Remember that homeless Black guy who kicked off our new year a few weeks ago through the power of YouTube and some folks who recorded him and his golden voice on their smartphone? Yeah, how could any of you forget, really? Ted Williams had a whirlwind ten days, as thirteen million people watched the YouTube recording, companies and individuals offered him jobs and money, his family came back into his life. And then, of course, Williams became violent, relapsed into drug use, and is in the midst of rehab — again.
But it all started with his YouTube performance for the good folks of voyeur America. The whole incident made me cringe from start to finish. It also made me think about something that has always bothered me about race in America. Why? Especially since the video surfaced a man who’d been on a downward spiral for three decades? Because it seems that in order for a Black person to be taken seriously in this society, we have to perform like trained seals in order to get the attention we need and deserve.
This isn’t about some metaphorical relationship between excellence and success, or displaying intellect at school and in the world of work. No, this is actually about giving a performance, acting, or as the older folks would say, shuckin’ an’ jivin’, or hustlin’, to grab the attention of mostly Whites in high places. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it also is mostly not good. For it also seems that many of us must experience hardship, prison, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness in order to get attention in the first place.
That’s why it pisses me off when hearing about journalists shadowing the homeless in order to learn about life on the streets. Or when writers sit down with a homeless man or woman to learn about their ironic life story. It also bothers me when I see lists of the “50 Most Successful X” and the “100 Most Innovative Y,” knowing before I read one word that the only Blacks who made these lists were entertainers (I include professional athletes in this category, by the way). It’s disheartening to know that, for all of my writing ability and intellect, the only way I’ll likely be as successful as I hope to be will be by delivering a performance that allows Americans — mostly White — to be voyeurs of my life beyond my words and deep thoughts.
It all came together for me in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode (Season 2, Episode 4) “The Swamp,” where Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh sit at the side of the road in an Earth Kingdom town begging for change. One man forces the once proud general to dance for a gold coin — “Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner,” the man says. It speaks to shameful classism — or, at the very least, a sense of class and race entitlement — that we in this country engage in every day.
So, here are a few more thoughts. I look at Ted Williams, The Soloist with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, even the Pixar/Disney movie Happy Feet (2006) — which me and my wife made the mistake of taking our son Noah to see (he didn’t like the movie, by the way) — and see lots of shuffling across a floor for the attention of Whites (and some people of color) in high places. Do two million penguins really need to tap dance ala Savion Glover in order to get attention from White scientists trying to save life on this planet from our global warming ways? No, but Blacks have had to literally tap dance for food and spare change in the exact same way.
I felt this way in grad school and at various times throughout my career. That I needed to sing, dance and do flips and cartwheels to make myself stand out for my middling White professors and supervisors. It would explain why some of them would ignore my grades, papers and awards to ask me if I could palm or dunk a basketball — out of the blue! Or why a muckity-muck at the Academy for Educational Development would walk by my office, notice the PhD on my name plate, and say, “Wow! You have a doctorate! I thought you only played softball!” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ve been working here for three years, just so I can play on the organization’s softball team.”
We ignore those suffering the most, whether because of race or class or gender or a combination of the three (or more) until they do something that impresses us. That’s when they deserve a chance, at least from the perspective of those laughing at them. And that’s shameful, demeaning, and yes, racist and elitist in a very specific way.