I left you with my arm around my little girl’s the budding black identity. Now I write following the blazing arrow essay (NYT Week In Review. Feb. 4) that pierced the heart of the matter of damming certain African-Americans by praising them as ‘articulate.’
Don’t worry: I will return to pick up my little girl later.
After deft reporting, smart writing and unusually pointed conclusions, Lynnette Clemetson’s piece boiled down to this “news you can use” reality check for white readers:
It is unlikely that whites will quickly or easily erase “articulate” and other damning forms of praise from the ways in which they discuss blacks. ...But here is a pointer. Do not use it as the primary attribute of note for a black person if you would not use it for a similarly talented, skilled or eloquent white person. Do not make it an outsized distinction for Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, if you would not for the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman. Do not make it the sole basis for your praise of the actor Forest Whitaker if it would never cross your mind to utter it about the expressive Peter O’Toole.
Well shot, Lynnette. Now let’s take the shaft deeper into the meat, and go for bone. The best part of the piece quoted the brilliant Reggie Hudlin , who is currently President of Entertainment at Black Entertainment Television. Protesting the idea that there’s something unnatural—albeit wonderfully serendipitous—whenever a black person speaks like they might have gone to Harvard, as he did, Hudlin asked:
How many flukes simply constitute reality?
Or, if I may, Reggie: How many exceptions does it take to disprove the rule?
Before this happy disquisition, some definitions.
presume: 1. To assume to be true without proof to the contrary. 2. To appear to prove.
axiom: (3) Math & Logic (a) An undemonstrated proposition concerning an undefined set of elements, properties, functions and relationships : postulate. (b) A self evident or accepted principle.
theorem: (1) an idea demonstrably true or assumed to be so. (2) Math. (a) a proposition provable on the basis of explicit assumptions.
When non-blacks attempt to compliment an African-American by pronouncing them 'articulate', they presume to apply a theorem; they assume something to be true without considering the possibility of proof to the contrary. That 'something' is either:
- black people are inherently—by nature—not well-spoken, OR:
- the average number of well-spoken people is significantly lower among African-Americans than among whites and other non-blacks.
Let’s take them at their word on thing No. 1; not even Trent Lott cops to that kind of ignorant, hateful pseudo-science anymore.
Not so fast, however, on thing No. 2. It’s like presuming that a white picket fence home in Bronx County, NY must be remarkable, because the incidence of such homes is so much lower than, say, in neighboring Westchester County, NY. True, there are more little pink houses per acre in Westchester. But I was raised in a little pink house in the Bronx; in what sense does this statistic prove my upbringing to be
abnormal worthy of remark? What am I supposed to do when white folks shake their heads in amazement and disbelief at my story?
Yes—on average— black folks don’t have the same educational opportunities as whites. And, let’s face it, in my experience and yours, the average black person you meet doesn’t talk like Barack Obama.
So, when you think you’ve met one, why can’t you call him an exception without fear of being a racist?
Because citing his seeming exception—really his relative exception— can be taken as proof of a rule. It seeks to uphold something that mere measures of central tendency (averages, medians etc.) cannot support. The exceptional quality of the 'articulate' black is not consistent with a credible theorem. It is not proved on the basis of explicit assumptions —the definitions of articulate and ‘black’, for example— because those assumptions are highly subjective and in any case, never explicit.
The definition of 'black' itself is the biggest problem. Are the products of the exploding black middle class, now in it’s second generation (my daughter and me) still black for purposes of this rule?
I say there is no theorem or rule here, just an axiom of unexamined racist faith and conventional ignorance. So why is "the exception that proves the rule" still a pillar of racial reasoning for so many people of all colors?
Confronted with alleged black exception—Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith in the Superbowl, Barack Obama strong enough to skip public financing of his presidential campaign, and my suburban computer nerd daughter—somehow many black folks find confirmation that African- Americans cannot become NFL head coaches, president of the United States or soccer mom kids, at least not in any way that can be truly comparable to whites.
To make the logic work, when so called exceptions thrive on white turf, especially on white terms, they are likely to be trashed as inauthentically black. In the case of Obama, writer Debra Dickerson recently declared he was not black at all. This, of course, is the black version of whites who say, "I don't think of (Michael Jordan, Colin Powell etc.) as black at all."
So everybody has an investment in the notion that exceptional black folks prove some kind of rule. Their investment leads them both to excuse or dismiss these African-Americans from their blackness. Too bad most people don’t know what the saying actually means. Truth be told, I didn’t know myself, so I looked it up. I’m now indebted to Michael Quinion at World Wide Words, and the good pedants at alt.english-usage.org. for opening my eyes.
Hint: It’s not about the 'proof', or the 'rule'. It’s all about the 'exception'.