Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Before we are 'post-racial' - a poet's living history


With the election of Barack Obama, the media began to sling the term "post racial" as if a miracle had occurred and racism had suddenly died with the birth of the first black President. They were partly right — based on surveys of young voters, the issue of race counted for approximately zilch. But for older voters... well, does anyone remember Fox News publicizing the vile song parody, "Barack the Magic Negro," under the guise of fair and balanced reporting?

"If we must die," wrote the black poet Claude McKay in 1919, "O let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain. Then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead!" It'll be a long time before Fox News comes around to honor anyone who's not white — quick, name two famous FNC news anchors or hosts who are African American — and the network's penchant for subtle and overt racism has been well documented, and since that network is the official mouthpiece of the Republican Party in America, it seems that the idea of a "post racial" culture in the U.S. is premature.

Dr. Tolbert Small, a physician and poet in Oakland, California, is living memory of a time when things were much worse, but also a living witness to the fact that things aren't always too much better. In the 1970s, Dr. Small worked with the Black Panther Party in the fight to gain funding for research to combat sickle cell anemia, and he traveled with the BPP to China where the Panthers, listed by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI as a dire threat to America, were received with open arms as guests of the Chinese government. Returning to the U.S., Dr. Small saw the BPP leaders picked off one by one to assassination and incarceration, and he witnessed the party's implosion after its infiltration by the FBI's COINTELPRO operations.

Today, Oakland is still troubled and far from "post racial." On New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant was shot by a white transit officer, leading to widespread rioting in the city. Three months later, an African American named Lovelle Mixon, wanted for violating parole, killed four white Oakland police officers after being pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. There was no rioting this time, but the underlying tension as everyone in the city — and the nation — tried not to discuss race in connection with the crime made it clear that "post racial" still had quite a way to go before becoming reality.

In the midst of all of this long history, Tolbert Small remains an optimist at heart, and his poetry shows this hopeful outlook. Born in Mississippi and raised in the "Black Bottom" of Detroit, one of the poorest parts of the city, he made his way into medical school at Wayne State University, and then to California where history awaited him. "As long as the sun arises from the darkness of night," he wrote upon the election of Barack Obama, "the dream will arise." But having seen first hand, through his experience with the Black Panthers, how quickly dreams can dissolve, he cautions that "a dream neglected will shrivel on the vine of despair."

That's not only a challenge for the new President, but a challenge for anyone who wants to see the idea of a "post racial" society become reality.

1 comment:

Some Guy said...

Great post. I've chaffed at the term "post-racial" since I first heard it. How about "post-cultural" or "post-gender" or some other "post" and it seems so silly.

Would we want to ever be "post racial," as if race is a bad thing? That which divides us and that which makes us different are two separate things: the former, while often unfortunate, violent and lethal, should never extinguish the excitement, communion, and possibility of the latter.