Dreaming of Black Dignity
Scripps-Howard News Service 12.18.02
In January 1959, when I began my American life in Tallahassee,
Florida, the adjustments for a Central European immigrant were many.
Most shocking among them was the realization that the segregation
of black people was not communist propaganda after all, but hard
My friends tried to point out that, in the absence of an emotional
investment, there was no way I could judge the situation. As soon
as I could do so in English, I countered that no argument on Earth
could justify what was being done. Soon, a concert by William Warfield
at Florida A & M, the all-Negro university - which I decided
to attend because of his reputation - demonstrated to me that there
was a price for "deviant" behavior.
Although I had arrived neutral, by the time the Civil Rights movement
got seriously underway, I was anything, but. Though I never came
to share "white guilt," neither was that necessary to
tell the difference between right and wrong.
Watching door after door opening for black Americans was a truly
fascinating process. Apart from the sense of righteousness, much
of the motivation for supporting the Civil Rights movement came
from encountering black Americans of great dignity and then witnessing
the treatment meted out to them. Their willingness and capacity
to preserve their dignity in the face of such treatment increased
the cries for urgent remedy.
Alas, as the injustices of discrimination diminished, as the efforts
of American society for fair and just treatment increased, so dignity
seemed to fade. That was all the more astonishing because demands
for dignity and respect grew louder every day, and even a new verb,
"to disrespect" was given legitimacy - even though it
really is a silly word by any standard.
Dignity is a funny thing. You can't demand that people give it
to you, and you can't purchase it at the supermarket. Whether or
not you have got any, depends entirely upon you. Someone like Nat
King Cole did not have to work at it at all. Someone like Jesse
Jackson, Jr. could not live long enough to develop it.
And that brings me to the disturbing topic of this article. Millions
of personal relationships across the land are troubled, interrupted,
perhaps even destroyed by the harsh, unpleasant, hostility-laden
tirades that are our nightly ration by those who claim to speak
for black Americans. While Jay Leno and Kevin Eubanks endeavor to
show us five times a week how it can be done, how it should be done,
John Hope Franklin, Randall Robinson and the "reverend"
Al Sharpton assure us that we can die on the cross for all they
care - harmony there shall never be.
All that has occupied my mind these last days, prompted by the
Trent Lott affair. What the good senator said was so inane, so unworthy
of intelligent discussion, that I had no intention of commenting.
In 2002, you don't start debating whether or not the Earth is flat.
And then, it struck me what an incredible opportunity this might
have been for something entirely different.
Imagine if the Congressional Black Caucus had lined up behind the
microphones in the U.S. House of Representatives and delivered something
like the following statement:
"Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made some improvisatory
remarks on the occasion of retiring senator Strom Thurmond's 100th
birthday. We understand that his comments could be construed as
deeply offensive to black Americans, if we chose to take them seriously.
"We believe that the most appropriate comment from us is not
to dignify his by taking them seriously. Besides, the people of
this country have worked long and hard to deal with our divided
past, and to create a common future. We assume that, for the most
part, they view this incident very similarly to the way we do, and
that no one will permit the effort and good will of decades on both
sides to be placed at risk for someone's momentary indiscretion."
I am not naive enough to think this would actually happen. But
I wish it did. No legislation, no financial assistance, no campus
regulations could generate the warmth, respect and pride such a
moment would harvest for black Americans.