We are all Uncle Toms Now

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It’s ridiculous being black.

You have no idea how much time it takes and the stupifyingly asinine conversations one must have. Like whether or not Don Imus’ “nappy headed ‘hos” comments were, like, problematic. Or, I dunno, Isaiah Thomas saying its bad for white men to call black women bitches but a brother’s gotta do what a brother’s gotta do. And, oh lordy, the Uncle Tom libretto we’re forced to sing every few months. At least this time, the lyrics have changed a tad but the basic storyline is every bit as improbable as an opera’s and equally impervious to the ebb and flow of modernity. Now comes Dr. Boyce Watkins, our latest soloist.

On CNN recently, he called Juan Williams “a happy Negro” for defending Bill O’Reilly’s infamous comments about his visit to Sylvia’s restaurant. O’Reilly had confessed himself surprised, and reassured, that black people behaved well in public and exhibited proficiency with tableware. Williams is right that O’Reilly’s comments were less racist than clumsy. He might also have added, ‘a paternalistic pat on the head,’ a problem from which O’Reilly could have saved himself had he the self-awareness to end his remarks by saying “and boy am I ashamed for having subconsciously believed that black people are so different from me.” And, maybe, “Given the public stances I take on race, how could I have lived this long without spending quality time in the ‘hood?” But whether or not O’Reilly is racist is irrelevant. The point is whether or not a black person may disagree with the party line without having his black card pulled and his ghetto pass revoked. Apparently not.

For Watkins, “Seeing Williams sitting there congratulating O’Reilly for his bigotry reminded me of the Negro in the white suit defending “massa” at all costs.” Since when did slaves, even trusted house slaves, wear white suits? Methinks he’s conflating Uncle Ben with Uncle Tom; even we can’t tell each other apart. But I digress.

The notion that a ‘real’ black person holds a particular set of beliefs or applies a particular analytic framework to social issues—god! I am so over this—is pernicious, but even more importantly, stupid and intellectually paralyzing.

The hyper-analytic in me, though, just loves the deliciousness of the ‘happy Negro’ edifice. Let’s take it apart, shall we?

A ‘happy’ Negro must a) have a false consciousness b) borne of internalized oppressed and self-hatred which c) leads him to crave the approval of white folks. Otherwise he couldn’t be happy, seeing as how life is so hideously difficult for us modern Negroes. Ergo, a rational Negro must be a miserable, no wait!, an angry Negro. Like Dr. Watkins.

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