There exists a piece of video with a quote I have been trying to find for years.
I know it happened at the Reebok Grand Prix on May 31, 2008, because I was watching. I know the quote was made by sprinter Usain Bolt, who had just set a new world record. After the race, he was cornered by a reporter who asked him about his strategy. Bolt was still breathing hard when he offered the greatest piece of advice any sprinter has ever given.
“The key to winning a race like this,” he explained without an iota of irony, “Is to run faster than everyone else.”
Since that day, for some strange reason, I have still failed at becoming a world-class Olympic sprinter. According to Bolt’s advice, my form and training have nothing to do with it. I’m sure it’s not my age, the way my body is built or any other external factors because I actually try to run faster than everyone else. I am beginning to think that either Bolt was lying or he didn’t include some vital information.
Or maybe Usain Bolt just oversimplified a complex, nuanced situation because so many people were watching.
When Jasper Williams Jr. stood in front of the pulpit at the homegoing celebration for Aretha Franklin, my Spidey senses signaled to me that shenanigans would soon be afoot.
It wasn’t that his name was Jasper, which, I must confess, carries a stigma of negativity with me because I grew up one street over from Jasper Avenue, whose residents always came over to my street to take over our basketball court, so I have always held a grudge against all Jaspers.
It wasn’t the fact that Rev. Williams was wearing a tuxedo with a dangling, shiny necklace. I’m not a biblical scholar but I’m pretty sure there’s something in the book of Revelation warning the saints not to trust a man who wears a suit with a Jesus piece.
No, it was Jasper’s words that disgusted me and many others.
Having attended my fair share of black funerals, I know what a preacher is supposed to say at a funeral. He is supposed to tell us how the deceased is in a better place—no matter what they did while here on earth. He is supposed to tie something about the dear departed into a biblical scripture that makes us feel good. And just before someone faints, shouts or faints while shouting, he’s supposed to sit down.
But unlike many people who were angry at Rev. Williams’ eulogy because they thought it was inappropriate for the occasion, disrespectful to Aretha’s legacy or—ironically—lacking in reverence, I was struck by how wrong it was. I was dumbfounded at its simpleminded ignorance. It was if respectability came to life, smoked crystal meth, shotgunned a six-pack of Red Bull and said: “Me and Jasper are about to do our thing!”
Although I tend not to gravitate toward neoliberal groupthink phrases like “respectability politics,” black America is all too familiar with the idea that we don’t take responsibility for our actions. Whether it is Fox News, preachers you never heard of until a diva’s death given a national platform or black men who managed to escape the infinite number of pitfalls and earn an advanced degree in Bootstrap Theology, we are fully aware of the philosophy that we need to stop black-on-black crime, stop blaming the white man and focus on education to get ourselves together.
We hear it often in barber shops when black men who somehow managed to remove enough bass from their voice to purchase a luxury car and middle-class values explain “what black people need to do” before mentioning something about going to church, pulling up their pants and the length of black women’s skirts.
We experienced it when the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA said: “When you think about some of the brothers who are being brutalized by the police, you also got to have them take a look, and us take a look, in the mirror, at the image we portray.”
“If I’m a cop,” RZA added, “and every time I see a young black youth, whether I watch them on TV, movies, or just see them hanging out, and they’re not looking properly dressed, properly refined, you know, carrying himself, conducting himself proper hours of the day — things that a man does, you’re going to have a certain fear and stereotype of them.”
Perhaps the greatest example is Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake” speech in which the comedy genius and accused serial rapist lamented about a heinous crime in which a black man was shot over a piece of dessert, explaining:
Ladies and gentlemen, I really have to ask you to seriously consider what you’ve heard, and now this is the end of the evening so to speak. I heard a prize fight manager say to his fellow who was losing badly, “David, listen to me. It’s not what’s he’s doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing.
Ladies and gentlemen, these people set, they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have fifty percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.
The problem with this narrative is threefold.
First, it is an insidious acceptance of the tenets of racism, sexism and white supremacy. Somehow, hoodies, baggy pants and the fashion worn by black bodies are less acceptable than pink hair, frayed Daisy Dukes, nose rings and cowboy boots and Birkenstocks worn by whites.
It’s not as if Trayvon Martin would have looked less suspicious or George Zimmerman’s bullets wouldn’t have pierced a buttonup in the same way they did Trayvon’s hoodie. Sexual assaulters and men with nefarious intentions don’t carry measuring tapes to count the number of inches a woman’s skirt is above her knee.
To preach about the immorality of single-parent households, you’d have to believe that black girls are inherently more promiscuous and less responsible than their white counterparts while discarding the readily available information that shows that teenage birth rates correlate to poverty and income inequality.
We know that violent crime is a socio-economic phenomenon and not a problem of simple savages running wild in the concrete jungles. Black students get less qualified teachers, less funding and fewer resources. They don’t just choose to ignore education in favor of dope-dealing and shooting hoops.
Secondly, conservatives and their respectable negro allies always ignore the fact that black people not only believe these things too; but we are actively working to correct them.
When Jasper says: “But as proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do... A black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man,” Aside from wondering what the hell that makes someone like me, who was raised by a single black woman, the narrative willingly overlooks the fact that most black parents already know that two-parent homes are preferable to single-parent families.
There isn’t a single mother or father alive who doesn’t wish he or she had more help or could have raised their child with a loving co-parent. The reality is a complex, more nuanced combination of the difficulty of relationships, poverty, the effects of the historic erasure of black families and, yes, personal responsibility.
“When the police kills one of us, we’re ready to protest, march, destroy innocent property,” Williams preached. “But when we kill 100 of us, nobody says anything.”
Where the hell does this man live?
Contrary to the belief of white nationalists, Republicans and niggas named Jasper, the black community doesn’t organize a parade every time a black youth is shot by another black child, nor does it hold a rally to blame cops for every black death.
“Stop The Violence” was a prevailing slogan long before “Black Lives Matter” leaped into prominence. If you look at any city in America; community organizations, nonprofits and church groups dedicated to curbing violence, supplementing education and helping young people with various issues exponentially outnumber the groups dedicated to police brutality.
But Fox News doesn’t cover “Stop the Violence” rallies, gun exchanges, school supply drives, teen pregnancy centers, youth sports leagues, mentoring groups, after-school programs, scholarship drives or tutoring sessions.
Team Respectability would rather repeat the black-on-black crime myth and write sermons about what black people “need to do” as they use the church’s tithes and offerings to upgrade to the new Lexus or make the pews more comfortable in their Jesus palaces.
But most importantly, most of the time, the peddlers of respectability are just wrong.
Despite Jasper’s assertion that, “I said blacks do not matter, because black lives cannot matter, will not matter, should not matter, must not matter until black people begin to respect their own lives,” I am left wondering who Jasper thought he was preaching to.
According to FBI statistics, 95 percent of black people don’t commit a crime in any given year. White-on-white crime is an equally disturbing problem. But find me a video of Jasper preaching about white on white crime, even though it is as rampant as black on black crime.
It’s not that these people mean well, it’s that their egos have gone unchecked. Like privileged whites, they have come to believe that the platform they have been given and the pitfalls they managed to sidestep is somehow because of their own doing, not simple luck or grace.
Ultimately, they must believe that black people are stupid. They apparently think that the comparably small number of black people who are killing each other, dropping out of school and having sex like untamed animals are doing it because no one has told them to stop, yet.
But thank God for all of the Jaspers because now we know. We were simply waiting for a superstar diva to die so a scruffy preacher in a three-piece tuxedo could explain how Jesus and America work hand-in-hand. And despite the hurdles, the tilted playing field, racism, poverty, the legacy of white supremacy and every other hindrance, it is clear to us, now:
We weren’t running fast enough.
But Rev. Williams has opened up the book of life for black America. He has given us a Revelation:
And Behold a pale horse; and the name that sat on him was Jasper. And bullshit followed him. And power was given unto his Jesus piece that he may enlighten the world.