I committed the transgression of wearing a tweed jacket, black sweater, black slacks and glasses, a no-no for the “thug barbers” there because to be an appropriate African American by their standards was to wear saggy pants, sport jerseys and doo-rag caps. My second transgression was to bring a book, James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son. It didn’t matter that Baldwin was one of the greatest prophets on race relations in the history of the 20th century. The fact that I brought a book to read deeply offended their sensibilities, because to read, in their mind, was acting white.
Reaction has been thoughtful and vociferous on Metafilter:
When my parents tell me about JFK instituting the Peace Corps, the announced space missions and the clear objective of putting a man on the moon, and just the general feeling of this age of a great push to improve the world, and explore it, I get sort of angered and depressed that there seems to no longer be that large-scale push for dramatic progress. Without the inspiration to achieve and to continue to progress, as a society, we fall back on instinctual hoarding and self-preservation. Just look at the title of that recent 50 Cent movie: Get Rich of Die Trying. It’s not just a black ethos. It’s becoming America’s ethos.
In the late 1980s, at the height of The Cosby Show’s fame BTW (which may or may not be coincidence), there was a huge movement in the black community – no only in the US, but certainly in Canada at least, as well – to “uplift the race”. It was a boom time for consciousness, and it was considered cool to be conscious (or a herb, I guess) – that is: a) to have a racial consciousness; and b) to employ that consciousness to advance the community as a whole. Public Enemy was on top, and 50 Cent would’ve been laughed out of the place had he shown up at the time.