparts in the “justice” system and in school, that one in every three Black males can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes, that the war on drugs is essentially a war on people of color, that most Black men will have negative engagements with the law, and that those disempowered Black men with little to no options prior to prison exit disenfranchised, many of us “good Black folks” have at best distanced ourselves from the “bad” and at worst called for harsher punishment (see the Black Congressional Caucus signing the crack sentencing bill), because after all, as Rock said, “niggas have got to go.”
But more than rejecting the label “good Black man” because I am not happy with some of the things us “good” folks do, it is my larger contention that writing someone off as bad is not only decontextual but it does not allow for the redemptive qualities that opened the door for Jay-Z, as he said in the song “Shiny Suit Theory,” to go from “warring to Warren.” Jay-Z, the same rapper Rock champions, went from criminal (or nigga) activities to doing and talking business with magnate Warren Buffett, that is – before he was sponsored by Coke (Coca Cola), he was sponsored by coke (cocaine). More, constructing a group of Blacks as good in order to cast off the bad acts as a pressure release, insuring that a system of inequality (inadequate education, unequal job access, unfair justice system) goes unchecked because it troublingly justifies the myth that EVERYONE can make it in the U.S. so long as they work hard enough and, dare I say, be “good” enough. Even more, my “good” rests squarely on the ability to label someone else “bad,” and unlike Rock, the Black Congressional Caucus, or other “good Black folks,” I am neither ready nor willing to write off, shoot, or incarcerate a bunch of “niggas”. I love Black people too much for that. And simply put, before I ever call for their death, I would rather for my own.
Good Black Man.