Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When Dumb Wasn't Cool

And remember when dumb wasn't cool? It was the days when Pan-African pride was not only a sign of the times, but just plain good mental health.

You'd walk the 125th Street strip in Harlem and see all the red, black and green; and if that weren't enough to quench your natural thirst you had the mart where there were rented booths that looked more like typical enclaves you would find at any West African market. There was a consciousness back then that pushed for Black solidarity left over from the 70s, innocent of our preoccupation with bling and fluff that was soon to come. We'd say words like peace, my brotha and blessings, my sista, and meant it. It was an exciting period because Malcolm's bright smile and Assata's legendary words--If I hate all Black people, it still won't stop the revolution!--were still cruising the air, while a young music promoter named Sean Combs was just beginning to make a name for himself on The City College campus. Crack, AIDS and gangsta mindset hadn't made their impact on our hoods yet, so Black and Brown children were still smiling. It was a time when Hip Hop was the alternative to Reaganomics--all about self--and not an accomplice, while Run, Jesse, Run! was the latest craze.

But something happened along the way. Black folks began losing their cufis and nat'rals for look-at-me watches and diva wigs. Wearing locks became more of a fashion statement than a politcal one. Greed was now in vogue, followed by Rappers who had plenty to show but nothing to say. Misogyny, too, was making its mark, so much that my six-year-old daughter was banned from watching BET videos. It was a delicate time to be a socially-conscious father, especially when consciousness appeared to be dying. By the time she hit her teen years, the general formula for music videos was flash, cash and half-naked bunnies. Words like cufi, kente, shells, frankincense, and Arrested Development were now taboo. The new cool was flash, ice, weaves, and arrested development! You'd hear young Black males say they were keepin' it real, while Chris Rock's translation was keepin' it real dumb! It placed him on the map for being the Stanley Crouch of comedy. But folks in da hood only got the joke but not the message. They didn't realize he was sounding off the alarm to put the word out that we need to think more critically about ourselves, that our image as a people was in question. In other words, Black America was at a new crossroads. Not just economically and culturally, but fundamentally a war had begun between Blacks and niggaz. Much like the war between gays and queers, but with the added burden of post-slavery psychosis. Because brothas were now dogs; sistas, ho's and a shiny belt buckle was becoming more important than getting a decent gpa. Then Lauryn Hill tried to smack us back into reality by dropping her mic and announcing, I'm done! But ignorance was far too bliss by that time, so we responded by labelling her crazy when all she was trying to do was school us from another angle. Still, dumb got more publicity so she disappeared into reclusion and let Wyclef carry the Fugee banner by himself.

On Saturday mornings I watch the war reach as far as Nigeria when The Africa Channel and BET Africa compete for attention. One pushes culture and ethnic pride while the other pushes the bunnies. It's a contradiction that can confuse your brain cells, if not your sense of Black solidarity. Like seeing a tribe member wear an Obama T-shirt while carrying on like a clown. Makes you wonder where some of us are getting their sustenance. But then it's these same types of contradictions that are being pushed-- dog, pimp, bitch, crib. All of which degrade us as a people yet we defend the right to self-destruct. So while Chuck D back in the days was droppin' knowledge to open up our eyes and minds, now the public enemy was in the mirror, whether we were ready to admit it or not. Some will tell you that calling each other in demeaning ways is merely a form of endearment. But if you take a minute to reflect on that; if you have any African left in you, you can see the psychosis for yourself. Problem is many of us are either too stubborn or too lazy to change our vocab. It's gotten to the point where it's much easier to say nigga than brotha. And walking with a pit bull is still the best crutch to walk with when you don't know who you are, or maybe even afraid to find out.

I was working in a prison when all this was brewing. At the time, getting locked up was still an embarrassment. It wasn't yet a rite of passage for many young Black males, and the police and court officials who exploited the ills. Some blame the prison system for originating sick trends, including young kats wearing their pants low because of the no belt policy behind bars. But in all my years of helping incarcerated brothas reinvent themselves I've never once seen one with his pants so low that it required him to walk like a toddler. Yet today you see young kats--and sadly enough, older ones too-- doin' the toddler so as not to trip and fall, and people don't even flinch over it. They'll give me a fearful, maybe even a disgusted stare whenever I wear my cufi but they won't question self-debasement. It's as if they expect Black males to look dilapidated. And I'm not just talking White folks, I'm talking us. We've become so disentisized by our own demise that it doesn't even phase us when we see our sons looking so grub. As a matter of fact, grub is in, with retailers offering all sorts of shiny new stuff to add to our detriment.

But niggaz don't see it that way. They call it Not givin' a fuk! or keepin' it gangsta to give homage to those Rappers who can't even spell dilapidated, while the rest of the world decides our fate.

So guess what? The City of Dallas, TX has proposed a new ordinance against young men wearing their pants closer to their knees than their waist. Yep, you heard me. They want to make it a crime to look stupid, since we can't figure that sht out on our own! And Louisiana, Georgia and Connecticut are right behind (excuse the pun!). This bizness of waiting for others to do our critical thinking for us has been going on even before we thought jheri curls were cool. And this waiting for a messiah to encourage us to do the obvious has been going on since the first American slave auction. We've become experts in victim mentality but not in coming together, if only for the sake of unity. We don't like unity if it means letting go of dumb trends and picking up instead a book on serious self-reflecting or, God forbid, Black history. Not anymore. We don't listen to what Brotha Crouch keeps trying to tell us. Instead we make fun of his looks as a way of avoiding the work. But how do you avoid something that reveals itself on the faces of our youth and the questionable manner in which they carry themselves? How do you tell a kid that the most gangsta thing he can do is be himself, with so much pressure to stay dumb? What if his self is based on ignorance passed on from one misinformed generation to another, and that he needs trends to help him forget his pains? And what if I don't give a fuk simply means he doesn't expect to see 30?

The answers are hidden within the very thing we've lost respect for-- our old African ways. The same traditions that were ripped from our souls to control our minds. Like how we used to put Shango before paper, the loving way in which fathers would raise their sons, or how my grandmother would squat down to peel potatos. Simple, everyday things that have either become foreign to us or replaced by fast love and fast food.

When we lost that, we lost our sons. Because it's not cash that will bring them back but the notion that, though it's nice to have paper, it's in knowing your glory lives in you and not outside of you that's the real money.



Brilliant (and yet sad) commentary. Every word on point. You have articulated my frustration better than I could ever have. I hope that at some point in the not-so-new millenium, our brothas and sistahs get a clue, and get back on track. Yeah, I'm a dreamer.

K. Koromantee said...

Thanks, don. some of my readers might disagree, but i think it all comes down to the americanization of the black male or what we perceive to be 'black' and 'male' here in the States. because if you notice, blacks from other countries lose their strong sense of ethnic pride soon as they jump ship or plane and begin adopting to trends that go against their parents' values but help them assimilate. cos in da hood, if you want to survive you're forced to follow certain dress codes or be run out. even non-black youth-- suburban white boys included--have subscribed to 'looking black' in order to gain street credibility. the difference is that they know when to shut off the dumb when it's time to take the SAT exam. we, on the other hand, make it part of who we are as a community; and as a result, we assume street culture is black culture, as does everyone else. the latest dumb i've been studying is when young hardcore black lesbians or AGs do the same. this bizness of literally showing your ass debases us as a people, while the rap/hip hop record companies and retail industries exploit and black parents look away....thanks again for your feedback. each one save one!