Pull Together as the Community
Harlon L. Dalton
BLACK PEOPLE SHOULD be honest about the fact that we are not all in the same boat when it comes to dealing with racial abuse. Some of us are shielded from it most of the time; others face it on a daily basis. Most of us live somewhere between those extremes. Even in situations where we do occupy the same boat, we differ greatly in our capacity to protect ourselves if and when it begins to take on water. Some of us are outfitted with life preservers, flares, and maybe even an inflatable raft, whereas others have no choice but to cling to the deck.
In rethinking what defines our community and holds it together, we should not ignore the intangibles. Stephen Carter maintains that the tie that binds, the thing that draws very different people together, is a common love of our people.1 That sounds right to me. It is not the whole story, but it is a critically important piece of it. A related wellspring of community is the sense of special obligation that most Black people feel toward one another.2 I wish I could come up with a better word; "obligation" is so cold and formal, and sounds so, well, obligatory. But what I have in mind is the wonderful and scary and comforting and unnerving commitment that is at the heart of every worthwhile relationship. It is the promise to be there for one another; to honor one another; to "uplift" (to use an old-fashioned term) the race. I would add, as well, a third intangible. One definition of a feminist is "someone who believes women." In a similar vein, I think that the Black community consists of people who listen to, believe, and believe in one another, especially with respect to the impact of race in our lives. We listen critically when that is appropriate, and recognize blatant b. s. when we hear it, but our first instinct is not to discount, trivialize, or diminish. Nor do we assume that the victim’s perspective is somehow more suspect than that of the perpetrator.
Of course, sentiments such as love and obligation can be perverted. Too often, our unity has been reinforced by the notion that people should make certain sacrifices "for the sake of the race." In particular, Black folk who have grievances that might cast the community or an important part of it in a negative light are frequently asked to swallow them so as not to divert attention from the needs of the race as a whole. For example, gay men and lesbians have often been asked to put aside concerns about homophobia within the Black community. In effect, they are asked to give their racial identity priority over their sexual identity. But this assumes that the two are somehow separable. The impossibility of such a forced choice has been captured by the late Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied, a documentary by and about gay Black men. In the documentary, Riggs responds to a mythical, yet quite familiar, "race man" who wonders, "[c]ome the final showdown, where does he face—Black or gay?" Riggs tells us: "You know the answer—the absurdity of that question. How can you sit in silence? How can you choose one eye over the other? This half of the brain over that? Or in words this brother might understand, which does he value most—his left nut or his right?"3
The fact that gay men and lesbians have, for the most part, tacitly accepted (or at least not challenged) the demand that they sacrifice in the name of solidarity does not mean that there is no harm done. A while back, Salt and Pepper was invited to sing at a tiny church in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley. It was immediately apparent from the tambourine-to-parishioner ratio that people had come prepared to have church. And sure enough, the place rocked that evening. When it came time to bring the Word, a guest evangelist from out of state was introduced. She launched into a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon the likes of which I thankfully have not encountered before or since. Her basic message, delivered with extraordinary passion and skillful repetition, was that homosexuality is an abomination.
I considered standing up and saying something, but I knew from good home training that that just isn’t done in church, especially when you are a guest. So I glanced around at my fellow choir members, hoping through eye contact to at least establish a sense of shared discomfort. By and large, the Salts in the choir looked stunned. In contrast, the Peppers mostly looked blank, as if an invisible screen somehow had kept the evangelist’s words from penetrating. While I was trying to make sense of this, the strangest thing happened. A gay and, indeed, rather queenly young man who had accompanied one of the choir members on the trip suddenly became possessed of the spirit. He leaped up, threw back his hands, and started to shake. Then, with the rhythmic pattern of the hateful words forming an insistent back beat, he danced up and down the aisle, shouting praises to the Lord. The organist got into the act, and for several minutes he, the evangelist, and the young man played off one another until eventually the evangelist decided that it was time to wind down.
I have often thought back to that evening. I know full well that many of the Black folk in that church found the sermon repugnant and the young man’s unconscious self-immolation painful to watch. Yet, all of us managed to look as if it simply wasn’t happening. My insides were leaping, but I probably displayed the same impassive gaze as everyone else. True, a church service is hardly an ideal time to enter into meaningful discussion, but even if the setting had been a Sunday-school class or a coffee-hour chat, most of us probably would have operated on the "this too shall pass" principle. That is because we recognize the extraordinary role—spiritual, political, and social— that the Black church plays in our collective lives. So we make sacrifices to keep it strong and unified. But the question is, at what cost? Who is asked to bear that cost? And are they any less the children of God than those folk whose needs the church more fully reflects?
Similarly, Black women have frequently been asked to sacrifice for the sake of the race. Contemporary examples abound. Alice Walker was pilloried in many quarters for her unflattering depictions of Black men in The Color Purple.4 Whether there was truth behind the images was less important than that she dared to bring questions of gender subordination out into the open. Desiree Washington, the teenager whom the boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping, was widely assailed for bringing down a Black man, and in particular for publicly reinforcing the image of Black men as sexually predatory.5 Anita Hill was similarly taken to task. Her detractors included people who believed that she had testified truthfully and people who in any event questioned Clarence Thomas’s fitness to serve.6
In each of these cases and countless more, anger at Black women who speak out is fueled by an acute awareness that Black men have been vilified throughout American history and are especially vulnerable today. Perhaps no phrase better captures the latter sentiment than the oft-heard statement that "Black men are an endangered species." Therefore, runs the argument, we need to present Black men in the best light possible. At any rate, we certainly don’t need to be tearing each other down and doing "the Man’s" work for him. "These issues" should be dealt with "within the family."
I do not quarrel with the characterization of Black men as endangered. A couple of years ago Salt and Pepper was invited to participate in an anniversary concert honoring the young adult choir at a large New Haven church. It was one of those four-hour affairs where several guest choirs are invited to participate, and each sings three or four numbers that can stretch out for days if the Spirit is moving right. Anyway, as I cast my eyes around the sanctuary, I noticed two pews filled with young men in their twenties who looked simultaneously impassive and intent. They were serious. "How odd," I thought to myself, "you hardly ever see that many together-looking Black men of that age all in one place except in prison." Sure enough, when the men’s choir was eventually introduced, it turned out that its members were indeed inmates at a nearby prison who had been furloughed in order to sing for this event.
A few months later, Salt and Pepper participated in a worship service at that very prison and shared the music ministry with that same choir. We then climbed into our cars, headed south, and, after a brief stop at Micky D’s, drove to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an afternoon engagement. There we shared the program with another all-male singing group, the Bridgeport Boys Choir. They were already on their third number by the time we straggled in. The first thing I noticed was how young, innocent, and sweet they seemed. I then noticed how totally focused they were, notwithstanding their visible nervousness and apprehension. And they were good, musically speaking, very good. Suddenly and without warning, I found myself in tears. I tried to convince myself that they were tears of joy. After all, before me stood our community’s future in the form of fifteen talented, ambitious, proud African-American males. But the truth is that I was awash in sadness, because the very same thing could be said about the young men I had worshiped with earlier in the day.
So I don’t need to be convinced that Black men are an endangered species. But that is no reason to compel Black women to suffer in silence. Part of the reason that issues of gender domination have been played out in public is that we have never quite gotten around to addressing them in private. Furthermore, even if we believe that we should be presenting Black men in the best possible light, shouldn’t we be presenting Black women in the best possible light as well? When presented with an image of womanhood that seemed to insist upon life on a pedestal, Sojourner Truth peeled it apart with a simple question: "Ain’t I a woman?"7 In similar fashion, women like Desiree Washington and Anita Hill might well ask, "Aren’t we Black?" Like their male counterparts, Black women were brutalized during slavery. They too suffered in its aftermath. They too were lynched for being uppity.8 They too have been consistently portrayed as being long on sexuality and short on morals. The "welfare queen" is just the latest version.9 Although Black women may not be as endangered as Black men (especially if involvement in the criminal justice system is the measure), having to hold the fort in a war zone while the menfolk are absent is not exactly a picnic.
I realize that some of you are thinking, "If you care about Black women so much, why didn’t you marry one?" That is a perfectly fair question, especially in light of my suggestion that love and obligation are wellsprings of community. The answer begins with the simple, yet profound fact that I fell in love with a woman who is White. That, of course, doesn’t end the matter, for I could have simply walked away, as other Black folk I know have done, out of a sense of obligation to the race. I, however, made a different choice. And I did so for the most selfish of reasons. With Jill, I felt confident that all of me would be welcomed in the relationship: the part of me that is your basic Black man and the part that is not; the part that is outgoing and the part that is intensely private; the part that likes nice things and the part that abhors acquisitiveness; the part that cries at sad movies and the part that can be incredibly steely; the part that is playful and the part that takes life quite seriously. Jill is unique, and I knew that I could learn a lot from her: about how to live out my political commitments on a daily basis; about how to grow as an individual at the same time; about how to be honest with myself as well as with others; and about how to become more spiritually open. Finally, I knew that our home would be a refuge from the world, full of warmth and utterly lacking in pretension. Could I have found this same mix of characteristics in a Black woman, one who was interested in me? Of course. But whether I would have, and if so when, is far from clear.
This still leaves two large questions unanswered. Notwithstanding everything I have just told you, did I marry Jill at least in part because she is White? And, in any event, should I have put my own selfish interests aside for the sake of the race? Not surprisingly, my answer to the first question is "no," at least I don’t think so. However, I know too much about the human capacity for self-deception to pretend to be any more certain than that. Without doubt, Jill’s race weighed in as a negative for me, if only because I don’t exactly enjoy having conversations like this one. That doesn’t mean, however, that it didn’t weigh on the positive side as well, but I don’t think it did.
Some folks will never be convinced otherwise, of course. Indeed, Jill, of all people, may be among them. I was blown away several months into our relationship when she asked me, "Why are you dating a White woman?" "Do you mean why am I dating you?" I answered lamely. "No, not me in particular. Why are you dating a White woman?" I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that Jill didn’t seem wholly satisfied. And I have never thought to ask her whether her doubts have since been allayed. But that conversation had a profoundly liberating effect on me, for it let me know that Jill saw and understood herself as a person with a race and that she had no interest in trying to pretend that we could, or should, lead a colorblind or colorless existence.
As for the second question, whether I should have married Jill—I have exceedingly mixed feelings. If I were a rugged individualist, the answer would be easy. But I really do take seriously everything I said earlier about the importance of community, and of the Black community in particular. So my beliefs and my desires were very much in tension. Ultimately, I decided that if anything in life is personal, and therefore free from social obligation, it is our intimate relationships. And I took comfort in the fact that there are many, many ways to show love for my people. Nevertheless, I was, and remain, acutely aware that, in symbolic terms, marrying outside the race is easily seen as a rejection of Black people, and of Black women in particular. And symbols matter.
On occasion, the fact that I am married to a white woman has caused people to shut down and to tune out what I have to say. I remember especially vividly a talk I gave on the nature of the AIDS epidemic in communities of color. As quite often happens when I speak to health-care providers, my comments seemed to split the audience. Most of the White listeners looked uncomfortable and mildly stunned as I talked about racism, paternalism, exploitation, and mistrust. On the other hand, the Blacks and Latinos in the room practically cheered me on. With one exception. I noticed that halfway through my remarks, one Black woman, who had been hanging on to my every word, seemed to jump ship. Later, during a break in the conference I overheard a conversation between that same woman and another sister who had been singing my praises. "But he said he’s married to a White woman!" said the ship jumper. "I didn’t hear that," responded her companion. "Yes, he said it." "So what. I thought he was great." "But he’s married to a White woman." Quite obviously, she couldn’t care less whether I had anything useful to say. As far as she was concerned, my stuff was counterfeit.
As it happens, I had not said that I was married to a White woman, or that I was married at all (although I was wearing a wedding band). Instead, I had observed in passing that I live in a mixed neighborhood, that most of my colleagues are White, and that I live in a largely integrated world. "Why, I even play basketball with White guys," I had said puckishly. My point, which I eventually made explicit, was that I shouldn’t be dismissed as a fringy separatist. I had quite consciously not mentioned my marriage to Jill, who was present at the conference in her own right, so as to avoid producing the very reaction that got stirred anyway. So much for attempting to control audiences.
In rethinking what we mean by "the community," we should be as inclusive as possible. We should resist the temptation to draw lines based on categorical assumptions about who is or is not for real and to subordinate the interests and concerns of any subgroup. After all, none of us has a superior claim on the race. Besides, if we cannot deal with difference within the family, how can we expect White folk to deal with us?
1. Stephen L. Carter, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 237-41.
2. Stephen Carter hints at this as well. Ibid., 241. In a somewhat different context, David Wilkins develops what he calls the "obligation thesis” to explain why successful Black lawyers should give back to the community. See David B. Wilkins, "Two Paths to the Mountaintop? The Role of Legal Education in Shaping the Values of Black Corporate Lawyers,” 45 Stanford Law Review 1981 (July 1993).
3. Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied (55 minutes, 1989), documentary.
4. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectional – ity, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” 43 Stanford Law Review 1241, 1256-57 (July 1991).
5. Ibid., 1273-75.
6. See Nellie Y. McKay, "Remembering Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas,” in Toni Morrison, ed., Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 273-75; Margaret A. Burnham, "The Supreme Court Appointment Process and the Politics of Race and Sex,” in ibid., 307-15; documentary, "Public Hearing, Private Pain.”
7. Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin, eds., Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), 235.
8. Kendall Thomas, "Strange Fruit,” in Morrison, op. cit., 370-71.
9. Nell Irwin Paitner, "Hill, Thomas, and the Use of Racial Stereotype,” in Morrison, op. cit., 209-13.