"Oh, I think we'll always be a sad people," a black woman said to me in 2001. She was very smart, very well-informed. And that remark seemed utterly ordinary to her. It didn't to me. Why would any people always be sad? Or, why would a people willingly embrace such a prediction?
I think of her whenever I see how gloomily we are trained to see just about anything that happens to — or for — black people in this country. We must always stare at the cloud rather than the silver lining, obsess over the fly in the ointment. It looks like my friend was right about us being perpetually sad.
I wish she wasn't, because it isn't the only way of grappling with challenge. In 1957, when legendary black contralto Marian Anderson was the subject of a See It Now documentary special, the Little Rock schoolhouse episode happened to occur during filming. The producers of the special used the contrast between this event and Anderson's successful tour in Asia as a "hook." They even asked Anderson about Little Rock — and she looked slightly perplexed that her opinion would be part of the proceedings.
A black person wrote a response, complaining that — get this — the special was wrong in mentioning Little Rock but nothing about "the many of our race who are on top."
What worries me is how unlikely that would be today from so many of our smartest chroniclers, who consider their job to be to remind America eternally of societal racism, to the point of spinning stories in the direction that most writers in 1957 would have seen as good news.
Why have so many been so hell-bent on painting it as sad that so many black people are moving back down South? Just 40 years ago, most black people could barely buy houses outside of the ghetto, but now thousands of families are picking up stakes and happily moving to states where life will be cheaper and more comfortable.
But all some can see in this is a repeat of the Great Migration, as if these people were riding the rails with sacks on their backs, escaping Jim Crow. Black writers are not the only ones pulling this: Walter Russell Mead's take, titled "Black and Blue," has us "fleeing" the North, the idea being that the failure of "social policy to create an environment which works for Blacks is the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th-century liberal enterprise in the United States." What, pray tell, is "an environment for Blacks"?
Charles Blow's read was also almost strangely off, claiming on the basis of no evidence that black New Yorkers are moving in part to get away from excessive stop-and-frisks. I recently listened to an NPR story on this topic where the interviewers felt beholden to examine whether racism played a part in New Yorkers moving away, despite the jolly interviewee and callers-in barely knowing what she was talking about.
Why does it have to be a suspicious, loaded event (call it Moving While Black) when a lot of black people move — smiling? A second question: If young, successful blacks see racism as playing less of a role in their lives than their parents or grandparents did, then why must our main lesson from this be that America is not postracial, and that black America overall continues to have serious problems?
That is the message of Ellis Cose's new book The End of Anger, which pays lip service to getting past the old-style grievance against "whitey," but is ultimately about how angry we should all stay because of racism in the Tea Party, the shunting of subprime loans to black communities and the fact that because of the economy, middle-class blacks are often not making as much money as their parents.
One answer, I suppose, is that people need to be reminded that the success of some does not mean that we have completely overcome. But: Who really thinks that people who read 300-page books, black or white, believe that if a black lawyer isn't being discriminated against, then racism is over for all black people? Which people do we genuinely suppose need this "message"?
None, I submit. What's really going on here is simply that sadness to which my friend referred. We are now trained to be wary of feeling too good about black success. Any black success: Cose generously cites a man who tells us that Barack Obama's election was a mere fluke, due to a convergence of factors such as George Bush's incompetence, John McCain's lack of drama and the economy. That is, we are to suppose that the election of a black man as president was not evidence of a revolutionary change in racial attitudes.
Remember another gloomy corrective take on Obama not long ago? It was the one that claimed whites would only have elected one of the "right kind" of black people: lightish-colored, with a top-class education and, as Sen. Reid memorably put it, able to not use "Negro dialect" when he wants to. Well, according to that analysis, Herman Cain is definitely not one of the "good" kind. He's darker, less educated and less courtly than Obama, and he couldn't sound "not black" at gunpoint.
And yet he is currently a big hit among precisely the kind of white people who didn't vote for Obama — i.e., the legendary "out there" whites! It would seem that his being black doesn't bother them much — and note, they cannot be under any impression that an outspokenly Republican black person is going to "lead" black America and serve as a role model.
Are they embracing him just because he allows them to disavow racism? Let's say there's some of that — but then the same people who would make this charge are surely aware, and often say, that the whites who embraced Obama had a lot of that in them as well. Herman Cain is a black man — and not a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner type — being embraced by, of all people, Republicans. After all, wouldn't we expect Republicans to be swooning for another "not too black" type instead?
In other words, big bad Herman Cain, whether you agree with his politics or not, is a good story in many ways. No, I am not shilling for him; nobody who even glanced at the columns I have now been writing here for a year could possibly still truly think I am a Republican or a conservative. But Cain is evidence of, of all things, progress.
But we're not supposed to look at it that way. Now, I'm the last person to say we shouldn't work on the problems, and I try to investigate the ways that we can (again, as I write about here all the time). But something is amiss when we feel like it's our job to show the rot behind black people buying new houses, getting promotions and being elected president.
I guess, as always, we are supposed to be a sad people. Sad, isn't it?
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.