Anti-Intellectualism: An African American Problem

by Guest Contributor Merq


They are proud of their ignorance.

They equate getting an education to “acting white.”

Inner-city students have to decide between being smart and being “cool.”

I’m sure you’ve read at least one of the above statements at some point over the course of the last five years. Like the “down low” frenzy of yesteryear, it’s the pummeled dead horse du jour of African-American narratives.

As a student of propaganda, its uses, and its effects, one thing that has always intrigued and sickened me about American discourse (as typified by its mainstream media) is its ability to make a phenomenon untrue or non-existent by simply ignoring it. When Paris Hilton bares her lady parts for what must be the thirtieth time, it’s still considered newsworthy. But her continued pattern of “n*gger”-calling has gone so roundly ignored that only a fraction of a population inundated with her very presence is aware that she’s done this even once. I mean, Dog the friggin’ Bounty Hunter got more column inches for his idiocy (and he genuinely thought he was black) while Hilton never even needed to roll out the standard Non-Apology Apology! I, as a black man, speak for my race (as we always seem to do in the media) when I say we wuz robbed!

In a similar vein, it tickles me to no end (or inasmuch as an assault on the ribs can be considered tickling) that America can really create this whole “Crisis in Black America” phenomenon over something as essentially American as anti-intellectualism – and get “black leaders” to cluck their tongues and rhapsodize on how “we got to do better,” even!

Yes, In case you’re wondering, I watched CNN’s “Black in America” series. Yes, I saw black folk say the same thing, and wallow in self-validating self-pity as they recall past (and present) experiences with those who deemed them “too white.” I don’t know why people hold up these folk as some sort of proof that this “tryna ack’ all white” phenomenon is actually real – there are multitudes of black males who will also tell you that black men can only aspire to being ballers or rappers, or that they have no business wearing flip-flops. Do we take them at their word simply because they’re black?

The fact is, that line of bullshit rhetoric has existed since the fight to keep the segregated Jim Crow school system intact. But as is the case with basically any stereotype that exists to denigrate black people, there will be a class of blacks only too happy to declare the validity of that message at the top of their lungs in some sadly misguided effort to prove to everyone in the (almost entirely non-black) room that they’re “not like those blacks.” I know them because I once was them.

So tell me, people, did the term “teacher’s pet” originate in black inner-city schools? How about “bookworm?” “Know-it-all,” maybe? Or “brainiac?” For decades, these words have been America’s way of shaming youngsters who express an interest in learning. I hear studies repeat, ad nauseum, that in white social groups, higher grades mean greater popularity, and I wonder where in June Cleaver’s America they conducted that study, ‘cause that isn’t the America I know.

It doesn’t end in the schoolyard, either — you want to know what epithets these kids switch to when barbs like “brainiac” start to clash with their beer guts and facial hair? Try “latte liberal.”

That’s right. A country in which “too learned to be a good leader” has become a legitimate political critique, has the nerve to accuse a single marginalized population of its society of imbibing the very poison it has spoon-fed its young for centuries.

I’m sure we all know people with “foreign” names (or “foreign” pronunciations of “American” names) who have to be forced to pronounce said names properly and overcome the fear of being deemed “pretentious.” No, I’m not talking about people like Christina Aguilera, who (as my cousin once put it) discovered a whole world of extra (rolled) rrrrrrrs in her last name as the so-called “Latin Explosion” of the late ‘90s took off. I’m talking about people scorned for not pronouncing their own names the “American” way. Is there a healthy dose of xenophobia somewhere in there? Definitely. But for the most part, there’s a sort of cultural complex that causes America at large to flare up whenever foreign tongues (particularly those tied to the romance languages) get all… languagey.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow suffered the wrath of a thousand hot pokers for referring to Anthony Hopkins, recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the 2006 Golden Globes, as something that sounded a little too close to “Antony” – the preferred pronunciation in many parts of Hopkins’ native Britain.

In fairness, we must note two things. First of all, the Gwyneth Paltrow of today is likely to be scorned in America, no matter what she does. She’s just not a particularly loved figure anymore. Secondly, many who Americanize the pronunciations of their names are more likely doing so to combat the “eternal foreigner” perception, and not necessarily for fear of reprisal for being all fancy with their name-callin’. No, Americans tend to reserve that kind of treatment for their own – it’s alright (even kinda sexy) for those foreigners to talk all foreigny. But don’t you get any uppity ideas about pronouncing their names the way their parents do.

I believe that outlook, in some circles, is deemed a symptom of the “crabs in a barrel” phenomenon. Oh, but my bad… if they aren’t black, then it doesn’t count.

Listen, folks. I’m not attacking Americans here. A lion cub will never grow into an adult coyote, regardless of his sexual role-play predilections. A people that have been raised to distrust learnedness in favor of a clichéd (and grossly inaccurate) “true grit, by the bootstraps” narrative for the founding of a great nation will remain unable to see itself as anything but right for doing so. The problem lies in blaming blacks for eating a slice of a poisoned pie that was baked (and in no small part, devoured) by mainstream America. They did it with irrational consumerism (the featured black figures in that matinee were Bill Cosby and Oprah), and now blacks are being nailed to the cross of yet another American ill.

I don’t expect this nation to acknowledge its own sickness hypocrisy anytime soon. So on behalf of all blacks in America, I’m going to borrow a page from Little Richard and say that as far as “geek,” “nerd,” and all similar terms go, black people were the originators and the innovators.

Might as well get credit for something, right?