Musing on a [Lack of a] US Negro Agenda

by Guest Contributor Renina Jarmon, originally published at New Model Minority

I think it was Chomsky who said that Democracies by their very nature are fragile.

But then again, isn’t any democracy stable? Isn’t it fragile, delicate, tenuous and exceptional?

Every time I think of a critique of the presidents lack of a “Black Agenda” I am reminded of both Baldwin and the founding fathers.

I am reminded of Baldwin for two reasons. The first is because during the sixties he was routinely called down to Washington, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, to discuss “the negro problem.” The second reason is because Baldwin was always really clear about how our fates and lives are interconnected in this country, across race, class and gender.

My love of Baldwin is rooted in my fascination with Democracy.

A democracy, with a huge portion of its citizens prevented from participating because of prior non violent drug offense related convictions, a democracy that saddles its young with tens of thousands of dollars with the school loan debt at twenty-one, a democracy where people are quick to criticize folks on food stamps yet are mute on the newly authorized one year trillion dollar budget for two wars, a democracy that has never dealt with economic and psychological impact of three centuries of forced free labor isn’t stable, nor sustainable.

You may say, Renina is doing to much, these things are not connected, she is on that shit again.

But let me ask you this? How can these things not be connected?

Don’t we live and survive here together? This is preciously Baldwins point and why I was moved to (finally) write this piece this morning.

There are three essays where Baldwin makes it clear that our future’s are bound together. The first is, American Dream American Negro, where he argues that,

It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America,, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one o the people who built this country- until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. if the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens this is a very grave moment for the west.

I am struck by the notion of mixed ancestry, and thinking about President Obama and the potential that thinking about his background offers us. I am also struck Baldwins keen observation around the idea that “if people are denied participation in it, they will wreck it.” I don’t know how much this holds true. Not they they will wreck it overtly, but that it will implode.

At the time, Baldwin was talking about Black folks, but as I keep track of unemployment figures for working class and college educated white folks as well, it is getting crowded in the these un and underemployed margins.

Peace to the good people that run the unemployment union and their thirty one million members.

Furthermore, I have been interested not just in the need for a Negro agenda, but the ways in which white working class folks and young college educated white folks are suffering in this economy as well, and the profound silence around addressing it. The most ambitious article I have seen on the topic was How a New Jobless Era will Transform America.

The second Baldwin essay is the East River Downtown, where he states,

“Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their own words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had a an unhealthy effect on the total life of this country, and has eroded whatever respect Negros may have once felt for white people.”

I went back and forth with @fwmj a couple of weeks ago about the futility of a “Negro Agenda” and “Negro Leaders” and I reminded him that my concern isn’t just for Black folks, but with the viability of our Democracy in general. This Baldwin quote really captures, what I was trying to get at. He writes, in the essay, Fifth Avenue Uptown,

“People are continually pointing out to me that the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of American failure does not console me ant it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, no better than “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by the is fact is the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

And this is where the founding fathers come in. According to the book Founding Brother, by Joseph Ellis, the founding fathers were so troubled by and dependent on the institution of slavery that many of them refused to debate it publicly. It is in this moment that I reminded that our silences speak as much as our words. Ellis writes,

“Granted the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had engaged extensive debates about the slave trad and how to count slaves for the purposes of representation and taxation. But these debates had all occurred behind closed doors under the strictest codes of confidentiality. (Madison’s informal record of these debates the fullest accounts, were not published in his lifetime.) ….(No specific mention of “slavery” , “slaves” or Negros” had been permitted into the final draft of the document.) If the political leaders who had pushed through the constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 had been permitted to speak, their somewhat awkward conclusion would have been that slavery was too important or controversial of a subject to talk about publicly.”

Lastly, Baldwin speaks to how our futures are bound, connected, and many ways have been every since James Madison thought slavery was so important that it shouldn’t be debated in public. Baldwin writes in American Dream, American Negro,

Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble. This is what concerns me most.

I write with hope, Love and my word this morning.

In some ways our fear of critiquing and pushing the president reminds me of how when we are dating someone, whom we really want to liked by, we remain silent, and let them do shit, that we wouldn’t otherwise
let someone else get away with. Then we complain about the outcomes.

I am not an object, and neither are you. Word to Sartre.

To critique something, is to take it seriously, invest in it, learn about it, play with it, in some ways it means growing, possibly in uncomfortable ways.

In sum, Baldwin was on to something in ‘65 in thinking about what it means to live in a democracy where huge swaths of people are prevented, structurally, from participating in it, and the danger this poses.

Why does a negro agenda make folks so uncomfortable, when agenda’s are inherent in Democracies especially in this county?

Corn, Israel, the Wars, No Child Left Behind, Banking Reform, Iraq etc, all have agenda’s, why the avoidance of a Negro agenda?

Is it because of the threat that it represents, to speak about what James Madison would have rather remained silent about?

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