When Did Negroes Become Nerds?

| Fri Nov. 2, 2007 4:21 PM EDT

Mark Anthony Neal never fails. He finds a way to use his love of black music to talk about everything black at once. This time, he's gotten at something that's been worrying me for awhile now: when, and why, did public black culture become so degraded? I don't just mean rap's excesses but the paltry cultural footprint we're leaving these days when we used to mesmerize with our art.

No matter how much harder being black used to be, at least we knew we were the coolest people on earth. Hang us from trees though whites certainly did, they still envied us our style and rightfully so. We bad! and the world couldn't keep its eyes off us, on stage, screen or vinyl. The Temptations, afros, Chuck Berry, Lena Horne, The Cotton Club, jazz, blues, gospel. Now, public black culture is mostly rap, reality shows, overwrought r&b and over-priced clothing lines. Neal notes:

In his too-brilliant-to-be-dismissed collection of essays bloodbeats: vol. 1, Los Angeles cultural critic Ernest Hardy writes that "selling blackness is permissible in the mainstream marketplace; celebrating it is not. Few folks know the difference." The occasion for Hardy's observation was the release of the music video for Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone," of which he writes that the video "not only works the artfulness and artsiness that lie at the heart of everyday blackness but envisions a world of African cool, eroticism and playfulness that is electrifying in its forthrightness." "Got Till It's Gone" was released a decade ago and Hardy's argument is no less true today. Indeed blackness seems an industry unto itself, accessible on myriad media platforms and as pervasive as the air; there's rarely a moment where one can't conceivable choke on blackness—especially as the remote surfs past another reality show under-written by the Viacom Corporation. But where does one celebrate blackness at this moment?

Blackness is everywhere but it doesn't seem to be about much. Ironically, this occurs to me on the ever rarer occasions when black artistry does what it's supposed to, what it used to do so much more reliably—remind me that blackness is amazing. Dreamgirls, the Color Purple and Corinne Bailey Rae shocked me. They made me cry; all those beautiful shades of black and all that talent. I had no idea how much I'd missed seeing myself being incredible, transcendant. Seeing blackness loved. They literally made me ache a little—I have to get out more—and realize that I missed blackness. I think the world does, too. 50 Cent is a poor replacement for Curtis Mayfield.

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My days are filled with race. It's how I make my living when it used to be how I lived my life. But integration came and now, most of the time, blackness is work—Jena 6, Don Imus, Dog the Bounty Hunter, nooses, Barack Obama, predatory lending and crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities. Blackness as problem, as politics. Blackness as duty and something for which I have to travel—back home to see the family, a soul food restaurant, a post-scandal rally. My bi-racial children wouldn't know collards and fried chicken if they tripped over them or how eight people shared one bathroom in the home their mother grew up in. They'll never be able to enjoy the bilingual's blessed retreat into Ebonics after a hard day fitting in on the job and they'll never know what they're missing. All they do know is when Mommy's talking to Grandma, though, because she "talks funny". At 6 and 4, they already sound like nerds, not Negroes. I'm as proud of their advanced vocabularies as I am worried that they'll grow up incog Negro. Credentialed, but bland. In an integrated world, how are they supposed to access a cultural blackness? There's a limit to how many times can I make them watch the Flip Wilson tapes I bought from Time-Life Books.

We eggheads are doing our part; what's up with the black artist contingent? It used to be much harder to be black but it was also a hell of a lot cooler. Ellington, Gaye and Pryor saw to that. Did they leave so few successors?

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