Black Protectionism and Richard Wright

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, yet the essence of slavery lived on as blacks would not be given the chance to assimilate into society. Instead, the early 20th century South was a place of racial prejudice, discrimination, and hate; blacks could be arrested, beat, or hung for the smallest issues. While the North was more desirable, it was not the safe haven it was made out to be as racism was still prevalent. In reality, blacks have been forced into a life of alienation, created by the white oppressors who manipulated blacks into a position of self-inflicted inferiority. Richard Wright’s Black Boy reveals that African Americans cannot separate themselves from their racial identities, which have become internalized due to the fear of receiving backlash from their community, betraying their culture, or the idea of presenting a united front. These stereotypes have persisted in modern society as well, angering blacks who have been chained to an identity that is solely defined by their race.

First and foremost, African Americans struggle with the idea of not being black enough. The notion that the authentic way of being black is by speaking a certain way, listening to certain music, and dressing in a certain style often restrains African Americans. Moreover, the system of institutional racism was designed to prevent African Americans’ aspirations beyond menial labor. Richard Wright faces isolation because he does not abide by these rules. When his short story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre '' is published, he is met with hostility and confusion from scared fellow African Americans who simply can not understand his ambitions and who “looked at me with new eyes, and a distance, a suspiciousness came between us”. His family reacted in a similar manner as Granny referred to his writing as “the Devil’s work” and his mother feared he would be perceived as weak-minded. Evidently, Wright’s blackness was largely questioned and interrogated by his own community because he breaks the mold that he is pressured to fit.

Similarly, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn’t fit into the black mold. In the episode, “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud,” Carlton pledges a fraternity at the University of Los Angeles. The fraternity president, who is also a black man, rejects Carlton, referring to him as a “sellout.” The president argues that Carlton’s wealthy upbringing and nerdy personality wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the members. Carlton defends himself: 'Being black isn't what I'm trying to be; it's what I am. I'm runnin' the same race and jumpin' the same hurdles you are, so why are you trippin' me up?' Carlton is not the stereotypical black man, but that does not make him any less black. His aim is to be himself, not to fit into a demeaning mold that stereotypes him based on his race.

After all, being articulate, bright, and clean is associated with the purity of whiteness; a natural outcome of a society built on white supremacy. Due to the racial resentment against such traits associated with whiteness, black individuals excoriate other blacks who are smart and successful by questioning their blackness and pressuring them to prove themselves by fitting into the mold. The tension within the community that existed in Richard’s time is still prevalent in contemporary times as society does not let African Americans separate themselves from their racial identity.

Furthermore, the pejorative term “acting white” constraints blacks from reaching their full potential in fear of betraying their culture. The term refers to an African American’s perceived disloyalty to their culture by assimilating into the societal expectations of a predominantly white-controlled society. In particular, Richard Wright is met with giggles and condescending remarks from his peers when he presents his club report at the first unit meeting. Richard learns that he has been branded an “intellectual” due to his eloquence, style, and ambitions. Hence, his comrades interact with him with suspicion and caution. The underlying issue is the systemic inequality that contributes to the country's racial achievement gap. The more “white” one is, the more they must reassure their community that they are still one of them. Seemingly harmless questions such as “Why are reading so much?” and “why are you speaking so properly?” are used as harsh insults, yet others’ self-defeating attitudes are the result of personalized racism. To unpack and fully face that internalized racism can be painful.

The fear of “acting white” persists in modern society as well. In his 2004 Keynote Address, Barack Obama stated that 'children can't achieve unless we eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” In the New York Times article, “When ‘Black Like Me’ Means ‘White Like Them,’” Boluwaji Ogunyemi experiences this issue first hand as he recalls a time when he received a 94 on an exam, to which a peer questioned, “Are you trying to be white, Bolu?!” Ogunyemi wondered if performing well made him any less black as “some of his peers were subscribing to the stereotype of black underachievement.” The issues of racial identity are subtle as the fear of being disqualified from one's race lingers.

Ogunyemi and Wright both faced alienation for “acting white.” The term echoes legitimate frustrations with a society that presents a narrow, stereotypical image of what it means to be black in America. In reality, black youth are often seen as betraying their cultural identities by aspiring to academic success but achievement should have no color. The fear of abandoning one's culture by excelling academically and dressing in a preppy matter is still persistent today.

Moreover, there is a struggle with the idea of sticking together or black protectionism. Based on human nature, individuals tend to feel closer to others of their own culture as they get a sense of safety and comfort in those familiar settings. The idea of sticking together reiterates that what happens to a black individual is felt by many in the “racial” group. For instance, Wendolyn Brooks becoming the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first African American Supreme Court Justice and Barack Obama’s Presidency are all empowering events celebrated by the black community. On the other hand, the lynching of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination, and the killing of Trayvon Martin are traumatic events that opened up wounds. This linked fate is a survival instinct to withstand oppression together caused by hate-filled white supremacy. It is a defense mechanism that has its roots in the system of chattel slavery where in the United States, to be a slave meant one was legal property. Blacks were stolen, raped, dumped, and sold: these are the notorious events that connected black people.

In particular, Religion unified the black community together; so Richard’s reluctance to adhere to the church reinforces his role as an outsider. As a result, family members like Aunt Addie and Granny were cold and hostile toward him and his classmates were instructed by their parents to avoid him. Wright was constantly pressured by his community to join the church to be accepted. Specifically, a boy in the neighborhood aims to save Wright’s soul to which Wright expresses his disbelief and frustration with God by stating that “if laying down my life could stop the suffering in the world, I'd do it. But I don't believe anything can stop it”. His school friends urged him to become a member of the church, lightly implying that he had to join to keep their friendship. Furthermore, Richard is disgusted with the church’s technique of exploiting human relationships and alienating those with differing religious views. Yet he understands that “the tribe for its own safety, was asking us to be at one with it” and if he refused to join the church, he would be isolated and placed “in the position of moral monsters”. Richard finally consents to be baptized not for spiritual enlightenment but to avoid humiliating his mother and to break down the barriers that blocked his full acceptance into the black community. Evidently, the black church is not just a place for connecting with God, but also a place to connect with the African American community.

The idea of sticking together and protecting one's own race branches outside of religion. For example, Former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was reelected by the black community even after the FBI videotaped him smoking crack cocaine during a sting operation. This is a prime example of black protectionism. Many African-Americans felt the duty to protect one of their own as they worried that this was part of a conspiracy to bring down famous African-Americans; the pinnacles of achievement for the community. Unfortunately, black women do not get the same kind of protectionism that black men are able to receive from the community. In fact, black women often pay the price when black protectionism is misguided and regardless of the trauma they endure, their experiences never matter the way they should. For instance, many believed that R. Kelly was singled out because he was black and successful when black women issued sexual-abuse allegations against him. Kelly aimed to silence the allegations and win the black community’s empathy by cheaply exploiting the struggles of the African American race. He reminded the public of the inequality in the criminal justice system and of the fact that “since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it”. The community struggles with the abuse of black women as addressing the problem ultimately means singling out black men like R. Kelly; an action many are hesitant to take “because they don’t want to become another vehicle that contributes to their destruction”. As Professor Russel-Brown asks, “shouldn't we rally behind sexual assault victims in the same way that we do for high-profile, celebrity African-American men?”. After all, black protectionism is meant to represent group solidarity. It is supposed to reflect the awareness of the history of racism in the United States. It is meant to be a unifying cry against the demeaning stereotypes that hold the black race down, yet accepting abuse counteracts all of those goals.

Contemporary examples and Wright’s experience reiterate the point that the idea of sticking together, or black protectionism can be drastically misguided to jeopardize the well-being of individuals in the community. Black protectionism should protect every black individual.

The black identity is defined by the struggle between socioeconomically disadvantaged young people who are punished for “acting white” and mostly economically well-off individuals trying to figure out how to be “black enough.” It is defined by the underlying fear of a white-controlled nation and racial stereotypes that continue holding black individuals down. But today, African Americans are fighting back in bolder manners and will continue the long battle of eradicating different forms of racism.  

07 July 2022
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