As slavery became a permanent institution of American society, one of its features was the development of laws governing the behavior of slaves. Every state created codes to suit their particular region but one of the most common laws covered Acts of Assembly. No group of slaves could gather without the presence-and permission-of a white man. That rule extended into the religious services that slaves were allowed to attend, and what little literature a select few were allowed to read. It was a rule designed to prevent human beings forced to live out lives of backbreaking labor, daily humiliation and brutality from developing any ideas that would lead to thoughts of discontent, or eventual revolution.
Last week, Nick Cannon spoke with Professor Griff of Public Enemy. During that interview, Cannon expressed views about white people that created a firestorm that saw him branded as anti-white and anti-Semitic. What happened next followed a predictable pattern in celebrity culture; condemnation by his employers, a public apology, and a pledge to monitor his tone in the future.
The incident, and the controversy around it, Shows that Black people, no matter how successful, still face consequences for voicing opinions that don’t line up with America’s self-image.
One of those consequences is the controversial statement is denounced by Black people, usually Black people with connections to white media chosen to keep the Black masses in line. Sometimes they are asked to do this, but often they do this on their own. Again, this is not new. Every Black voice that challenged the status quo from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Huey Newton was met with Black detractors trying to discredit them.
This is the legacy of a leadership class that teaches Black people that progress can only be achieved through pleasing a non-Black benefactor. Any public discussion of issues affecting Black people has to include that benefactor, and be tailored to not offend him enough to close his wallet.
The goals of pro-blackness changed from sociopolitical independence and speaking truth to power to prioritizing proximity and dependence on whites, to the point that any theories and scholarship created by Black people generates hostility from Black people.
Denouncing Louis Farrakhan is a rite of passage for any Black politician who wants to be accepted by the donor class. For Black academics, the same thing is true regarding Dr. Umar Johnson who’s views on LGBTQ members of the Black community have made him many enemies. But rather than engage with his theory he’s been reduced to a meme that can be dismissed.
The opinions of these men aren’t nearly as dangerous as the fact that Black people aren’t allowed agency to accept or reject them for ourselves and are forced by people outside the Black community to do so. No other ethnic group allows outsiders to pick their leadership and agendas.
Nick Cannon is being punished while white entertainers like Mark Wahlberg, Bill Maher, and Mel Gibson have said and done revolting things to Black people and kept their careers. Some of the news reporters condemning him work for cable news outlets that constantly brought white supremacists on as guests and allowed them to spread their views virtually unchecked.
If Black people are ever going to be free we are going to have to get free of the fear of having some uncomfortable conversations among ourselves. And if we’re overheard, any discomfort should only concern us.