Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who You Callin' Oreo? The Devouring of Black Folk

In my last post, I spoke out against America's trend toward political polarization. Today, I want to refocus onto matters cultural.  It appears that African American culture itself is also being swept up into a socio/political vortex - a great tragedy in light of the current African American cultural crisis.

It seems the cultural ground has shifted under our feet.  Memories of the Civil Rights and Black Consciousness Movements remain, but they have morphed into something alien to these movements’ pioneers.  The Civil Rights Movement has degenerated into a civil rights industry, and Black consciousness has degenerated into non-achiever consciousness.  Our sense of momentum has eroded, our moral clarity has evaporated, and moral confusion is the order of the day.

The early ideologues of Black consciousness defined Blackness in achiever terms; namely, academic excellence, moral integrity, financial stability, critical thinking, and the like.  Today, in the name of Blackness, too many of our youth have adopted a self-sabotaging lifestyle.

One only needs to look at the changing descriptions of an “oreo” – black (brown) on the outside, and white on the inside.

Historically, an oreo was an African American who desired to be White and tried to avoid all aspects of Black culture. Indeed, these folk did exist with varying motivations, and some oreos of this type were even “double-stuf'd.”  We're not alone in this cultural culinary nomenclature: I understand that Chinese Americans have their "bananas", and Asian Indian immigrants have "coconuts."  Such labeling is common to human nature.

Based on that "great bastion of academic scholarship" The Urban Dictionary, today's oreo is an African American characterized by many of the following: "not being raised in the projects; not abusing the welfare system; speaking proper English; getting good grades; liking music that is not exclusively Hip Hop, Rap, or R&B; having a diverse group of friends; being well-educated; being legitimately employed; being well-mannered and civilized; saving money for college instead of blowing it on bling or cheap grills and wearing nice clothes that are not Roca Wear, Sean Jean, Baby Phat," etc.  As the Black Consciousness movement matured, these were many of the characteristics that marked authentic Blackness. Today, if even only a handful of these applied, most of us would be classified as oreos.

In 2004, Bill Cosby sounded the alarm in his “Pound Cake Speech” (now informally known as the “Ghettoesburg Address”), but our community's self-appointed gatekeepers chose to crucify the messenger rather than dealing with the message.  Eight years later Cosby’s message remains largely unheeded.

Clearly, something has gone wrong.  Perhaps it's time to re-examine our history and learn lessons that we have overlooked.  Perhaps the image we’re examining, whether it’s the image of an achiever or non-achiever, or of oreos of yesterday or today, is still built on shifting sand.

As my wife mentors young performing artists, she encourages them to build their identity according to God’s unchanging definitions rather than on the prevailing winds of culture and men.  She teaches, and I affirm her in this, that while achieverism is to be cultivated, and our cultures are to be appreciated, they must both rest upon a firmer foundation than the whim and rhetoric of others.

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX.  Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr

1 comment:

  1. What this post challenges us African Americans to see is our public face must get beyond simply protest and grievance and our own party line solidarity that goes with it. Our future is no longer primarily in the hand of the white power structure from which we must wrest control. There are opportunities that our forefathers marched, went to jail and faces dogs for us to have. Let us build on what has been won through the tools of education and character while eschewing those attitudes and behaviors that sabotage what they sacrificed to obtain. Yes, social challenges remain. But can we not begin to build even as we continue to fight? Sobering words Bro. Carl. Thank you.