When Bootstraps Aren’t Enough

Why two new black self-help books don't get it right. No, conversate isn't a word. And yes, there are some things that black folks need to stop doing. But there's a difference between enabling and empathy.


When I was in college, I put my father out. A recovering drug addict, he was living with me and my sister while he ”got back on his feet.” My father’s time there was supposed to be brief. Three months morphed into too damn many.

After coming home from another day busting my butt working and attending school to see my unemployed father lying on the sofa, it was time for him to go.

Enabling is a bitch.

But that was before I cared or explored why a successful, college-educated man (the only of his family) would let his life fall apart. That was before I learned of the abuse he suffered at the hands of relatives, the mental illness and the spiritual breakdown.

Enter empathy.

It was this enabling/empathy divide that led me to two manifestos, Conversate is Not a Word: Getting Away from Ghetto by Jam Donaldson and Stop Being Niggardly: And Nine Other Things Black People Need to Stop Doing by Karen Hunter. Kid gloves off, both books, written by two bright women, versus, say Bill Cosby or Juan Williams, urge the black community to get our lives together, pronto! No excuses.

In Conversate, Donaldson embraces controversy and harshly takes blacks (often the poorer segment) to task for not positively representing The Race. A lawyer by trade and the managing editor of Black Power, Donaldson is also the force behind the controversial Web site Hot Ghetto Mess, which displays images of black men clutching pimp cups and girls dressed like strippers at prom. There was also her short-lived spinoff television show, ”We Got to Do Better,” on BET, which garnered no shortage of complaints and controversy. As Donaldson writes in her book, ”doing better” requires taking care of our ”bad ass kids,” cleaning up our neighborhoods and not blaming The Man. She writes, ”We eat, drink, spend and have reckless sex with reckless abandon. As a result, we’re too fat, too dumb, too broke and have too many kids out of wedlock.”

Similarly, Hunter’s provocatively named Stop Being Niggardly remixes Twelve Things the Negro Must Do for Himself, the 1890s call-to-action by Renaissance woman Nannie Helen Burroughs. More than 100 years later, Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, provides prescriptions on how to stop being ”niggardly”–or stingy–in how we exert our value professionally and personally. She also wants us to be more niggardly in our food intake (one chapter is called, ”Stop Being Fat!”), our car expenditures and the time used appealing to white people.

Despite President Barack Obama’s individual success, both authors are appalled by the prevailing reality that blacks lead in dropout rates, low reading scores, cancer rates, HIV, while owning fewer businesses and homes. ”We seemed to get bent out of shape over things we couldn’t control,” Hunter writes, ”and concerning the things we could control–our neighborhoods, our kids, our schools–we sat on our hands and did nothing ….”

The crux of their arguments is quite similar (both also devote passages applauding Bill Cosby for telling it like it is): There’s no reason–including slavery, white people, racism, poverty–that can ultimately stop black people from being prosperous. Getting our lives in order is a basic mix of fundamentals like working hard, taking responsibility and eschewing negativity.

But is it really that simple?

What was simple for me was to attack my father for not quitting drugs, getting a job and reclaiming his life. As he struggled with his addiction, I only saw a man who didn’t want to help himself. All along that’s all he wanted to do.

Let Donaldson tell it, the entire black community went down the crapper 20 years ago. She writes, ”Unlike our parents, we grew up integrated and watching The Cosby Show. Wanting more for us than they had, our parents regaled us with tales of opportunity.” This would be even more tragic if it was universally true.