By Michael Harriot
Sometimes I hear a phrase or a quote that no one else pays attention to, and it sticks to my brain like it was covered in Elmer’s Glue.
Late one night I was watching a story on HBO’s Real Sports about Roy Shivers, the first Black general manager in professional football. After discussing about his groundbreaking achievements, the interview shifted to questions about Shivers’ insistence that his team have a Black head coach, and his in-your-face style of management. The interviewer said that many people around the league found him belligerent and hard to deal with, and asked if — because he’s black — he worried about the perception people had of him. Shivers considered the question for a half second, then calmly looked back at the reporter and responded:
“What are they gonna do? They can’t kick my ass.”
While Black America was still wallowing in the wet spot after making sweet, sweet love to Beyonce’s “Formation” (which apparently made little girls feel good about black features, reinvigorated the spirit of the Black Panthers, freed the slaves, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and cured erectile dysfunction, diabetes and The Vapors), Kendrick Lamar performed at the Grammy Awards and literally set the stage on fire. If you watched it on your phone or tablet, you still haven’t seen it. If you watched it with the volume down, you haven’t seen it. It should only be consumed in a dark room, on the biggest screen possible with the sound turned up. You cannot feel it otherwise — in the same way you cannot take a tenderly char-grilled filet mignon, stick it in the refrigerator and then microwave it the next day.
Forget what I just said. Here it is:
I have already written that “To Pimp a Butterfly” was the blackest album of 2015 and so revolutionary because Kendrick Lamar wasn’t even talking to white people. It was a conversation amongst ourselves that he allowed them to listen in on if they sat quietly in the corner. Then, he went on the Grammy stage and told them:
You hate me don’t ya?
You hate my people
Your plan is to terminate my culture.
We know that you’re evil.
He said that acapella. There was no music to drown him out or background singers to cover him up, and that was just the beginning. What followed was six minutes of spitting on the floor and daring anyone to say anything.
February 26th* I lost my life too…
Why did he he defend himself
Why couldn’t he throw a punch?
And to the community
do you know what this does?
Add to a trail of hatred
2012 was taken…
*Trayvon Martin was murdered on February 26, 2012.
Say something. I dare you.
This is modern day slavery
Then you go home and throw your briefcase onto your couch
Thats why I plan on creeping into your house
and blowing out
every piece of your brain.”
Go ahead. Say something.
The cameras panned the audience showing black people involuntarily holding fists in the air while everyone else marveled at the cool, African dances and the reggae-infused sounds, not really hearing the significance ot the performance, because — again — he wasn’t really talking to them.
I have railed here and other places about the phenomenon of the “New Negro” class of celebrity. From that group of Stepin Fetchit, get-along-ers seems to have arisen a Bizarro world polar opposite class of young black, I-don’t give-a-damn-what-white-people-think-about-me accolytes. It’s not that they want to provoke whites or even diparage them. They just don’t consider them. They are the opposite of Common’s caucasian-groveling “we just want to forgive you and join together in love” or Pharelle’s “New Black” who “doesn’t blame others for our issues.” They see the dominant culture as oppressive and anti-Black, and they don’t care to assimilate into it. They know that others think Black people are cool when they pop-lock on stages or Dab in end zones, but when they get too close, too loud or too “woke” – they cross the threshold and venture into the undesired land of “too Black, ” and they don’t mind being too Black.
Which makes white people nervous.
It’s why Peyton Manning can rub his bare genitals on a woman’s face, then coerce the witnesses into blaming it on a random black guy and the story never sees the light of day but Cam Newton walking out on a press conference is a global referendum on his immaturity. In fact, his refusal to give a fuck about how you perceive him is perplexing to the masses. What’s wrong with him? Why does he keep saying he doesn’t care what we think about him? Why doesn’t he just play along? Shouldn’t he want to be the smiling, shucking, jiving face of the League?
It’s why Barack Obama had to distance himself from the “liberation gospel” (a term invented to describe black preachers who say whatever they want. Notice they never refer to Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson as preaching the “oppression gospe”l) of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Before they could cast their vote for him, they had to make sure Obama wasn’t down with the loud, wide-nosed negro God. They wanted to know he still believed in a quiet, white, blue-eyed Jesus.
It’s why Serena was a cute little tennis prodigy from Compton until she started speaking out loud while crushing her bleached blonde counterparts under her feet. When she began putting her Black girl magic on display by unstraightening her hair and wearing neon booty shorts white people started getting the heebie-jeebies. But it wasn’t that Serena flaunted the fact that her booty had its own gravitational pull — it was that whenever she lost, she would remind anyone around that those white girls really couldn’t beat her, she beat herself. Even more distressing was the fact that she kept saying it, even after they told her it wasn’t nice. Serena was a cute little tennis prodigy from Compton who captured our imagination. Until she started acting like a girl from Compton.
It’s why the white contingent of the”Beyhive” is holding a round-the-clock vigil praying that Beyonce doesn’t go all Nina Simone on them. Why can’t she just bask in her light-skindedness and give them girl anthems to sing in front of the bathroom mirror? Why all the talk about negro noses and baby hair? They like Beyonce. They even put a ring on it. Now they’re protesting her at the NFL headquarters, because she got a little too Black.
To be fair, there were people like this before Cam and Kendrick. Muhammad Ali couldn’t fight because of it. Jim Brown left the NFL because of. Marvin Gaye changed his entire style of singing because of it.
Not being embraced and assimilated into is so unusual to the dominant white culture that they have confused it with belligerence, like trying to end police violence is viewed as anti-cop. They can’t comprehend the audacity of anyone not wanting to be on their side, so they take anyone saying “Nah, I don’t really have to fuck with you” as an act of aggression. They got up-in-arms when Barack mentioned Trayvon could have been his son or when Kendric danced on a cop car at the BET awards show or when Cam Newton asked them “what makes your way better.”
In the end, though, there is no such thing as being “too Black.” Slaves talking about freedom has always made masters nervous, because it conjures of images of rebellion and revolt, so they castigate any instance of “too black”-ness. Beyonce’s nod to the Panthers was a tribute to a “terrorist group.” Kendrick’s performance was for the “Black Lives Matter” crowd. Cam’s attitude is “defiant.” Serena was “Athlete of the Year” because she was a Black female. Viola Davis’ Emmy speech was insulting to white women. Any time it looks like a Black person is trying to #StayWoke, they immediately try to choke them back to sleep.
But to paraphrase Kendrick and Mr. Shivers:
We gon’ be alright.
What are they gonna do? They can’t kick our ass.