I was sitting around my apartment sixteen years ago, (my flat to be more specific) thinking of what type of poem I wanted to write next, when it occured to me that I had never written a poem about being Black. This was 1992 and the political temperment of Black people at that time was decidedly hostile. It seemed odd to me that I had no real feelings about what "Blackness" meant to me at that time so I sat down to write what I felt.
The first thing I wrote was a rant about what it felt like to be a liberal in the Black community which tends to be very conservative about everything except minority rights. I wrote about what it felt like to not be a Christian in the black community, to not hate gays, and to not consider myself "African". It was a rambling tirade with more emotion than I would have ever thought I had in me. I was surprised that I had so many strong feelings about it. Then I wrote a poem about what I conseidered to be sell-outs or Uncle Toms.
Tap dancin' jiggaboos bug-eyed and smilin'
Up on the auction block profilin'
Sellin' Watermellon to appease the opressor
White man's dog turnin' tricks for his master
How will we ever get the yoke off our neck
With these Tommin' ass coons sellin' out for a paycheck?
Worshipin' at the altar of the overseer
A God with white skin, light eyes, and straight hair?
How will we ever learn to love ourselves
when even our gods look like someone else?
Again, It surprised me that I had that in me. I read this poem at a place in San Francisco called "The Upper Room" run by a brother named Rafik. This was one of the few black-owned nightclubs in the city and it had the added benefit of being alcohol and tobacco free. They had a poetry night back then called F.B.P. "For Black People" and I was one of the regular readers. So I stepped up and brought the house down with the above poem. I walked off the stage feeling pretty good about myself, like I had said some real righteous shit. Then the guy who ran the poetry night stepped up when I was done and said:
"Sometimes we sell out because we have no one else to sell to. So make sure you guys continue to support this place."
Well, they didn't support the club enough and it eventually went under. In fact while 11.8% of White Americans own their own businesses only 3.8% of Black Americans are self-employed and our failure rate is significantly higher. Only 13.9% of Black owned businesses have annual profits of more than $10,000 compared to 30.4% of White owned businesses. And on average Black businesses hire only 0.63 employees compared to 1.80 employees hired by white firms. Again, more than twice almost three times as many. Only 11.3% of Black owned businesses hire any employees at all compared to 21.4% of white owned businesses. This all got me to thinking about that comment.
"Sometimes we sell out because we have no one else to sell to."
Perhaps the man was right? We don't support our own businesses, and they don't support us by hiring employees, so who else are we going to go to? With most of the businesses in America owned by white people it would seem that "selling-out" is little more than survival. If that white man says you have to cut your dreads or your Afro or your cornrolls to work at his company what choice do you have? If you want to work you had better go ahead and get out those clippers because no one else is hiring. Luckily, I've had my head shaved for the past eighteen years but that's beside the point. You'd better lose all of your ethnic inflections and colorful dialect too if you want to have any hope of rising anywhere in corporate America. Unless of course you are an athlete or an entertainer. "Keeping it Real" means a trip to the unemployment line.
This was a truly depressing realization. Sell-out or starve seemed to be the only options available to minorities besides crime.
And I'm not suggesting that every Black man in America acts like "Undercover Brother" when Mr. Charlie isn't around. Many of us grew up talking, dressing, and acting, what would be considered appropriate for White Americans. Many of us, but not all of us. Those who didn't, regardless of how qualified or educated they might be, will find themslves infintely less employable and promotable unless they change quickly or fake it. There's not a Black person walking this planet who doesn't understand that. "Acting White" gets you hired. "Acting Black" gets you fired. Even those offended by the suggestion that there is such a thing as "Acting White" or "Acting Black" know what is meant by it and are aware of the consequences of each. "Acting Black" is a generalization, but it is a generalization that is true for many Black Americans and if "Acting Black" means that you are unemployable than a great many of our brothers and sisters are going to find themselves on the unemployment line simply because they have a tendency to throw an occassional "Ya know I'm sayin'?" into their conversation or wear too much FUBU.
There is a problem here that needs to be addressed because many of our brothers and sisters do in fact "Act Black". Why? Because they are. Because they were raised in communities and in a culture where certain mannerisms, dress, hairstyles, and dialect were the norm. I'm not suggesting that anyone should hire people who dress and act like they just got paroled. But I am suggesting that if they were from another country and talked with an accent or dressed somewhat differently than the corporate norm, they would not be judged nearly as harshly. In this country "Acting Black" has come to mean acting ignorant or acting like a criminal. This stereotype, unfortunately, is largely perpetuated by the Black community itself, by our music, our comedy, and the way we allow ourselves to be portrayed in movies and television.
The popular image of Black culture is now one which a lot of Black people have found it neccessary to distance themselves from. Unfortunately, the media image of Black culture encompasses many of the genuine trappings of Black American culture making even the most benign cultural affectations things which could limit your career. Even something as simple as your name. Tamika is not likely to get hired as quickly as Katie Sue.
There is a big difference between what is appropriate for White Americans and what is appropriate for Black Americans. My mother used to always tell me that Black Americans had to exist in two worlds, "The Black world and the White World" and those worlds had two distinct ways of acting, dressing, and speaking and if you didn't learn them both you would never make it. That was only partially true. You can completely ignore the Black world and be perfectly okay in this society. Just don't ignore the White world. Whenever anyone talks to me about racism no longer being an issue I point that out. It is possible to completely ignore the Black community and suffer no ill affects. Not so of the White community. When a Black person talks about being aware of his color every single day of his life this is what he is talking about. Every time we go job hunting, house or apartment hunting, to look for a loan, to court, every time we walk into an expensive restaurant for which we don't already have a reservation, everytime we speak to a cop, we have to be conscious of acting "Too Black." Because we all know the kinds of negative results that is likely to yeild. It sucks but it's true.
I could be wrong, but I can't imagine a black-owned business asking someone to cut their dreadlocks or making it a prerequisite for employment unless of course they were concerned that their Caucasian customers would disapprove. But since there are so few Black owned businesses, despite the 37% increase in recent times, any type of ethnic dress or hairstyle would be considered a career limiting move. The business world is not controlled by people with Afros and Dreads. To rise up many find it neccessary to sell out. Sad but true. So perhaps I judged my brothers too harshly. I'll definitely say this, there's no man out there who's working hard everyday in a legitimate occupation to support his family who I would call a sellout. The fools out there writing lyrics that perpetuate the image that all Black men are pimps, thieves, murderers, and drug pushers and all black women are whores and gold diggers are the sellouts. The ones out there selling drugs in the black community and shooting other brothers dead over drug turf are the Uncle Toms. See there's a big difference bewteen the man who cuts his dreads, drops his street accent, and pulls up his pants so that he can feed his family, and the man who picks up a gun and goes out robbing and killing other Black folks and sellin' drugs to kids in order to do the same. That criminal is the one I now consider to be the sell-out. And I'm not suggesting that corporate America would be any more welcoming to sagging jeans, cornrolls, and a slang drawl, if that image were not so heavily associated with drug and gang culture. But it certainly ain't helpin'.