Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cambridge Police Provide PSA on Racism: It’s Still Alive

gates072009 I’m sure you feel the same way: I’m still proudly wearing my “American Racism Is Over because We Elected a President who Is Black” t-shirt, and I’m not ready to take it off just yet, especially during this period of American ecstasy as we win the space race again, albeit retrospectively.

But, thankfully, the Cambridge Police Department has gone out of its way to remind us that we still live in a country that harbors a large amount of institutional racism by arresting Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr on his front porch.

“Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's pre-eminent African-American scholars, was arrested Thursday afternoon at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. The incident raised concerns among some Harvard faculty that Gates was a victim of racial profiling.

Police arrived at Gates' Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, had trouble unlocking his door after it became jammed.

He was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had "no idea who he was messing with,'' the report said” (Boston.com).1

The details are various, still emerging, and (as you’d expect) often contradictory. (Gate’s attorney’s account here, on TheRoot.com.)

Truly, this story foregrounds the tentative position even the most-successful African-American citizens occupies in this country—always one step away from being reduced simply to the color of one’s skin and subject to the prejudices and beliefs that have been attached to that single characteristic.

You may or may not be familiar with Gates beyond his reputation or name, so here is an excerpt from “African American Studies in the 21st Century”:

Within the academy, I believe, we must seek to explore the hyphen in African American, on both sides of the Atlantic, by charting the porous relations between an "American" culture that officially, even today, pretents [sic] that an Anglo-American regional culture is the true, universal culture, and that African-American culture is, at best, a subset to it or a substandard and subservient deviant of it. (We hear the complaints, of course. Allan Bloom, for example, laments that "just at the moment when everyone else has become 'a person,' blacks have become blacks . . ." Unfortunately, "everyone else" can become a person precisely when the category person comes to be defined in contradistinction to black.)

We must chart both the moments of continuity and discontinuity between African cultures and African American cultures. Only a fool would try to deny continuities between the Old World and the New World African cultures. But equally misguided, needless to say, is any attempt to chart those continuities on the basis of a mystified and dubious biological or so-called "racial-science." Above all else, we are a people who were constructed as members of a new Pan-African ethnicity. We cannot -- and should not -- deny historical contingencies of this construction, lay claim to the ideal of "blackness" as an ideology or a quasi-religion, totalized and essentialized into a proto-fascist battering ram supervised by official thought police. (I remember as a student at Cambridge, I was about to have my first supervision with Wole Soyinka, then in exile from Nigeria, on African literature . . . though I was only twenty-two, I was certain I had a deep understanding of African culture. I had read Jahnheinz Jahn's Muntu, you see, and was fired up with the inspirational doxa of "nommo," which was the master concept, the distilled essence, of all African culture. "I hope you know something about Africa," Soyinka told me as I came for my supervision, viewing my Afro balefully. "Absolutely," I said, having just memorized the principles of nommo in preparation for our meeting. "Because the fact is," Soyinka added, "the only reason I accepted you as a student was that at least you didn't talk about that nommo nonsense." "Nommo?" I said. "Never heard of it.")


We are scholars. For our field to grow, we need to encourage a true proliferation of ideologies and methodologies, rather than to seek uniformity or conformity. An ideal department of African-American Studies would have several of these approaches represented, rather than merely one officially sanctioned approach to a very complex subject. African-American Studies should be the home of free inquiry into the very complexity of being of African descent in the world, rather than a place where we seek to essentialize our cultural selves into stasis, and drown out critical inquiry.

And while I for one wish that all persons of color would pursue our discipline on one level or another during their undergraduate careers, our subject is open to all -- whether to study or to teach. After all, the fundamental premise of the academy is that all things ultimately are knowable; all are therefore teachable. What would we say to a person who said that we couldn't teach Milton because we are not Anglo-Saxon or male, or heterosexual -- or blind!

UPDATE: Apparently the charges are being dropped, but then the fallout will really begin.

1 Incorrect usage of quotation marks to offset this text being embedded into other web pages that obscure the whole block-quote thing.

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