Mostly I had kept quiet when these subjects were broached, privately measuring my own degree of infection. But I noticed that such conversations rarely took place in large groups, and never in front of whites. Later, I would realize that the position of most black students in predominantly white colleges was already too tenuous, our identities too scrambled, to admit to ourselves that our black pride remained incomplete. And to admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred-for there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls, rather than yet more evidence of black pathology.
It was in observing that division, I think, between what we talked about privately and what we addressed publicly, that I’d learned not to put too much stock in those who trumpeted black self-esteem as a cure for all our ills, whether substance abuse or teen pregnancy or black-on-black crime. By the time I reached Chicago, the phrase self-esteem seemed to be on everyone’s lips: activists, talk show hosts, educators, and sociologists. It was a handy catchall to describe our hurt, a sanitized way of talking about the things we’d been keeping to ourselves. But whenever I tried to pin down this idea of self-esteem, the specific qualities we hoped to inculcate, the specific means by which we might feel good about ourselves, the conversation always seemed to follow a path of infinite regress. Did you dislike yourself because of your color or because you couldn’t read and couldn’t get a job? Or perhaps it was because you were unloved as a child-only, were you unloved because you were too dark? Or too light? Or because your mother shot heroin into her veins…and why did she do that anyway? Was the sense of emptiness you felt a consequence of kinky hair or the fact that your apartment had no heat and no decent furniture? Or was it because deep down you imagined a godless universe?
Maybe one couldn’t avoid such questions on the road to personal salvation. What I doubted was that all the talk about self-esteem could serve as the centerpiece of an effective black politics. It demanded too much honest self-reckoning from people; without such honesty, it easily degenerated into vague exhortation. Perhaps with more self-esteem fewer blacks would be poor, I thought to myself, but I had no doubt that poverty did nothing for our self-esteem. Better to concentrate on the things we might all agree on. Give that black man some tangible skills and a job. Teach that black child reading and arithmetic in a safe, well-funded school. With the basics taken care of, each of us could search for our own sense of self-worth.
Ruby shook up this predisposition of mine, the wall I had erected between psychology and politics, the state of our pocketbooks and the state of our souls. In fact, that particular episode was only the most dramatic example of what I was hearing and seeing every day. It was expressed when a black leader casually explained to me that he never dealt with black contractors (“A black man’ll just mess it up, and I’ll end up paying white folks to do it all over again”); or in another leader’s rationale for why she couldn’t mobilize other people in her church (“Black folks are just lazy, Barack-don’t wanna do nothing”). Often the word nigger replaced black in such remarks, a word I’d once liked to think was spoken in jest, with a knowing irony, the inside joke that marked our resilience as a people. Until the first time I heard a young mother use it on her child to tell him he wasn’t worth shit, or watched teenage boys use it to draw blood in a quick round of verbal sparring. The transformation of the word’s original meaning was never complete; like the other defenses we erected against possible hurt, this one, too, involved striking out at ourselves first.
If the language, the humor, the stories of ordinary people were the stuff out of which families, communities, economies would have to be built, then I couldn’t separate that strength from the hurt and distortions that lingered inside us. And it was the implications of that fact, I realized, that had most disturbed me when I looked into Ruby’s eyes. The stories that I had been hearing from the leadership, all the records of courage and sacrifice and overcoming of great odds, hadn’t simply arisen from struggles with pestilence or drought, or even mere poverty. They had arisen out of a very particular experience with hate. That hate hadn’t gone away; it formed a counternarrative buried deep within each person and at the center of which stood white people-some cruel, some ignorant, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a system claiming power over our lives. I had to ask myself whether the bonds of community could be restored without collectively exorcising that ghostly figure that haunted black dreams. Could Ruby love herself without hating blue eyes?
Rafiq al-Shabazz had settled such questions to his own satisfaction. I had begun to see him more regularly, for the morning after DCP met with the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training he had called me up and launched into a rapid-fire monologue about the job center we had asked for from the city.
“We gotta talk, Barack,” he said. “What y’all are trying to do with job training needs to fit into the overall comprehensive development plan I’ve been working on. Can’t think about this thing in isolation…got to look at the big picture. You don’t understand the forces at work out here. Is big, man. All kinds of folks ready to stab you in the back.”
“Who is this?”
“Rafiq. What’s the matter, too early for you?”
It was. I put him on hold and got a cup of coffee, then asked him to start all over again, more slowly this time. I eventually gathered that Rafiq had an interest in having the new MET intake center we’d proposed to the city locate in a certain building near his office on Michigan Avenue. I didn’t ask the particular nature of that interest: I doubted that I could get a straight answer out of him, and anyway, I figured that we might be able to use an ally in what was proving to be a series of sticky negotiations with Ms. Alvarez. If the storefront he had in mind met the necessary specifications, I said, then I was willing to propose it as one possible alternative.
So Rafiq and I formed an uneasy alliance, one that didn’t go over too well with the DCP leaders. I understood their concerns: Whenever we sat down with Rafiq to discuss our joint strategy, he would interrupt the discussion with long lectures about secret machinations afoot, and all the black people willing to sell their people down the river. It was an effective negotiating ploy, for with his voice progressively rising, the veins in his neck straining, Angela and Will and the others would suddenly drop into a curious silence, watching Rafiq as if he were an epileptic in the midst of seizure. More than once, I’d have to jump in and start shouting back at him, not so much in anger as simply to slow him down, until finally a small smile would curl under his mustache and we could get back to work.
When the two of us were alone, though, Rafiq and I could sometimes have normal conversations. Over time I arrived at a grudging admiration for his tenacity and bravado, and, within his own terms, a certain sincerity. He confirmed that he had been a gang leader growing up in Altgeld; he had found religion, he said, under the stewardship of a local Muslim leader unaffiliated with Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. “If it hadn’t been for Islam, man, I’d probably be dead,” he told me one day. “Just had a negative attitude, you understand. Growing up in Altgeld, I’d soaked up all the poison the white man feeds us. See, the folks you’re working with got the same problem, even though they don’t realize it yet. They spend half they lives worrying about what white folks think. Start blaming themselves for the shit they see every day, thinking they can’t do no better till the white man decides they all right. But deep down they know that ain’t right. They know what this country has done to their momma, their daddy, their sister. So the truth is they hate white folks, but they can’t admit it to themselves. Keep it all bottled up, fighting themselves. Waste a lot of energy that way.
“I tell you one thing I admire about white folks,” he continued. “They know who they are. Look at the Italians. They didn’t care about the American flag and all that when they got here. First thing they did is put together the Mafia to make sure their interests were met. The Irish-they took over the city hall and found their boys jobs. The Jews, same thing…you telling me they care more about some black kid in the South Side than they do ’bout they relatives in Israel? Shit. It’s about blood, Barack, looking after your own.
Period. Black people the only ones stupid enough to worry about their enemies.”
That was the truth as Rafiq saw it, and he didn’t waste energy picking that truth apart. His was a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given and loyalties extended from family to mosque to the black race-whereupon notions of loyalty ceased to apply. This narrowing vision, of blood and tribe, had provided him with a clarity of sorts, a means of focusing his attention. Black self-respect had delivered the mayor’s seat, he could argue, lust as black self-respect turned around the lives of drug addicts under the tutelage of the Muslims. Progress was within our grasp so long as we didn’t betray ourselves.
But what exactly constituted betrayal? Ever since the first time I’d picked up Malcolm X’s autobiography, I had tried to untangle the twin strands of black nationalism, arguing that nationalism’s affirming message-of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility-need not depend on hatred of whites any more than it depended on white munificence. We could tell this country where it was wrong, I would tell myself and any black friends who would listen, without ceasing to believe in its capacity for change.
In talking to self-professed nationalists like Rafiq, though, I came to see how the blanket indictment of everything white served a central function in their message of uplift; how, psychologically, at least, one depended on the other. For when the nationalist spoke of a reawakening of values as the only solution to black poverty, he was expressing an implicit, if not explicit, criticism to black listeners: that we did not have to live as we did. And while there were those who could take such an unadorned message and use it to hew out a new life for themselves-those with the stolid dispositions that Booker T. Washington had once demanded from his followers-in the ears of many blacks such talk smacked of the explanations that whites had always offered for black poverty: that we continued to suffer from, if not genetic inferiority, then cultural weakness. It was a message that ignored causality or fault, a message outside history, without a script or plot that might insist on progression. For a people already stripped of their history, a people often ill equipped to retrieve that history in any form other than what fluttered across the television screen, the testimony of what we saw every day seemed only to confirm our worst suspicions about ourselves.
Nationalism provided that history, an unambiguous morality tale that was easily communicated and easily grasped. A steady attack on the white race, the constant recitation of black people’s brutal experience in this country, served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair. Yes, the nationalist would say, whites are responsible for your sorry state, not any inherent flaws in you. In fact, whites are so heartless and devious that we can no longer expect anything from them. The self-loathing you feel, what keeps you drinking or thieving, is planted by them. Rid them from your mind and find your true power liberated. Rise up, ye mighty race!
This process of displacement, this means of engaging in self-criticism while removing ourselves from the object of criticism, helped explain the much-admired success of the Nation of Islam in turning around the lives of drug addicts and criminals. But if it was especially well suited to those at the bottom rungs of American life, it also spoke to all the continuing doubts of the lawyer who had run hard for the gold ring yet still experienced the awkward silence when walking into the clubhouse; those young college students who warily measured the distance between them and life on Chicago’s mean streets, with the danger that distance implied; all the black people who, it turned out, shared with me a voice that whispered inside them“You don’t really belong here.”
In a sense, then, Rafiq was right when he insisted that, deep down, all blacks were potential nationalists. The anger was there, bottled up and often turned inward. And as I thought about Ruby and her blue eyes, the teenagers calling each other “nigger” and worse, I wondered whether, for now at least, Rafiq wasn’t also right in preferring that that anger be redirected; whether a black politics that suppressed rage toward whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics inadequate to the task.
It was a painful thought to consider, as painful now as it had been years ago. It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions-between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill, between active malice and ignorance or indifference. I had a personal stake in that moral framework; I’d discovered that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. And yet perhaps it was a framework that blacks in this country could no longer afford; perhaps it weakened black resolve, encouraged confusion within the ranks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.
If nationalism could deliver. As it turned out, questions of effectiveness, and not sentiment, caused most of my quarrels with Rafiq. Once, after a particularly thorny meeting with MET, I asked him whether he could turn out his followers if a public showdown with the city became necessary.
“I don’t got time to run around passing out flyers trying to explain everything to the public,” he said.
“Most of the folks out here don’t care one way or another. The ones that do are gonna be double-crossing Negroes trying to mess things up. Important thing is to get our plan tight and get the city signed on. That’s how stuff gets done-not with a big crowd and noise and all that. Once we got a done deal, then y’all announce it any way you like.”
I disagreed with Rafiq’s approach; for all his professed love of black people, he seemed to distrust them an awful lot. But I also knew his approach was dictated by a lack of capacity: Neither his organization nor his mosque, I had discovered, could claim a membership of more than fifty persons. His influence arose not from any strong organizational support but from his willingness to show up at every meeting that remotely affected Roseland and shout his opponents into submission.
What held true for Rafiq was true throughout the city; without the concentrating effect of Harold’s campaign, nationalism dissipated into an attitude rather than any concrete program, a collection of grievances and not an organized force, images and sounds that crowded the airwaves and conversation but without any corporeal existence. Among the handful of groups to hoist the nationalist banner, only the Nation of Islam had any significant following: Minister Farrakhan’s sharply cadenced sermons generally drew a packed house, and still more listened to his radio broadcasts. But the Nation’s active membership in Chicago was considerably smaller-several thousand, perhaps, roughly the size of one of Chicago’s biggest black congregations-a base that was rarely, if ever, mobilized around political races or in support of broadbased programs. In fact, the physical presence of the Nation in the neighborhoods was nominal, restricted mainly to the clean-cut men in suits and bow ties who stood at the intersections of major thoroughfares selling the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call.
I would occasionally pick up the paper from these unfailingly polite men, in part out of sympathy to their heavy suits in the summer, their thin coats in winter; or sometimes because my attention was caught by the sensational, tabloid-style headlines (CAUCASIAN WOMAN ADMITS: WHITES ARE THE DEVIL). Inside the front cover, one found reprints of the minister’s speeches, as well as stories that could have been picked straight off the AP news wire were it not for certain editorial embellishments (“Jewish Senator Metzenbaum announced today…”). The paper also carried a health section, complete with Minister Farrakhan’s pork-free recipes; advertisements for Minister Farrakhan’s speeches on videocassette (VISA or MasterCard accepted); and promotions for a line of toiletries-toothpaste and the like-that the Nation had launched under the brand name POWER, part of a strategy to encourage blacks to keep their money within their own community.
After a time, the ads for POWER products grew less prominent in The Final Call; it seems that many who enjoyed Minister Farrakhan’s speeches continued to brush their teeth with Crest. That the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business-the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years.
But I suspected that it also reflected the inevitable tension that arose when Minister Farrakhan’s message was reduced to the mundane realities of buying toothpaste. I tried to imagine POWER’s product manager looking over his sales projections. He might briefly wonder whether it made sense to distribute the brand in national supermarket chains where blacks preferred to shop. If he rejected that idea, he might consider whether any black-owned supermarket trying to compete against the national chains could afford to give shelf space to a product guaranteed to alienate potential white customers. Would black consumers buy toothpaste through the mail? And what of the likelihood that the cheapest supplier of whatever it was that went into making toothpaste was a white man?
Questions of competition, decisions forced by a market economy and majoritarian rule; issues of power. It was this unyielding reality-that whites were not simply phantoms to be expunged from our dreams but were an active and varied fact of our everyday lives-that finally explained how nationalism could thrive as an emotion and flounder as a program. So long as nationalism remained a cathartic curse on the white race, it could win the applause of the jobless teenager listening on the radio or the businessman watching late-night TV. But the descent from such unifying fervor to the practical choices blacks confronted every day was steep. Compromises were everywhere. The black accountant asked: How am I going to open an account at the black-owned bank if it charges me extra for checking and won’t even give me a business loan because it says it can’t afford the risk? The black nurse said: White folks I work with ain’t so bad, and even if they were, I can’t be quitting my job-who’s gonna pay my rent tomorrow, or feed my children today?
Rafiq had no ready answers to such questions; he was less interested in changing the rules of power than in the color of those who had it and who therefore enjoyed its spoils. There was never much room at the top of the pyramid, though; in a contest framed in such terms, the wait for black deliverance would be long indeed. During that wait, funny things happened. What in the hands of Malcolm had once seemed a call to arms, a declaration that we would no longer tolerate the intolerable, came to be the very thing Malcolm had sought to root out: one more feeder of fantasy, one more mask for hypocrisy, one more excuse for inaction. Black politicians less gifted than Harold discovered what white politicians had known for a very long time: that race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations. Younger leaders, eager to make a name for themselves, upped the ante, peddling conspiracy theories all over town-the Koreans were funding the Klan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. It was a shortcut to fame, if not always fortune; like sex or violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market.
Nobody I spoke with in the neighborhood seemed to take such talk very seriously. As it was, many had already given up the hope that politics could actually improve their lives, much less make demands on them; to them, a ballot, if cast at all, was simply a ticket to a good show. Blacks had no real power to act on the occasional slips into anti-Semitism or Asian-bashing, people would tell me; and anyway, black folks needed a chance to let off a little steam every once in a while-man, what do you think those folks say about us behind our backs?
Just talk. Yet what concerned me wasn’t just the damage loose talk caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists-Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white-it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.
The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan-didn’t selfesteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity-of race or of culture-could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited. It would have to find root in Mrs. Crenshaw’s story and Mr. Marshall’s story, in Ruby’s story and Rafiq’s; in all the messy, contradictory details of our experience.