It's been another rough day in Babylon as Ras would say. I say rough, but rough depends on how you look it at. Always a lot going on, but I guess it is how you look at it. How you tune in.
In classic irony our first days into Spring this year were blessed with snowfall. It was a good snow, one that was easy to shovel. Everything covered in white. It came early in the day and didn't freeze to the ground, so when you pushed the shovel, it all came right up in one stroke. The trees were clustered in the distance weighted, white, and angelic.
The first of spring always represents some rising energy and now we waiting on the full moon. It will come soon with Easter and the Sunday parade of many colored suites and dresses.
But what I thought about to day in my short meditations is what I would like to call that strange success. Success, to be cliche, is hard to come by, and in the realm of the black and black history sometimes coveted a bit too much. It understandable though. That weight of being black can easily create an urge to be something that is clearly not negated. Success almost always solves the problem. Success is a quick dose of can't nobody tell me nothing. If one contemplates the black, things may become a bit clearer.
What was a successful slave?
One need not answer the question, but simply muse and wander about in that territory for a moment. I'll also add, if one imagines that there were no successful slaves, one might have to meditate a bit more.
As for the free folks, post slavery, some of the successful folks, or those considered the most heroic and worthy of fable also carried a bundle of tragedy and contradiction. Granted all humans got that, but sometimes the best of the black, just doesn't approach sage quality. In that way, we are so much like the best of white. In the end slavery for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many great Americans is a sign of their humanity. It is not the contradiction, but a contradiction. We all got em. And that strange success is not limited to the black, though I speak it here. It exists for all of us. All of us could use some re-remembering-some re memebering.
To be comical, Booker T. Washington carried the tragedy of being an example of someone who compromised with white supremacy. I doubt that, and maybe that serves the point. Booker T. Washington built an institution that still stands until today. He did it in conjunction with the powers that be of the time, though his original moves forward are legendary. He made bricks and the students built the school. Booker T. did not speak truth to power, but wielded a measure of it on his own. Some of his agency is undeniable. In this regard his success might be mysterious, but it is not strange.
The struggle to speak truth to power, or rage against the machine, or fight the power, has left many a family and career in shambles. Of course there is cointelpro and we know how that go, but there is also the feeling that travels with the need for something to fight against, that can easily turn into those who are closest to us, are worthy of the most fight. The need to turn against someone grows even greater when the success starts to fade or things wane. This can happen in families, personal relationships, and also in organizations. The SCLC, SNCC splits, the Panther splits, the Black Church splits, go on an on. Holding together is art and not to be taken lightly; and at this stage many of us simply haven't been trained to know how to do so.
To tell the truth I watch most reports of success for a while or put them out of mind, until I can find out if they are strange or not. When they appear as strange, I count it as another insight into the dynamic nature of reality.
The American part of African American always believes in a good fight. Many of our institutions are impoverished, many of us come from homes where people just couldn't get along, where people ran away, where people never were. Poverty breeds a certain fighting over pennies as though they would change the world. The drug game is one of the best examples. The heroic tales of the drug dealers who ran for fifteen-twenty years, often times less, and ended up dead or in prison with a legendary status gotta dose of that strange success.
The trade in the strange success is the backdrop narrative for black celebrity and black history. There are the heroes with staying power, but there is a particular place for comeuppance, get on, and blow up that may be a bit unhealthy. The core is the scarcity of institutional power. Again, it is the American in African American that forms the challenge. America is all about getting ahead, and the black often times knows (maybe better than most) how far it is behind. This leads to trying to get to be the best in whatever category one chooses. Not all, but some; not everybody, but enough to strike it as trend or common theme in our community.
Malcolm and Martin both have that strange success not success. They were both murdered, and their families stressed and strained under the weight of the external work they did for "the struggle." In Charles Johnson's Dreamer he draws attention to how many miles Dr. King flew in the last year of his life. On one website, they recounted that King flew over six million miles in between 1957-1968, and spoke over twenty-five hundred times. That's definitely that strange success. How does one stay married or manage a family of four from the midst of that strange success?
Malcolm X, whose mother was mentally ill, and whose father was murdered in his youth had a difficult marriage too. The pace and course of what we call the struggle combined with that "strange success" can easily break up a family, though these families stayed together. Alex Hailey recounts how Malcolm went to see his mother after being estranged for many years. It is important too, to note, that Malcolm crosses the line between recounting intellectual ideas, speeches, and politics to Hailey in the interviews to the begin of his life's narrative at the point where he remembers his mother. We've written some about mental illness here on Free Black Space, and there is a way that it seeps into the skin and clouds the world around us. There's more work to be done about mental illness and Malcolm, mental illness and black folks. It could be, and I am sure some folks will shoot me down for it, that some of our speaking truth to power is shouting at some of the haints that hide in our heads in public, in service of the black. This chanting and shouting, makes for good music, and is without question divine and part of the larger process of correcting what has occurred; but we should note the limits, along with the positives.
Slavery is wedded to mental illness in the slaver holder first, and then produced mental illness in the slave. One might imagine some of the slaves sold onto the boat to be mentally ill, but one can only wonder what price they would have fetched. Capitalism handles the prospect of a mentally ill slave quite well. A slave has to at least act like they are mentally ill to survive. We may imagine that the dignity humans are afforded is more easily cast away without consequence, than it is. If humans require certain things from society-like freedom and justice, to help keep us sane-slavery failed to provide that.
American get aheadism is not limited to blacks. We are all in on it. We all want a piece of success, but many of us will get that "strange success."
It's going to take a while for us to really be able to talk about that strange success. It's hard for America and hard for the black; though I have to say, country folks know better than most something else besides it. It may be the sky, clouds, fresh air, and the way nature outside of a city remains a constant presence that teaches and draws attention in their lives. Truth is the field may be the best balance for the "strange success." For nature clarifies some of the limits of success, though if you have a fair amount of money you can buy and afford an access to nature from almost anywhere.
The conversation may be too difficult a talk at this time for the Black, but that strange success is still in operation today. One can only imagine how much many of our heroes and celebrities travel and drug up, sex it up to keep it moving to maintain their strange success. The debate between Coates and West is part strange success.
Maybe that strange success is really rooted in a feeling lonely inside, but feeding off a sense of importance that comes from without. Success, and especially one without sufficient infrastructure, can test the things that hold families and relationship together. One can only imagine a woman married to a man who travels six million miles in eleven years and ends up being murdered. We can also add with Malcolm the death of his widow by way of their grandson by way of fire.
That strange success for the elders is not so intoxicating. The Black Middle Class has never really brought it either. The Black Middle Class will love you if you become famous and historical, especially if white folks cosign on it, but they are pretty clear about the straight and narrows of etiquette and good standing. Some of the fraternal organizations, Churches, and clubs, help balance most forms of success. In other words, when you get a strange does of success and fall out of sync with the groups and communities, they know you done disappeared, and you do too. Those organizations grant you a certain pattern and rhythm that holds you in place, and helps you balance success.
As a country we struggle with the basics of family all the time; and though stability can be overrated and dangerous at times, given the unpredictable nature of life, family helps to afford that for its members on the most basic level. It is difficult to stay married and dedicated to one person. It is difficult to raise children. It is difficult to manage and live daily rhythms that mange the complexities teenagers confront as they travel through the difficult roads of adolescence with sex, drugs, violence, and hip-hop.
In some ways a Black Lives Matter rings for me with some of the tones of that strange success. Always with activism, the question is who is doing what? How much are they getting paid? And to what degree are their endeavors sustainable? In what way do their efforts transform society? It is a difficult job, which at its root has no real boss. The activist is a lot like the venture capitalist chasing something ethereal that is hard to grasp. Almost crazy, they do what others do not and would not risk for reasons they may not even understand. But if they get what they aspire too, they get that strange success. Steve Jobs is a good example. A strange success, almost everything someone could want and a young death.
Then there is Huey who was murdered in a drug buy, and lived a life that was often plagued by violence. Tupac Shakur and Biggie too have that strange success. It is a success tinged with a sadness that seems too often attached to the black, but not only the black. It is the stuff of legends, the good dying young, the you know they'll kill you, the difficult and hard road.
The young are susceptible to it, in ways that the elders are not; but many of the doorways held open seem to give the space to the young. Young and activist on the edge is almost hip. Rebellion can be a life style.
Finally, I have to go to those young people who integrated schools. Just a few weeks ago, I posted a Facebook post about the accountability of parents who would send their kids into a lion's den of white supremacists to make it so other black children could go to school there. It is indeed strange, how the currency in black education now is for the best of the black to go to school with the white. Questions about the hostility or difficulties one encounters in environments where folks don't look like you, usually don't mention the ways in which black folks affirm other black folks. At this point in time, it sounds like a myth or a publicity stunt to suggest that what blacks provide for other blacks in terms of nurturing at least balances some of the educations we receive admist hostilities. Back to the questions of mental illness. If someone tells you a story of how much they have been mistreated, what does that say about how wounded and confused they are about somethings. A story of suffering, given the nature of the human condition, may make for a great narrative, but can also suggest some internal issues that still need to be resolved. The Slave Narrative did that in books. One of the first forms of the black strange success, which as Dr. Valerie Prince always reminds me has Frederick Douglass literally writing himself into humanity. The point is the strange success posits success as a remedy for internal turmoil, confusion, and the problems most of our celebrities seem to have-which may be why we crave the gossip. That trend continues today. It may not be a sufficient way to rid oneself of the problems that come from mistreatment and abuse by writing about it. That strange success is an American genre.
In the end the difference between that strange success and success may be irrelevant. Part of success is how easily it is convertible to narrative. We may crave success so much, because success can always become an export. But maybe if we meditate on the places where it is strange, we may find a balance and stability that will sustain us in more nurturing ways. We are often fed the dreams of success, but sometimes there may be better food.
Free Black Space