Undercurrents: Media Treatment of Jackson-Obama Flap Obscures Underlying Issues

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:50:00 AM

Chinese-American author of Bone Fae Myenne Ng was at Moe’s Books in Berkeley this week, presenting her new novel in a dialogue with Berkeley author Ishmael Reed. Ng revealed that she had been a student years ago in Reed’s creative writing class at UC, saying that as one of three Asian-American students in the class the experience was “traumatic.” 

Perhaps thinking there was some juicy cross-ethnic rivalry to be revealed, given that Reed is well-known for his prickly advocacy of African-American causes, an audience member asked her to explain her brief comment. Ng replied that it was Reed’s “thoughtful” teaching method that helped bring her talent out. The problem for her and the other Asian-American class members, she explained, was that the stories they had to tell were private and very painful, and all of them came from a society and background that taught them to keep such revelations within their own group or family, or to themselves. 

It was refreshing, so refreshing, to hear such admissions of modesty and circumspection in these modern American times, living as we do in an era in which a major national pastime is the watching of people toss their soiled underwear at each other, back and forth, for the titillation and pleasure of any audience willing to sit and see. Like the sideshow freaks who used to work the old P.T. Barnum carney crowds, the purpose of such spectacles is not to solve the problem, or even to draw empathy or understanding. The purpose is merely to be entertained, consequences be damned. 

And so we have the national reaction to the recent troubles between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, in which Mr. Jackson muttered to a companion—under his breath, but caught by a Fox News microphone—that he was going to “cut [Obama’s] nuts off” because of Mr. Obama’s recent activities. “I was in a conversation with a fellow guest on Sunday,” Mr. Jackson later explained to CNN. “He [the fellow guest] asked about Barack’s speeches lately at the black churches. I said he comes down as speaking down to black people.”  

There was widespread speculation that the immediate cause of Mr. Jackson’s ire was a Father’s Day speech recently given by Mr. Obama in which the presidential candidate said, among other things, that “if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” Mr. Obama noted that this was especially true of the African-American community. 

“The moral message must be a much broader message,” Mr. Jackson later said to CNN in explaining his concerns with Mr. Obama. “What we need really is racial justice and urban policy and jobs and health care. That’s a range of issues on the menu.” 

That implied that the difference between the two men centered, perhaps, on who was responsible for correcting problems within the African-American community—African-Americans ourselves, or the broader community and government. That’s an important topic of discussion. But that’s not how the discussion got played out. 

I was watching CNN the morning the controversy broke, and Wolf Blitzer played it as tantalizing as an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Rather than quoting Mr. Jackson’s “cut his nuts off” remark—or use the euphemism “castration,” which was modest enough and would have worked just as well—Mr. Blitzer said that Mr. Jackson’s remarks were “too crude to be repeated on television,” and then proceeded to hold a discussion with on-the-air correspondents about the meaning of remarks that he, Mr. Blitzer, could not repeat. That any cable television station would blush at using the term “nuts” is fairly laughable in and of itself. But the omission had an effect, deliberate or not. It caused viewers to continue to watch the segment, hoping that Mr. Blitzer would give in and repeat what he had insisted could not be said on CNN, at the same time emphasizing and re-emphasizing the “cut his nuts off” remark itself, rather than the serious, underlying debate on the condition of the African-American family and community, and the various responsibilities therefore, being conducted at a distance between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Obama. Within hours, few print or online media outlets hesitated to reprint the “cut his nuts off” quote, and their treatment of the controversy—predictably—centered more upon the possible personal conflict between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Obama, rather than the underlying issue. 

But let’s get to the issue. 

The condition of the African-American community, and social network and institutions, and family, are a cause of deep concern among many African-Americans, far more than we write or talk about outside our community or close inner circle. The causes of this condition are easily evident, and anyone with a running knowledge of African-American and American history can tick them off on their fingers without any trouble. 

African-American writer and political-social activist Makani Themba, to whom I was married for a time, used to say that the Black Family was illegal for the first years of the African-American existence in this country. Extra-legal might be a more accurate statement. Few, if any, laws governed the practice of African slavery in this country, so that its regulations were set by local custom and the whims and economic interests of the slavers and the planter class. Marriage and close family connections amongst captive Africans were rarely encouraged even by the most benevolent of slavemasters and in many cases it was actively discouraged, since such practices interfered with plantation discipline, as well as with the ability of slavemasters to sell off individual family members for economic reasons. Among African men especially—most of whom had no economic responsibility for the raising of their children and many of whom never got the opportunity to even see their offspring—the practice was particularly devastating, fostering—among some—a lifestyle in which children were someone else’s problems. 

This was distinctly different from the culture of the African societies from which the African captives were kidnapped, cultures in which the idea of orphans was odd and foreign, and which the raising of children was the responsibility of the entire village (yes, dear, the saying that Hillary Clinton later appropriated was grounded in African reality). 

Of course, these pre-colonial African societies were almost identical in this way to almost every pre-capitalist rural society around the world, where the raising and educating of children more often than not was considered a communal responsibility. 

The difference between African slavery-era immigrants to America and all other immigrants was that African immigrants came with our cultural institutions smashed and scattered. Africa has the longest history of human habitation and, in those long years, has developed the most diverse population on this earth. For the most part, these language, religious, and cultural groups were separated and sent to different farms and plantations to keep captives divided and to prevent them from conspiring to run away or otherwise rebel. While indigenous African religion survived to this day, it had to do so hidden, mixed—for one example—among the Catholic saints, and important African cultural and communication institutions such as the drum were banned outright on pain of death or dismemberment. 

The result of these practices was that African-American culture had to be built sometimes from scratch, patching together a conglomerate of African and European customs, traditions, and institutions. 

This patchwork culture held remarkably well, both through the end of slavery and through the Hundred Years of Terror that followed, the dark years when the fires of the Abolitionists and the Union soldiers had burned out and when the greater nation abandoned African-Americans as a cause and left us mostly to our own devices and the terrorist mercies of the segregationists. Anchored in the Christian church, the African-American culture of those middle years fostered a remarkably strong system of family values and responsibility, and African-Americans of today caught up in the geneaology movement look to the years of the 1860s to the 1960s as the period when our families and family ties were the strongest. 

More than anything else, the end of segregation ended that Golden Era of the Black American Family. Sometimes voluntarily and enthusiastically—sometimes merely by default—African-Americans gradually traded in portions of our culture and the heart of our cultural institutions for entrance into the greater American culture. It was only after a generation that we came to realize that the greater American culture itself was something of a hollow shell, taken over more and more by a consumer culture, driven by an economic engine that needed us as workers, for a time, and as people to buy the nation’s products. 

One of the most insidious aspects of consumer culture is that it needs to divide, isolate, and compartmentalize—not to stave off rebellion, although that is a complementary by-product—but in order to better identify its target audience. Youth needs the calming and educating influence of elders to guide and shape its fire and enthusiasm, and almost every pre-American culture around the world mixed young and old together. Once the driving force of the rebellious ’60s but now stripped of any pretence of actual rebellion, we have seen in this country, however, the rise of something called a “youth culture,” in which young people are segregated among themselves, to listen to their own music, to set their own standards, to pursue their own lifestyles and goals, and—most important—to buy their own products. Is it any wonder that—driven by our youngest, least attentive, and least experienced—we are becoming a nation fixated upon immediate gratification, often without the patience to follow the simplest storyline or serious, mature debate? 

Capitalism, unregulated, will race pell-mell in the direction of its own destruction, eating up the world’s oil reserves, for example, or warming the ozone layer beyond the capacity of the world to sustain a human habitation unless forcefully made to stop. Vladimir Lenin—who had more humor to him than is normally given credit in the Western world—once joked that the definition of a capitalist was someone who would offer you a good deal on a new rope as the hangman was leading you up the stairs of the gallows. 

But human culture—the culture created out of millions of years of inhabitance on this earth—has a solid strain of self-preservation to it, and left to our own devices, after a bit of pain and confusion, most communities will right themselves, eventually, and get their internal institutions back on the right track. Left to ourselves, like any other people, African-Americans would reform our crumbled institutions, rebuild our lost and scattered communities, and reclaim our responsibilities. It would not be easy. It would take time. But left to ourselves, for a time, we would do it. 

This is a time for African-Americans to turn inward, a time of introspection rather than pronouncement, rather than continuing the national media-driven circus parade that rewards garishness and clownishness, and ends up only going round and round, in a circle. 

If you interpret this as my advocating separation, then I’ve failed to make my point. 

What is needed is some space.