I was the quiet, cerebral bookworm type who preferred those spaces inhabited by women. In stark contrast, he was excitable and aggressive—boisterous at times—and preferred those spaces inhabited by men.
I spent my free moments inside, quietly reading and writing in a corner as I enjoyed the polite conversation and company of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts. He, on the other hand, spent his days outside with my dad and my uncles, talking loudly and rudely and measuring his strength and manhood against others.
And while I almost rarely got in trouble, trouble was his middle name. He stayed into something. In fact, several times he was whipped or punished for something I had done. Even when I attempted to step in and own up to whatever he was on the hook for, no one would even believe me. And they thought of me as even more noble for attempting to stand up for my brother.
When we went off to college at about the same time, he decided within the first year or year and a half that college was not for him. He wanted to get paid and get paid right away. And eight years or so later when I finally finished and was overjoyed to get an appointment which paid me a little over half the amount I owed in student loans per year, everyone overlooked that he was a self-made man, a legitimate entrepreneur earning well over six figures. My family celebrated with a party; my brother was but a footnote on the program.You would probably think that there would be bad blood between us. But have always been close. Very close. I once tried to apologize to him. I wanted him to know that I saw what was going on, and I did not think it was fair even if it was out of my hands. But he just shook his head. He explained to me that he knew since we were little that I couldn’t take whippings because I couldn’t stand the pain. But he, on the other hand, did not mind the pain. He told me that I was always too sensitive, that I never could stand harsh criticism. He, on the other hand, did not care.
I think we both realized long ago that like it or not, within the social dynamics of our family, our roles and the manner in which we were perceived were inextricably linked; we were defined each through the other. I was what I was perceived to be only because of what he was perceived not to be. My light shone so brightly only because others refused to see the brilliance of his.
All of that is real touching, Max, but what are you getting at? What are you trying to say?
Well, I said all of that just to say this.
Since I have been a part of the black blogosphere, and especially in the days following the BET Music Awards, we have been a little hard on—how do I say this?—our less cultured brethren and cousins. When it comes to pointing out and ridiculing coon-ish behavior, we don’t miss a trick. I have at least two sites in my blog roll at this very time, the very purpose of which are to root out and ridicule coonery.
Don’t get me wrong. My purpose is not to admonish any one person or any one blog or any group of persons. I just want to make a point. And notice that I use we so as to implicate myself.
But the question becomes, is our ridicule meant to solve a problem or provide remedy for inappropriate behavior? Or is our ridicule meant to make us feel better about ourselves? To make us feel more comfortable about our stations in life?
My wife made a very cogent observation this evening. I didn’t watch the original broadcast of the BET Awards show. But I TiVO’d it so that I could watch it later. So after watching the whole despicable spectacle, I stood and proclaimed just what an abject pack of coonery it was. My wife simply looked up from her book and pointed out that I already knew what the show was all about. After all, I had spent the whole week reading about it. So, why would I take the time to watch something that I knew would only upset me?
Of all the utterly horrible reviews I read the previous week, not one that I can think of stated that they turned it off. I, like everyone else, watched it to the very last credit. And in some perverse way, I was entertained by it all, even if I did not approve.
Similarly, we ridicule Tyler Perry for the particular coonalarity of his movies and television shows, but I am willing to bet most of us have watched at least one of his movies or his TV shows or both.
We like to participate in the foolishness but from a distance. It’s like throwing a rock and hiding your hand. I am perhaps most guilty of this. Despite the degrees, despite the Greek letters, despite the house in the suburbs and the foreign cars, I like to get down in the dirt with the best of them, then return to my black middle class surroundings and shake my head.
Zora Neale Hurston made a similar argument years ago in her questioning of the low culture/high culture dichotomy seperating African American art and culture. And every now and then I have to remind myself of who I am and where I come from. I am but one step up from the streets myself.And furthermore, I and those of my cousins for whom high coonery is the order of the day share a common culture. And we are inextricably linked in the cultural imagination of the larger culture. If our light shines brightly, it is only because the brilliance of their potential is ignored. It is only because in my carriage, in my use of the language, in my dress and behavior, I am measured by their lack thereof; I am what I am because of what they are not.