I know a black woman who describes herself as having come from the ghetto but eschews an identification with what it means to be ghetto. To be ghetto, for her, means having little respect for decorum and failing to have an appreciation for reading and literacy. Interestingly, she also assumes that “being ghetto” means being black and articulating this identity through words and gestures associated with black folk. For example, she once told me about her five-year-old grandson’s first visit to the barbershop. Upon introducing himself to this child, the barber held out his fist and asked the boy to give him a pound. In recounting this story, the boy’s grandmother seemed so proud of the fact that her “grand baby” did not know what it meant to give someone a pound. According to her, he’s not raised “to be ghetto like these other kids running around here who don’t know how you’re supposed to greet somebody.” I thought, but did not say, giving someone a pound ain’t ghetto. Giving someone a pound represents a form of black cultural expression that signifies your membership in a community that recognizes this gesture as a form of communication. I don’t typically use “ghetto” as a way of describing a person’s identity, but let’s say we allow traits this woman associates with “being ghetto” to describe someone’s understanding of the meaning of “giving someone a pound,” then President and Mrs. Obama are ghetto.
What mainstream media called a “fist bump,” lacks creativity. It is a flat, mechanical description that one might expect to find in an instruction manual. This unimaginative phrase lacks the richness of what I grew-up, as a black person, calling “a pound.” This description conjures an image of boxers pummeling one another in the ring, but instead of being adversarial, the pound, as a greeting, suggests membership in a community that has historically revised and reformed the terms of unrelenting brutality. Failing to respect this creative re-articulation of violence reflected in a punch or a jab influences the lumbering, inarticulate misrepresentation of eloquence as brutishness. The July 21, 2008 cover of The New Yorker offers an example of the flat, mechanical description of a “fist bump” in visual terms:
This visual depiction of a “fist bump” casts the “pound” as a violent gesture signifying extremism and treason. While the illustrator, Barry Blitt, calls his work satire, I read it as a lazy caricature of racist constructions of the Obamas as reflected in right-wing criticism of them. The cover, which Blitt titled “The Politics of Fear,” might have revealed a more nuanced critique had he read the “fist bump” as “a pound.” Read as “a pound,” the Obamas were situating themselves within a historical context that uses this gesture to convey welcome, community, and inclusion. Had Blitt offered such an interpretation, he might have demonstrated a greater understanding of a politics of fear as it has been historically articulated and revealed through the destruction of black communities. From the destruction of the thriving black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, the Rosewood massacre in 1923, the bombing of black homes and black institutions in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, and the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, “the politics of fear” derives from the lethal aggression that is fueled by racism and aimed at annihilating black Americans’ efforts towards making community or seeking self-sufficiency. Thus, what Blitt doesn’t do is read “a pound” as an expression of love; instead, he reads a “fist bump” as a phrase epitomizing fear and hate that exemplifies a shared understanding of “the politics of fear.”
Along these same lines regarding the denigration of black American forms of cultural expression, much was made of the moment when then Presidential candidate Obama offered a black vernacular response to a cashier when paying for his meal at D.C.’s famed eatery, Ben’s Chili Bowl. When the cashier presumably asked Obama if he needed change, Obama responded, “nah, we straight.” This moment, that rhetoricians call “code switching,” inspired me to consider the verbal agility that once represented one’s ability to actively participate in a community that showed deep appreciation for creative, verbal expression. I’m sure that the woman who I spoke of earlier would view her grandson’s similar ignorance regarding what black folk at one time called “the dozens,” an example of him not being “ghetto,” I view this inability to demonstrate verbal dexterity as a profound example of incompetence. What I appreciate about playing the dozens is that it expands one’s options for reading themselves in terms of the broader culture. In other words, playing the dozens helps to facilitate one’s development of a creative, oppositional stance towards an obviously provocative claim or statement masquerading as a truth and demanding your participation. I have been thinking more and more about this with respect to cross-cultural dialogue that plays itself out between young people.
While I missed the two days when the film American Promise was screened in Atlanta, I’m planning to view the film when it debuts on PBS in February. The trailer draws attention to the hazards of disregarding the value of learning to play the dozens. The film follows two African American boys who attend the purportedly “prestigious” Dalton School located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Both boys begin their tenure at the school for their primary years, but they part ways at the secondary level. The child who remains, Idris, enrolled through 12th grade, and is the filmmakers’ son.
The trailer offers descriptions of Dalton as “extraordinary” and voices the notion that Dalton is an “ivy league school in a brownstone.” The Dalton School website lists tuition as $40,220 for grades K-12 and I’m assuming that means per year and not the cost of one’s overall enrollment from kindergarten through senior year. Now, for all this money, Idris is obviously wounded when his black peers who do not attend Dalton contend that he “talks like a white boy.” I can only shake my head in pure annoyance with this child and his parents. I don’t understand how you can pay $40,000 in order to attend this “extraordinary” school and your kid gets hung up on “you talk like a white boy?” $40,000 doesn’t prepare you to have the verbal dexterity to respond to this tired association between erudition and whiteness? So I guess that $40,000 ostensibly prepares you to respond in formal academic terms to a presumably neutral, objective challenge but fails to teach you how to apply those skills to an everyday, vernacular challenge? So for $40,000 you are speechless when public school kids make assertions in the form of the dozens? I don’t get it. In the trailer, Idris’s father asserts that after attending Dalton, his son wanted to change what I guess is a name that estranges him from whiteness. The trailer shows no indication that these folk recognize Idris’s desire to change his name as the detritus left in the wake of the surreptitious version of scorn and derision that bears witness to the ugliness of his Dalton School classmates. Thus, unlike the playground kids who were clear and explicit when they challenged Idris’s sense of legitimate belonging in stating that he “talked like a white boy,” and whose guilt is associated with the visual portrayal of black boys on the basketball court at the moment Idris cites their brutality, the same meanness occurs less blatantly at Dalton. The veiled derision of his cinematically invisible classmates at Dalton should find a visual parallel to the basketball scene. This lack of exposure hides the challenge Idris needs to address on the playground and in the classroom. Instead of his “exceptional” school supporting and encouraging him to develop a response that indicates his awareness of the meanness directed towards him, the attainment of such skills is devalued in the way that Dalton defines what constitutes an “exceptional” education. The fact that Idris consistently capitulates to meanness undermines the claim that his education prepares him to compete in the world; rather, from the little that I observed, this child knows how to concede but has no sense of what it means for him to fight and to win on his terms. Idris remains silent on the playground and at school, he consistently allows someone else to determine how he views his own name in both places. Without this ability to claim the integrity of his own worldview and the value of his own name, what will it mean for Idris to one day call himself a man?
One parent confesses that she sends her son to Dalton because she “wants him to learn to be comfortable around white folks” and admits that she lacks such comfort. It’s not clear to me why whiteness serves as her point of reference for determining meaningful exchange, civic inclusion, and one’s sense of belonging. The $40,000 price tag on enrollment at the Dalton School seems too steep if your child fails to learn the value of being comfortable with himself (or herself), which ultimately determines how that child interacts with others.
So, if you can afford to pay $40,000 for compulsory education, be sure to read the fine print regarding what that fee includes. If it doesn’t include “a pound” and “a dozen,” then you’re being ripped off.