Dr. Meeks, associate professor of psychiatric social work at the University of Toronto, spent eight years as a social worker in Detroit. In this article he examines the psychological roots of Black Power.
“I DON'T DEAL in coal.” That was a very black Detroit barber's way of telling me some years ago that he would not date a woman as black as himself. “Beauty is only skin deep but black goes all the way to the bone,” he said. While sociologists were theorizing about the alienation of the light-skinned people within the Negro community, the Negroes themselves, despising their own blackness, were placing light-skinned women on a special pedestal.
The barber was only vaguely aware that in devaluing black skin he was simultaneously denigrating himself. But his conflict was not unusual: self-rejection concisely defines the psychological dilemma of the black man in American society. More than a century ago America promised the Negro equality in exchange for his becoming “white.” Since that time millions of black people have measured their self-worth by how closely they measure up to white standards.
But the Negro found that no amount of cleanliness, achievement or private virtue could buy him full acceptance into the mainstream of American society. America reneged on her promise and nobody knows this better than those middle-class Negroes who have tried so hard to be “white,” only to find that to the white man they were still “niggers”—their color typecast them to fit a stereotype burned into the collective American psyche. Because of this American compulsion to deprecate blackness, many black Americans have, at long last, decided that their beauty and their humanity cannot depend upon a white definition.
Indeed, the Negro’s psychological conflict has been his emulation and idealization of what he has supposed to be white standards, at the expense of his love for self. As the victim of white America’s self-adulation, the Negro has represented the sociological, moral and aesthetic / continued on page 44
“THEY’RE READY TO DIE" continued from page 29
Black men—and white—are slaves of the whites’ fantasies
bottom. Black is bad and ugly and dirty. White is good and beautiful and clean. The black-man’s struggle in America is essentially a struggle to recapture his lost self-esteem. Low selfesteem breeds anger, and the anger of the disenfranchised, who have no other means of recourse, has been channeled into a horrible violence which asks
questions of the American Dream.
The ghetto insurrections came as a shock to many Americans. Since the Negro has been seen as only theoretically human, his human needs and passions have been dealt with as though they, too, were only theoretical. Out of the darkness of their own forbidden impulses, white Americans
have developed fantasies about what the Negro feels and thinks and is. Conversely, they have constructed euphoric fantasies about their own morals and state of civilization. At one end of the spectrum gleams the white fantasy, pure, nonviolent, intelligent, cultured. At the other end survives the black fantasy of unbri-
died sexuality, violence, ignorance and crudeness. Between these poles the truth is hidden. Both the black man and the white man are slaves of this cultural conditioning, but if the white man can free himself he has the power to save America.
Perverse genius underlies the racist conditioning of American society. As long as the Negro suffers his oppression and humiliation in silence, he is “contented.” When he protests, he is “Communist - inspired.” When he achieves, he is an “exception.” When he fails — and the odds favor failure — he is “typical.”
To live healthily with themselves, men must value themselves. The path to this self-value begins in infancy, when you are at the centre of the world, and goes on through love of the parents, who come to represent the ideal image. In adulthood you sustain self-value by measuring yourself against the ideals of society. But U.S. society devalues black skin, and so it is impossible for the black man to achieve any healthy measure of selfidealization. Though exposed to the same heroes and heroines as white youngsters, the Negro child soon learns that to attain the social ideal in America he must have a white skin. Oppressed, he did not challenge the system, and the ideal prevails because the predominantly white society wills it so. The white ideal and the devalued Negro image persist because of while power.
Because the only route to self-esteem was to copy white standards, generations of Negroes have dekinked their hair, bleached their skins, held their lips in a thin line, idealized mulatto women, assumed exaggeratedly genteel social poses — and hated their blackness. Black was the antithesis of perfection and the anger of the ghetto was the anger of self-hatred. Those Negroes who refused to accept their “inferiority” had little influence on America or on the ghetto.
Privately, Negroes hated their white oppressors but, unable to fight back, manifestly hated, distrusted and attacked one another. Punishment for violence toward other Negroes in the ghetto was so light that it was tantamount to reward. The white majority was protected from seeking insight into the social pathology of its own creation by indifference and by social and geographical distance. The paid agents of their oppression, as every ghetto Negro knows, were the police.
My last encounter with Detroit police found me leaning with my hands against the roof of my car with my legs outstretched and wide apart. I was being frisked on a busy Detroit street on “suspicion of robbery.” My real crime had been to turn around in the parking lot of a supermarket which was closed for Thanksgiving.
A car emerging from the parking lot of a closed supermarket! Under other circumstances this kind of police alertness might have been laudatory. But the melodrama surrounding this encounter, the roughing up by two white policemen, faces reddened with anger, the threats of additional bodily harm, the command. “Shut up, nigger,” were not in the police manual.
The conservative cut of my suit and my university vocabulary did not save
me from humiliation. Every time a Negro is humiliated because of his color, and this is an endless process, he is being called a “nigger”; his humanity is being denied. Leaning against that car, I decided that I must leave Detroit and perhaps the United States. That was 1962 when Negro patience was already at breaking point.
The political metamorphosis, both international and domestic, of the 1950s with an emerging Africa in a world grown suddenly small, had fermented the aggression that had been steeping in the Negro community for decades. The Negro middle class trooped optimistically off to a holy, nonviolent war for integration with a few cheers from the Negro masses who sullenly lined the streets. The holy war presupposed the potential for white insight and the existence of a tappable white conscience. Feeling that all that separated them from the white ideal image was opportunity— not intelligence, education, or manners — middle-class Negroes sought, through integration, to eliminate the artificial boundaries of color.
Brainwashed by the American Dream, they reckoned without the sacredness attached to whiteness and its central role in the American economic, political and social arenas. Their wish to join was shattered by the intransigence with which America defended its fortresses of white supremacy. Their cries of, “But we love you,” reflected the fact that they felt they had no other choice but to love. For the future and the comfort of the Negro middle class are inextricably bound to the future of America and, thus, to the pursuit of the elusive white ideal. It is ironic that in aspirations and life style middle-class Negro Americans more closely approximate “white ideals” than a sizable percentage of whites.
The white ideal is. in fact, a construct, a romantic fiction geared toward self-aggrandizement. Its moral contradictions even disenchant many white youths who gallantly marched off to the holy civil-rights wars and now, disillusioned, sulk in the hippiedromes of the nation. But in the early 1960s militant Negro youths, beaten in Mississippi, jailed in Alabama, and humiliated all over the South, began to re-examine the white society they were seeking to join and the white ideal they had subconsciously embraced. By suffering without surrendering, by meeting primitive viciousness and abuse with an extra cheek, the Negro had symbolically become white and the white man black.
For many Negroes, joining the white society began to represent downward mobility, and the climate changed so that one did not have to be white to be idealized. Black was the color of the day and since white power was the agent of the Negro’s degradation, black power became his slogan and his need. The black man cannot achieve self-idealization in a black-hating nation which simultaneously exalts the color white. A black ideal must be established to save the Negro psychologically. When he is saved psychologically he will exist with dignity and self-respect in his own community.
Black power means many things. It means masculinity for hundreds of
thousands of socially castrated Negro males. It means financial investments on behalf of Negroes. It means electing public officials concerned with the Negro’s plight. It means respect for the beauty and femininity of Negro women. It means plopping the sensual lips out where they belong, leaving the hair as it is, idealizing blackness. It means the end of selfhatred. And it means black self-assertion in defense of black humanity. For the politically, economically and
socially helpless, self-assertion has often meant violence.
The emergence of black African diplomats and the enhanced image of the Negro at home did not diminish the Negro’s anger — but it did diminish his self-hatred and it did prompt him to refuse to live down to whitesociety's stereotype of the Negro as “inherently inferior.” Poor Negroes stopped venting their chronic anger on other black people and directed their anger toward the real object of their
oppression — the white power structure. Its visible, accessible extensions are the businesses, both black and white, which charge exorbitant interest rates and six cents extra on a quart of milk, the police who rob them of their dignity, and the invisible forces that emasculate them even before men should have to care.
These are the economic and human walls of their prison. It is, after all, their prisons and not their neighborcon tinned on page 48
hoods that they seek to destroy, and reinforcing the prison walls will serve no purpose. It is a tragic commentary on American civilization that some citizens feel forced to seek self-esteem in the ashes of their own communities.
Increasingly, the Negro middle class, which occupies islands within, or reservations on the fringes of, the ghetto slums, is a target of the angry poor. Through their resentment of the system the middle classes are on the same side as poor Negroes, but by their rela-
tive security, their affluence and their goals they arc allied with the forces that would preserve the status quo. As Congress hastens to rebuild the prison walls anil ignores the blackman’s quest for freedom, the ranks of the “rioters” will be swelled. (The “rioters" include less than three percent of Negroes on a national scale, and here one must reluctantly include the looters, not all of whom were black, who seized the moment to redistribute wealth.)
If one can gauge the extent of entrenched prejudice by such euphemisms as the “white backlash” and "the mood of Congress," a war is in progress which has no solution. Since centuries of discrimination and deprivation have created large-scale Negro poverty, many Americans ease their consciences by referring to the ghetto insurrections as primarily economic in origin. It seems easier to atone for this lesser guilt by applying a thin economic salve to deep psychological
wounds. A large percentage of ghetto Negroes want back the black-man's dignity and manhood, and to get it some are willing, more willing than the emotionally detached realize, to die.
They probably will have to die in increasing numbers, for the United States has trapped itself in a baffling conundrum wherein, it seems, the white-man’s idealization of himself depends upon the dehumanization of the Negro: indeed, he is willing to grant the Negro anything but human status. If Negroes were accepted as human beings today there would be no need for additional civil-rights legislation.
The Negro revolution is not all one thing. The ghetto insurrections represent the elements of a social class struggle within the larger revolution. The integrationists are middle - class, relatively comfortable and wish to join the society. The insurrectionists are poor, undereducated, often underfed and unemployed and can see no way out. so they do not conceive of being able to join that society. They are the spiritual kin of the disenchanted young black militants. A community within America that has always been separate is becoming more so and some of its people have constructed new gods in their own Negro image. It is a mistake for America to believe that they will ever worship the divinity of the exclusive white ideal again. They must be able to sec themselves in the American image of itself, and it is up to America to make this possible.
The need for black power has grow n out of the Negro’s alienation from the halls of power. Theoretically, the Negro's leaders are the same elected officials who effectively represent the rest of their constituencies and the businessmen who cheerfully accept money from black people. To ask who are the Negro’s leaders is to admit that the city halls and legislatures of the nation do not objectively represent his interests. Who are the Italian or Irish or Jewish leaders who could exert power over their groups on a nationwide scale? They do not exist because they are not needed. It is the nature of prevailing white power that makes black power necessary.
Despite the ghetto violence, there is a certain beauty in the trends of recent years because the black man has begun to purge himself of selfhatred. The integrationists attempted to administer therapy to the white nation which is an unwilling patient and which admits to no pervasive illness; the advocates of the black ideal are attempting to administer therapy to the Negro.
But while the black man is rediscovering his beauty and his humanity, white America is unwilling to honestly re-examine its schizophrenic relationship with the black man in its midst. Perhaps the most powerful source of energy available for the solution of the racial crisis in America today is that of the young Negro militants, now tragically channeled into black nationalism. But before they can move in constructive ways, the white ideal must he replaced with an accessible human ideal based on merit and equality of opportunity, not on color. Toward that end. and beyond the passion of the moment, domestic harmony will ultimately depend upon a resolution of the “white problem" in America. ★
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