As a French-American national originally from Iran, I realize the limits of what I can understand of any culture or civilization into which I was not born and of my misconceptions about issues that I cannot totally grasp. That doesn’t prevent me from observing the society around me and deeply feeling what, to my uneducated eyes, appears like injustice. Among these, race relations in the United States; after decades in this country and the importance to me of that particular issue, I believe I have a say in the matter.
To begin with, the title of this post. I have not set out to provoke but as a writer I like to give words the proper weight that they have lost in the midst of clamors. I use “Negro” as opposed to the horrendous n-word and to pc euphemisms such as “African-American,” “black,” “minority,” etc. “Negro” may be a broad word but it still defines a race. If I belonged to this race, I would question considering an insult the very word defining me, my skin color and my features. I don’t know many present-day uses of the word except in the title “The Journal of Negro Education” at Howard University. With a proud history since its inception in 1932 and contributors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy B. Porter or Thurgood Marshall, this publication has not changed its name to reflect today’s general wishy-washiness.
As for the word “citizen” in this title, I am borrowing it from poet Claudia Rankine’s recent collection of prose poems, (“Citizen: an American Lyric”) which I have read several times with fascination, rage and bafflement after seeing it reviewed in The New Yorker. After all I thought I knew, I still didn’t know.
Thus, I use “citizen” as a means to move beyond blacks seen as mainly descendants of slaves but as full-fledged citizens. Not people who are grudgingly given a spot near the table where they can be grateful for any crumbs thrown their way; not chattel that can be shot at with impunity by white police officers, left to rot in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, spend a lifetime behind bars, face discrimination no matter what exalted position they reach (read what Claudia Rankine says of rulings of tennis umpires against Serena Williams); not parents such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction telling of his anguish whenever his fifteen-year old leaves home as any encounter can turn ugly, brutal, or fatal; not the broken families where fatherless children face a life with no education and no future. All this with hardly any help from either government agencies or from blacks who have made it, against all odds or through accidents of birth or their own determination and perseverance, and don’t want to see that not everyone draws the lucky numbers.
So, can one hope that, as in Sam Cooke’s superb anthem “a change is gonna come”? Maybe. Over the last few months, the rumblings and grumblings related to the mass murder of blacks by police have reached a pitch. Rahm Emmanuel’s coverup in the police killing of Laquan McDonald did not help anyone. Chicken are coming home to roost and given video cameras on police cars and public scrutiny, it’s becoming more and more difficult for white police officers to kill blacks with impunity.
Another sign that we may be in for a tectonic shift is the justified recent brouhaha over the ridiculously small acceptance of black artists at the upcoming Academy Awards. Does one have to spell out that it’s only right for Will Smith or Spike Lee to refuse to participate in this ceremony where an Oscar is only awarded to blacks when it would be impossible not to do so (such as best actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor for “12 Years a Slave”)?
I don’t agree with the parity promised by the Academy for the year 2020—that does not even reflect the population percentage. Absolute parity is as condescending as the Canadian PM touting the equal number of men and women in his cabinet. Sure, one has to start somewhere but lip service instead of appreciation of actual competence is as insulting as non inclusion, one reason that makes me find affirmative action as abbhorent and hypocritical as distributing stars to every child in class.
Grudging token recognition is worse than no recognition at all. Negroes are actual people, not stand-ins for their slave ancestors. They are also citizens. It’s about time they are recognized–and recognize themselves–as such.