A couple of weeks ago, I wrote “On Being An Ignorant American,” mostly about folks in power, privileged, entitled folks, who display their arrogance and ignorance to the world every day. As a matter of fact, I made the argument that it was our hubris as American that has made us ignorant and defined our ignorance. In honor of Black History Month, I’m putting a spotlight on “Ignit” Americans. For those who don’t know, it’s a colloquial Black term that refers to folks who wallow in their ignorance like pigs who, in searching for water to cool off, choose mud instead.
Although I’ll mostly discuss Black “ign-ence” here, you don’t have to be African American to be ignit. You just have to be the type of person who loves to not know anything, to not care about not knowing. You have to be the type of person that feels entitled to being as close-minded as a stereotypical eighty-year-old who believes that they’ve learned everything there is to know about living, even though life has been passing them by since the end of high school for them six decades earlier.
Ultimately, being Black and ignit comes down to isolation and bigotry. Not the kind of bigotry that is equivalent to institutional racism, for the most part, but needless and hurtful bigotry nevertheless. African Americans are nearly a half-century removed from the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet we still have skin color issues — redbone, high yella, cafe au lait, light-skinned, dark-skinned — that remain a holdover from the Jim Crow era (not to mention American slavery itself). All manifested in our relationships and friendships, in bleaching products, colored contacts and other beauty products. In the past year, we witnessed the death of Michael Jackson, who himself struggled with this very issue, all references to a skin disorder aside. Although I’m sure most of us aren’t trying to be White — whatever that means anyway — but I do think that African America still tends to validate the lighter folks in our group.
If only being an ignit American was only melanin deep. We have prejudices toward so-called others, a heightened sense of bigotry when it comes to Afro-Caribbeans, Africans and Latinos. Of course, the same can be said for many first, second and third-generation immigrants from all three groups, as I have experienced firsthand. And even though this kind of other-persons-of-color bigotry has declined in the past two decades, it’s hardly gone. For so many of us, a different accent, a different look, a different way of seeing the world seems about as non-threatening as the fear of losing a good job. This is a reality for so many of us, despite intermarriage between these groups, not to mention the shared experience of racism and living in the same communities. This kind of ign-ence, unfortunately, includes my mother, who blames “West Indians,” “Spanish people” and “Orientals” for the loss of jobs in my first hometown and in New York City as well.
The big one in terms of ignit Americans revolves around homophobic and heterosexism. Blacks are hardly alone in treating the subject as if it were radioactive waste without the proper lead lid and lining around it. But we are notoriously silent on the issue, as if there are few Black gay and lesbian folk around us. Except at many of the megachurches. There, our pastors and other spiritual leaders can blame the Black LGBT community for the spread of HIV/AIDS among heterosexual Blacks — not to mention other diseases — as well as high rates of crime and poverty in our poorest neighborhoods.
We still use the limp arm and hand motion to call something someone did or said as “gay,” use idiotic terms like “no homo,” and make a point of being overtly masculine or feminine in public and private to prove that we’re as heterosexual as the biblical Adam and Eve. It’s disgusting and disappointing. Despite all evidence, science and friends and family to the contrary, we still engage in the mythology that anyone gay or lesbian, anyone overtly different from the hyper-heterosexual model is a social pariah and should and will go to hell.
All this is a function of the less obvious but ultimately the root cause that leads to Americans becoming ignit — the shunning of intelligent Americans. This is one that even the most enlightened of African Americans participates in every day. Although most of us believe education is important, the idea of being academically successful scares both many parents of academically gifted kids and those kids blessed with academic awareness. And for Black males, academic success at an early age can lead to social and soul destruction. Boys and young men especially aren’t supposed to display in any way their academic talents, their analytical abilities, or their keen insight into the world around them. Those of us who do are automatically weird, nerds, even seen as “gay” — as discussed in the previous paragraph — because we don’t fit in with the other guys who learned at an early age to embrace ign-ence.
Speaking in standard American English without learning how to code switch, having dreams that you may make it to the age of thirty with a college degree, wanting to experience the world beyond your neighborhood, city or country isn’t allowed in the world of ignit Americans. It’s better to learn a jump shot, work on running fast, or figure out how to rap or sing with rhythm and harmony, so as to cover up your constant striving to learn. There’s little tolerance for Black kids who aren’t cool, especially when they’re smart. No wonder even many of the smarter ones act as if they are as dumb as a door post. No wonder many of our dreams remain unfulfilled.
No one wants to feel isolated, to be alone, to be ostracized. It takes truly unique individuals to break through the traps set by those ignit Americans who may determine cool, but can in no way determine success. Otherwise, so many Americans, Black and otherwise, will succumb to the not-so-blissful ign-ence of our peers, to their cool and unimaginative ways of thinking about and going about living in this world. This is the thing that Black History Month must yet take on and continue to strive against. History and education is the work that our society must continue to emphasize, even as we strive in ignorance to make nine-month-olds read and sixteen-year-olds ready for Harvard.