When did you know you were not white? When did Patrick Murphy or Mario Andretti know they were white?
When did you know you were black?
I just looked at and listened very closely to a taped interview of Khalil Gibran Muhammad by Bill Moyers on the subject of celebrating the independence of America this past July 4. I found it compelling and a must for viewing by everyone.
Muhammad, a historian, heads up the New York City Public Library Schonberg collection, which is one of the leading research facilities for black history in the country.
One of the most salient points made by Muhammad was that it was only after 1930 that a National Uniform Crime Report was designed to report crimes committed by just three classifications of race: black, white and other. Up to then, the classifications were black, white and foreign born. Before the turn of the century, they were: black, German, Italian, Irish, Greek, Scandinavian, Mexican, etc.
So, around 1930, ethnic “others” from European countries became white for the purpose of keeping and reporting crime statistics.
Being black in America has generated volumes of statistics: Black-on-black crime. Black-on-white crime. Black poverty. Black education levels. Black out-of-wedlock births. Black live births. Rate of black deaths by disease. And on and on.
When blacks were once property (chattel) and controlled by the property owners, we were counted along with the cows, pigs, bushels of corn, acres of land and other commodities and we were subject to only an accounting system that reflected the wealth and whims of the individual property owner.
According to Muhammad, there was no need then for a criminal justice system to record and/or punish the misdeeds of blacks. Blacks were (literally) kept in their place by the property-owning system, punished by the owner through various forms of abuse, sale or death.
Muhammad further contends that the current criminal justice system was developed after emancipation to keep an accounting of blacks’ movement and physical location, living conditions, use of public resources, etc., starting with the Black Codes during Reconstruction and vagrancy laws and continuing today with the current policies of stop-detain-frisk, especially in use by New York City police.
Reflecting on the July 4 holiday, Muhammad told Moyers that all Americans want to believe the pure and lofty ideals of the nation — the alternative is too depressing — despite the
contradictions that America is a nation built on the premise and promise that all men are created equal yet encouraged white men to accumulate personal wealth by devaluing the lives of the natives, by holding blacks as chattel and by disenfranchising their own women.
These accountings of blacks — as chattel and as free people — were, according to Muhammad, put in place to maintain a system of control and containment, even with increasing gains in civil rights (which he feels is a redundancy after the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution) so that blacks would not be able to participate fully in American life and remain marginalized.
There is much more to the interview but, after hearing it, I reflected on the above points and how they relate to the new controversy recently based on a statement by a black sports commentator that black folk who are super athletes have benefited from selective breeding during slavery — suggesting, to some, that blacks (as a whole) have a natural physical edge over non-blacks.
I understood the statement and I agree that there are some very blessed people who have benefitted by having a pool of genes for excellence. I also agree that the same pool is available for excellence on all the playing fields of life: in the classroom, in the science labs, in the investment banks, on the judicial benches, etc.
What I also heard in the statement and in some responses to it, especially from black news commentators, is that we are still behaving as if we are on the plantation or, at best, within the confines of a limited description of what blacks are in America; i.e., someone’s statistical label.
I believe that when black folk became free — to leave the plantations, to leave the urban ghettos, to move about the country, to leave the statistical page of false and falsified descriptors and to move beyond the familiar — we gained a measure of individuality, nobility and humanity that defies statistical analysis.
So, when did you know you were black? Did you have to read about yourself in a report? Were you defined by an analysis of your behavior? Did you find yourself in the sociology texts?
I celebrated the July 4 commemoration of America’s independence and thought of my ancestors whose presence here is documented to 1795. I sang My Country ’Tis of Thee in memory of the labor of my forebears who built this country. And I plan to vote in August and November. I want to make some new statistics.
What about you?
Antonia Williams-Gary is a consultant with Miami-based Savings and Grace Enterprise. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org