When I first decided to write you, I was ready to go for the jugular. I wanted to let you know, in no uncertain terms, just how much I disagreed with your political positions, abhorred your relationship with the Bush clan, and anything else I could think of. I decided I was going to look through every nook and cranny, leave no stone unturned in search of what would be some faulty move, a misspoken word, or some sort of flaw that I would use to turn you out on paper. I downloaded whatever I could find on you: commencement addresses, interviews, speeches, and your famous remarks to the 9-11 Commission. I even went to the bookstore, and purchased some right-wing puff piece posing as a biography. Just as I was preparing to write, you were nearing the end of your tenure as National Security Advisor, and nearing your Senate confirmation as the new Secretary of State. And I was poised to give you what the Black gay children call a “read.”
But then a strange turn of events occurred that profoundly changed my intent for writing this letter. Oddly enough, I was reading your biography on the flight to your second hometown, Denver, CO, where I was giving two public talks: “Same-Sex Marriage and Race Politics,” and “Gentrification, Prisons, and Anti-Black Racism.” My talks were attended by members of Denver’s Left-from liberal Democrats to punk-anarchist radicals. And here I was, Black revolutionary that I am, giving talks to almost exclusively white audiences. Your name came up both times, and I didn’t come anywhere near mentioning you in my talks. Two different white people asked me the same identical question: “What do you think about Condoleeza Rice?”
Why did they care what I thought about you? Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. These white people wanted me to do what I was planning to do with this letter: Finger-point, neck-bob, and hand-wave. Call you a traitor or worse, a “Tom.” Dog your personal appearance. And in doing so, I would be met with thunderous applause. On both the Right and the Left, Black people publicly scolding other Black people for being culturally or politically backward is what’s hot! On the Right, Ward Connelly’s crusade to end affirmative action in higher education in California, and the success of writer John McWhorter’s disturbing right-wing books that label virtually anything that Black people do as pathological. In mainstream pop culture, it’s J.L. King’s sensational and tabloid-ish runaway bestseller On the Down-Low to Bill Cosby’s public rants about poor Black people. Even the Left has not been immune from this trend. Lately, many very prominent Black Left intellectuals have publicly scolded the Black community for not being more involved in post 9-11 immigrant detention and anti-war organizing, as if policing and imprisonment, poverty and HIV/AIDS as issues have significantly decreased or become insignificant for Black people in America since Sept 12, 2001. Whether Right or Left, the message is, if you’re Black and have something shitty to say about somebody else Black, you’re likely to find an appreciative (and mostly non-Black) audience.
So, why are American politics (on the Left & Right) at a place where white people can use Black people to justify their own racist hatred of Black people? And is it even possible as Black people to articulate critiques of other Black folks, in ways that won’t be manipulated by mass media on the Left and on the Right, to the ultimate detriment of us all? Are the media and the white American public really interested in preventing HIV infections among Black women and challenging homophobia? Or are they interested in salacious tales of Black sexual pathology? Is the White Left really interested in my analysis of your political legacy? Or are they interested witnessing a Black man publicly denigrate a Black woman?
And now that I understood that this was the game I was supposed to play, I could not bring myself to do it. Not in Denver, and not in this letter. I didn’t give them what they wanted. As they paused, eagerly anticipating if I would take the bait, I calmly stated, “While I disagree with most of her choices politically and personally, I also understand that America offers Black people very few options, and she has chosen one of the few options we have to ensure her personal survival. What other options has America offered a genius Black girl born in 1950s Birmingham, Alabama?”
And it is this question that brought to bear the reality of my own life, my own situation, and how strangely similar it is to yours. Among other similarities, we were both “smart Black kids.”
Now, there are many smart Black kids in and out of American public schools. But you get designated “a smart Black kid” not only because you show some signs of above-average intelligence (which U.S. public education defines as the ability to take standardized tests, memorize by rote, and regurgitate “facts” as fed to you), but what’s equally important to gaining the title of “smart Black kid” is that you must also know how to obey. You know as well as I do that there are many Black children who are highly intelligent, but don’t play the game well or at all. The prisons and the grave are full of smart Black people who either didn’t know how or flat out refused to “behave” in a system that is designed to physically or symbolically isolate the smartest and most well-behaved (through public school “tracking” or providing “opportunities” to attend private school) and to let the rest sink or swim as they may. If you are termed the “smart Black kid” doors open for you, teachers and principles and guidance counselor work (or do what they are supposed to for all their students) to see that you have every opportunity to succeed. I was tracked into the honors program, and then encouraged to attend private school through the A Better Chance program and my own mother’s tenacity and ingenuity. You must have skipped several grades to graduate from high school at age 16. And I know from reading your biography, that you also were very “obedient” and had the support of nearly all the teachers you came across, both in Birmingham and later in Denver, where your family moved when you were 13.
We also know something about living under the threat of violence. Your circumstances were somewhat different, though, knowing you were ten when your childhood friend Denise McNair and three others were murdered by some white racist who planted a bomb at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. You described living in Birmingham as living under terrorism, as bombs were exploding in Black neighborhoods all over the city for years. Growing up in Cleveland in the 1980s, I did not fear white mob violence (unless I crossed the train tracks from my housing project into Slavic Village), but I remember being ten years old, like you, and having police helicopters shine lights from high above on my frail brown body, their bullets shoot into the night, wondering which one of my friends or neighbors those bullets would strike. It is an experience I, and many poor Black people, liken to terrorism as well.
Our families did what they could to get us, you and me, out of our respective predicaments in order to save our lives. You, in Birmingham, in the 1960s. Me, in Cleveland, in the 1980s.
So, I think that we know something about each other. I think we know something about wanting better for your life than bullets and bombs. I think we know about being the “first Black” fill-in-the-blank. And we definitely both know about being the “only Black” fill-in-the-blank.
So here we stand, the Black Republican and the Black Revolutionary, poised against each other, facing off like some boxing match, knowing neither one of us much likes the sport, nor did we create it. But we know that the tickets are bought, and too high a price has been paid for the promoters to let us call it draw. But as we stare each other down, we recognize something familiar in the other’s eyes. For we are two manifestations of what it means to be Black, to have to grapple with your existence in America and make choices based on what you know are really fucked up options. We have both spent a lifetime proving we are smart enough, competent enough, good enough, but we still have no means of self-actualization that is not mitigated by white-dominated institutions that we must negotiate with in order to do what it is we feel passionate about. All Black people in the United States make choices and make more concessions, for we know that the battle for self-realization is never fully on our terms.
But inevitably, I will again, be distracted from my task by someone asking me, “What do you think about Condoleeza Rice?”
And what I think about you and your chosen occupation is precisely this: Your ascendance to the role of Secretary of State, for me, simply is what it is-a reflection of a racist society that isolates brilliant Black people from themselves and forces them to serve America’s imperial interests. What happens next is that the Left or the Right, depending on which trajectory the Black person has chosen, will use that person as an example of how politically or culturally misguided Black people are. In my fight to rebel against that fate, I find that I, too, am trapped by the options I have to do what I am also good at-which is to work to ensure that no other Black children, traumatized by bullets and bombs, feel they have to abandon everything they know and love, and attack another Black person’s limited options in order to save themselves.
May you truly know peace,
This letter is from “Letters From Young Activists, Today’s Rebels Speak Out”
Kenyon Farrow is a 30-year-old writer and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the new culture editor for Clamor Magazine, and his essays have appeared in BlackAIDS.org, Pop and politics.com, Bay Windows, City Limits, The Objector Between the Lines, and in the upcoming anthology, Spirited (Red Bone Press 2006). Much of Kenyon’s writing can be found on blogs all over the net, including “Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?,” “Connecting the Dots: Michael Moore, White Nationalism and the Multi-racial Left” with writer Kil Ja Kim, and most recently, “We Real Cool?: On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation.”
As an activist, Kenyon served as the Southern Regional Coordinator for Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization, and continues to work on the national organizing body. He has also served as an adult ally for FIERCE!, a queer youth of color community organizing project in New York City, and is the communications and public education coordinator with New York State Black Gay Network. Kenyon continues to write, lecture, and organize, and is currently working on his first solo book project.