John McWhorter

What To Get a Black Person For Christmas

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So very “2004” by now – the days when the kickoff question for an interview on black issues was whether you agreed with the views of Bill Cosby. What was interesting was how many black people actually did – those who had a major problem with Cosby’s new tack were mainly a writerly contingent, itchy to see someone so prominent arguing against the tacit but potent assumption that there needs to be a second Civil Rights revolution.

This crowd have never had a satisfactory riposte to what’s on the paperback of Cosby and Alvin Poussaint’s book Come On People: “When you have people tell you, ‘You can’t get up, you’re a victim,’ that’s when you know that it’s the devil you’re hearing, no one else.” Yet what with certain other race-related events having taken the stage since 2004, one would be pardoned for supposing that Cosby’s no-nonsense speeches were yesterday’s news and that now he’s just sitting at home. By no means – it turns out Cornel West isn’t the only black authority figure of a certain age making rap CDs.

It’s part of an ongoing effort Cosby has been making to reach out to the younger generation, through Facebook, Twittering, and so forth – but more interestingly, by trying to foster group discussions of the issues he started talking about in 2004 – centering around the tragic but unavoidable fact that a people can only fix themselves from within.

Cosby spares us his own delivery on the CD, State of Emergency, which would likely not strike modern hip hop fans as having the requisite “flow.” Instead, State of Emergency filters Cos’ ideas through “The Cosnarati,” a rapper crew who have fashioned the notions into rhymes and produced them with a fine sheen. No one would mistake the CD as a product of Timbaland or Kanye West, but there’s nothing hokey or fake about it.

Overall, it’s not what you might think. What makes Cosby’s challenging stance such potent stuff – and what riles that writerly crowd so – is that say what you want about him, you can’t tar him as “inauthentic” or “not really black.” No dissing him as having grown up (shudder) middle class, he has no white wife to call him out about, he has been on the classic Civil Rights side for decades, he’s not an academic and so can’t be classified as “too intellectual to understand real people,” no Hawaii, No Indonesia – he’s black America’s grandfather.

As such, the CD is as much about what ails black people as what to do about it. Get this note, even, about the cover art, which is said to symbolize:

the humiliation that innocent black men and/or people are subjected to when they walk into a store and are subsequently followed and watched. The creatures in the bush are fearful in the presence of the little boy who has an innocent curiosity – and is oblivious to their presence. The bush represents prejudice and incredulity stemming from persistent negative stereotypes of black people as anarchic and immoral.

And the songlist includes things like “Why?” questioning the injustice of things in a vein similar to Jadakiss’ rant of a similar cast some years back, “Runnin’” about how ghetto black men are too busy escaping to be able to sit still and tend to much of anything, and “Perfect World” about an America with bodegas full of fresh food, everyone dying a centenarian of old age rather than murder, empty hospitals and all movies getting good reviews (I’m not sure I get that last one, but still). Cosby gets it – his point is not that no one has anything to complain about.

His point is just that these things can’t be excuses. Too much “conscious rap,” as I have argued in many places, is “conscious” largely of what’s wrong, and contains a message, unstated but obvious, that listing and commenting on what’s wrong is, in itself, activism. The statement of the frustration is considered an action in itself, with further engagement beside the point (and not as thrilling). One of the saddest things I’ve ever read was the story this week in the Times about Native American young men unaware of a life path to take who are modelling themselves on inner city gang members, ending with one guy whose main ambition is to be a rapper and express his frustration – he hands the interviewer “Ever since birth, I been waitin’ for death...”.

But we will never hear from him again -- if only someone taught this kid to put his energy into something real. Which is not charismatic restatement of what makes things hard. “But it’s supposed to be a call to action,” fans object. Okay: when has that worked in the 30 years of rap’s history?

Cosby and the Cosnarati are looking for some real action. “Please listen to the words. We worked hard, very hard, to tell you about the State of the Emergency,” Cosby tells us in the liner notes. The idea is that groups will have LISTENing parties and then Discuss in a constructive fashion. So State of Emergency includes tracks like “Get On Your Job,” acknowledging the obstacles but speaking the ultimate wisdom. So, not “Get On Your Job” the way The Boondocks’ pitiless black-hating Uncle Ruckus character would say it, but one starting with where a guy might live. A sample, delivered rapid-style:

Lookin for a way out, doin’ it right,

Thinkin out loud what to do wit my life

Got to get a job that pays me well,

Got two kids, can’t seen to be fail

Lookin in the paper, fill out a app

Vacation and what after dat

All a boy do play video games

BET watch videos an’

Talk wit a girl, talk on the phone,

Go to da school, walk her home,

Dis is what dey talk about

The way back when, now walk it out

But he can’t pay for a pair of kicks

Known dis girl since she was six

Can’t get rich by chillin with chicks

Now you stressed, what feeling is dis

Girlfriend wanna go shop in the mall

You still in your Mom’s house watchin the walls

Ask for twenty bucks, ask for fifty,

How embarrassin, she’s laughin wit me.

...and in the wake of this, Get On Your Job. It’s not like you haven’t made some effort – but you have to try harder. You only go around once (plus the ladies will like you better).

The CD should be useful as a kind of pre-arranged venting, an immediate catharsis. The CD states the usual litany of ills – important, but in itself as meaningless as half a sentence – and then a discussion could be about that second half of the sentence: what now? It should also be a calling card for Cosby and Alvin Poussaint’s book, which I wrote up not long ago here as one that more should be reading, where solutions are outlined more concretely than the rap format allows.

This is it, folks. It really is. As of that night two Novembers ago, the time when America made any pretense of being on the heels of some new Great Realization about what ails black people ended. No, I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic: the history books will record Obama’s election as both the beginning of a new era and the end of an old one. Latinos have more premarital pregnancies and equally scary dropout rates. Tell the Native Americans in the article I mentioned that they don’t have it as bad as black kids in Chicago. People of all hues are losing their jobs and houses all over the country. Plenty people have A Dream today, and they all deserve equal attention.

Black people with A Dream need to get the Cosnarati’s CD (and the copy of Come On People that comes with it) and let a 72-year-old man and his crew point us to the future. Or – remind us that we are already in it.

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