Birth of the Boohab

"Passion is not friendly. It is arrogant, superbly contemptuous of all that is not itself, and, as the very definition of passion implies the impulse to freedom, it has a mighty intimidating power. It contains an unspeakable hope." -- James Baldwin
December 1997  

My name is Michael Bowen. I invented boohab.

I can't take complete credit for the name nor the concept in the same way I gather that a tall, strong woman from New York was not the first sojourner towards Truth. But I think in our own ways we have had some interesting reasons for recreating ourselves for a moral purpose. Boohab's purpose is to exist in cyberspace as a 'black persistent object', a continuing presence which engages the cyberpresent masses about some of the realities of race in America from a black perspective. In a medium which has promised that there are no colors, nor genders, but only minds, the presence of boohab has been a constant reminder in the most popular webchat fora on the internet that nobody is free of America's racial past or present, even as we all struggle to create a proper future.

In writing this essay/history/provocation it is difficult for me to determine whether I should do so as myself, Michael Bowen, a creator who would wish to take pride in and assess the fruits and failures of his creation, or whether I should do so as boohab and continue my activity in another medium - the printed page. Either way, boohab needs additional clarification. Boohab is the 'organic hiphop metaphysician'. His purpose is to transform rage into noble acts of civilization. But he can only exist as a creation of me, Michael. In one way, it can be said that I created boohab as a reaction to being treated like a nigger, despite the fact that I am a previously proud member of the group previously known as the Talented Tenth. I am the 'cool black guy' who learned to surf with you back in 1974 at Venice Beach. I am the one you introduced to your strawberry lip smacker at summer camp. I am also the one whose family income is in the top 5% of American households, who lived in Cobb County Georgia, Newt Gingrich's home district and 125th and Broadway in Harlem, and Manhattan Avenue in Hermosa Beach California, the beach volleyball capital of the world. I make my income working with some of the most sophisticated software civilians can buy, I have 6 computers,

The creation of boohab began way back in the mid-late 80s when the Internet was a baby. I was engaged nevertheless, in philosophical discussions, creating on-line movie reviews, trading quips and jokes with a gang of folks called SF, and discussing CD technology, then in its infancy. As well, I was engaged in debating the merits of funky music and among my buppie coworkers Cosby Show and determining whether or not Arsenio Hall was a good role model. One day on the funky music mailing list the moderator forward to me a wack dismissal of rap music. The provocation was simple. The poster asked why is it when someone white says "rap isn't music" or is harshly critical of rap, black folks launch into histrionics. I answered in verse, which got me a lot of props, but only after I had written about 1700 words of histrionics. I was very unsatisfied with the results. I posted the histrionics to the funky music list anyway. But, as the moderator reminded me, I had in my response 'pushed the limits of unfunkiness' allowable within the distribution list. All of this time, I had been writing my most tough questions about race and America in my own journal. I signed the histrionics 'michael x' and wrote the rap music in a Caribbean dialect.

Over the next few years, I did a great deal of personal research. Living just off the beach in sunny Southern California I often visited my old neighborhood and asked what I had in common with other folks.

The most difficult thing about describing what I do is that it is expository and interactive. So while I'm maintaining this purposefully black character, I'm also informing conversation with the facts that I have discerned through various readings.

Q: So you are theorizing in real-time?

A: Not exactly. The theory is pretty much complete. 'Reification' is the word which is most apt, although I am comfortable with the title of curmudgeon or even gadfly. Starting with Cornel West's

Q: You like West..

A: Yes, I like the idea of Cornel West, but he's a 'phobe, and yet another academic threatened by the new media. I've approached him once or twice about going online - but he's the type who has his e-mail printed up and put on his desk. Anyway, I started with principles -with Cornel West's "American Evasion of Philosophy" in trying to understand what it is about America which has allowed it to keep racism alive. So I was rather looking at the typical question - Were the founders racist, is the constitution racist etc etc. The conclusion that I came to was that the founders were not sufficiently anti-racist in principle to recognize the depth of the flaw of omission. As a consequence of that, people of color have had to suffer deprivations of human rights, civil rights and social standing.

If you look at the Declaration of Independence, it is a litany of contemporary complaint. If we made one today it would probably include complaints against federal taxes, the BATF, OJ Simpson and Geraldo. The things people love to hate. In that course of those human events, the rebels listed all their sufferings, which didn't include racism nor sexism. So in creating a blank slate for their new world they set primary defenses against their enemies, but in sum it was a tirade against the tyrannies of monarchy. So today America, whatever its flaws, can never be institutionally monarchist. America is by definition, anti-monarchist. Whatever oppression happens in America today, it cannot be placed at the foot of monarchy. What is most important, thus in my view about the Declaration of Independence, is that it categorically rejects monarchism from the perspective of those most intimately familiar with its oppressive nature. We now call those folks our founders. Those 'victims', those 'complainers'.

So how could we, in principle, create a document that exclaims loudly against racism, as the Declaration of Independence did against Monarchy. What goes into creating an Anti-Racist Manifesto? Incidentally, that is what brought me, the second time around to the Harare Accords. If I were a legal scholar, I might ask myself, comparatively speaking, which set of laws between that of the new South African Constitution, which includes significant language from the Harare Accords, and our own system and amendments is more completely anti-racist. I would actually include the new Germany as well as several other nations. I suspect that theoretically speaking, South Africa beats us, considering as I have, some of the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, Linn Washington, Patricia J. Williams and Judge Higgenbotham. Of course, I'm not a legal scholar and am unfamiliar with the details of the South African legal system. However I am aware of the UN Treaty on Racial Discrimination and I know that the U.S. did not become a signer until about 1996. I also recognize that you can go to jail in America for holding up a 7-ll for 50 dollars, but not for firing somebody because you think he's a nigger. We have no criminal law for racism. You can be a capital R racist and run for office in America's form of democracy, because America's form of democracy is compatible with racism. But notice you cannot run for King. You cannot run for president of the supreme Soviet. So I ask you, what is a bigger threat to democracy? Monarchy, Communism or Racism? We've lived with racism longer than with Communism or Monarchy?

Because we have spent so much time and effort fighting Communism and Monarchy and relatively little time fighting racism, I think Americans are much better at identifying any strains of communist thought. We have had internal purges of communists and suspected communists, but not of racists and suspected racists. With respect to internal purges, the only Americans who have come under McCarthyite scrutiny because of race have been non-whites. I'm not suggesting that we appoint some Racial Tribunal and start marching white supremacists off to internment camps. Rather that we increase our ability to determine the 'sticking power' of racist ideas in people's heads and coupled with an anti-racist fiat in our government, cripple the ability of our democracy to be compatible with racism.

Now this is where I get in trouble with those poor misguided souls who are adamant about perfect colorblindness. But I only want to touch on that briefly in this context. Imagine a Declaration of Independence which could not identify the explicit nature of the crimes of the King. It would have been toothless. It would have been an example of using what I call the 'Asshole Card', which in contemporary America, because of colorblindness, unfortunately trumps the 'Race Card'. If Thomas Jefferson were to play the Asshole Card, he wouldn't have been an author of the Declaration, he'd have said, "Hey George is just an asshole who happens to be King. The fact that he's King is just a coincidence. Being an asshole isn't a crime."

My interest is to uncover the thought processes which lead folks to believe or abet racist arguments as various subjects present themselves. Ultimately, I probably would be most satisfied if I were to find that more people had read the same books as I.

Q: What do you do in a typical day on the Internet?

There are a couple places where I regularly weigh in on the issues of the day. Recently, the volume has quieted down in the main 4 fora. My primary 'home' is Cafe Utne, which is the most popular webchat site on the net. Some of my best work is there. For example 'A well meaning discussion between blacks and Jews', and White Folks, which was initiated by a cat named Lowell Thompson. Salon is my number two hangout. They sponsored the Race Project, which is now at an ebb-tide, but we had some bangup discussions about the LA Riots and whether race matters in Cyberspace. I should also say, to their credit, Salon has recruited ideologues to participate in the regular open fora. I personally wish they had picked someone other than David Horowitz. He hasn't turned out to be a good foil. But then some writers just don't make the transition to cyberspace well. Thirdly, I contribute on an odd basis to Slate, but they have a penchant for picking up some really ugly racists. I can't say that it's necessarily their fault, and they are moderated - but on more than one occasion they have had to intervene and boot individuals off. These areas are mostly white, but I do have a special affection and attraction to Gravity, run by my friend Cuda Brown. But Gravity doesn't' discuss race itself so much, it's more of a philosophical / cultural site in the Jazzobopulistic groove.

Every now and again I venture out into the Usenet soup. And there I participate in SCAA and SCAAM. SCAA is really the tragedy of cyberspace. It is where free speech has given a home for white supremacists. In that way, SCAA has proven that America is a racist country, or that cyberspace, in the mainstream is racist. Because there is no other forum that generates as much activity as SCAA on such a wide variety of topics, and there is no other forum that demonstrates so much of the racial animus that often characterizes discussions such as affirmative action. Most folks don't recognize how much of a crime that is until they see that the original charter for SCAA is what Gravity is actually accomplishing. It is very difficult for a high quality discussion about black culture to be maintained in public spaces. Sometimes you have to put a 'no whites allowed' sign at the door.

And my own website, I update now on a kind of bimonthly basis. I do a trickle of development every now and then.

Q: Your website..

Is boohab's factotum. Originally, it was the Cool Zone and that was when I was operating primarily in SCAA under the identity of mellow mike. During that time, the big question was that of the very existence of black folks in CMC. The debates in the mainstream were about the 'roadkill' factor, etc. So the Coolzone was originally designed to be a kind of ghetto tour. I had ambitions of becoming the black website developer of record for a certain class of organizations. But I found that very few wanted to pioneer. My life changed too. Still, there are a number of pointers to institutions and individuals whom I consider to be important to a progressive black perspective. Yet I am somewhat disappointed that more of these individuals and institutions were more forwardly present in CMC. The Cool Zone is the first of Five parts of boohab's factotum which is a large site by most standards. I'm sure there are over 500 pages. The heart and soul of the Cool Zone are in its section on Identity -'Cyberspace My Black Ass' and my essays 'First Person Parables'.

As time went on, I found that the really interesting stuff was debated online in real time. So a static website was not best utilized as a starting point, rather as a permanent reference. So I went on in my Socratic dialogs with facts backed up by artifacts at the website. For a long period, discussions I engaged in SCAA, I edited down into the SCAA FAQ. Right now there are about 70 generic questions of interest. Like Eazy E and AIDS, where are the richest black neighborhoods in America, was Abe Lincoln racist, should I use the N word.. etc. So that evolved into a second section of the factotum.

The third part (not in any particular order) is black hell, which I've renamed from dead nigger storage. It is a kind of aggregation of aggravation. It's the Litany online, from AT&T's African monkey, to Abner Louima, to Michael Zinzun's eye. It would include, if it weren't such depressing work, Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, Latasha Harlins, etc. Something on Texaco is there. Black Hell is divided up into Parade of Crimes, The Hate the Net Reveals, Bad Company, Urban Legends of Racism and Welcome to the Club. It's probably the most underdeveloped piece of the factotum, mostly because, as I said the work is tedious and depressing. Nevertheless, there are folks today who still say racism is only a function of Affirmative Action programs.

Not everything in the factotum is my own creation. CLIMB is a joint creation between Charles Isbell and myself. It is, as far as I know, the only interactive black history database on the web. It continues to grow slowly but surely.

If the factotum could be said to have a soul, then it must lie in the Race Man's Home Companion. It is my attempt at objectifying some of the subjective matters of race. It's end is to be a sort of guide or touchstone for folks who have decided for themselves that they want to be anti-racist and be held to a high standard which applies equally for all Americans.

(since this writing, I have added several sections to the factotum)

Q: What do you hope to accomplish?

A: For me, it is patently obvious that an effective anti-racist praxis strengthens democracy. I am attempting on two levels to change people's minds. On the first level, it is to make them positively responsive and responsible for generating a principled anti-racist politics - a force to be reckoned with in American life. On the second level I am trying to reshape American identity, to apply the lessons of the black cultural transcendence of racial essentialism to everyone, including African Americans who didn't really hear the drumbeats right.

My medium is the internet, because of the way my thoughts are organized. I first began programming computers when I was 13 years old - the kind of logic implicit in communicating through computer mediated spaces, its change of temporal perspective - its very metaphysics are second nature to me. I don't think that I could write a screenplay without screenplay software. I tried to write an epic novel and I kept imagining it in movie terms. There is something interesting and different about the way my generation thinks, and I believe that I am somewhat representative of that. I am a strong proponent of weak AI, and computer augmented intelligence. What CMC has done is to provide me with the kind of environment in which I could discuss charged racial issues nose to nose without fear, without censure, without end. So from that perspective I believe that the kind of common racial understanding we might attain is only achievable as the process is augmented through the kind of archival and deliberative capabilities of this medium.

Q: How far do you think you'll get?

A: A lot of that depends on the seriousness and patience with which the material I've already created is taken. I'm convinced that I have accomplished something of value and the proof is in the kind of consensus, and controversy I have witnessed. I believe I have positively influenced the thinking of a number of conscientious individuals. I suppose this is where I ask people to 'buy the book'.

Secondly some of that success depends on whether or not I have the patience to continue with the work. Looking forward, there are a lot of things I'd like to do, which are tangential to race. Indeed that is where I started before I got bogged down...

Q: Bogged down?

A: Well, yes. My original interest in venturing creatively into CMC had nothing to do with racial politics, whiteness or the purposes of the Race Man's Home Companion. I was a lot more selfish at the time and my interest was more along the lines of Cornel West's "Insurgent Intellectual" approach to hiphop. I had it in mind to single-handedly rescue hiphop by taking the aesthetic into the next medium, the end result of which might be considered world historical to African America and bring me wealth and fame. I saw myself bridging the gap between highbrow theatre and the most elevated hiphop. I was, at one time, and I have to chuckle a bit, convinced that I might create something along the lines of Derek Walcott's epic poem with all the most recognizable rhythms of hiphop.

At any rate, warming up for such an exercise didn't prove fruitful.

Q: There is the notion of replacing one identity with another. Don't you worry that if you take whiteness away from whitefolks they'd get defensive?

A: They do. My perspective has been oriented towards a rectification of the identity of the American with the uniquely American philosophies, primarily what West calls Emersonian theocidy. There is a set of ideas presented by Emerson that resounds profoundly with me, but I, like most other folks are not presented with these grand ideas in any pure way. I think most folks take pride in being American simply by the fact of being here, working here, raising a family here and being able to do most of the fun and sustaining things they see on TV or think other people do. And to some extent that's all there is to it. Life is just life. But when you get down to it, what makes America distinctive, or what is supposed to make America distinctive is the concept of some philosophical/ideological/spiritual affinity to a certain type of freedom and responsibility that gives us a sense of belonging to the nation.

Q: You seem to put a great deal of weight in the idea that people might consider this seriously. How do ordinary people approach this?

A: I'm not sure that matters. While I'm trying to point to a new type of consciousness about race, I don't expect that it will be some popular revolutionary movement. Rather I expect that somebody will get sick to death about the way race is discussed, will scan the net in search of new ideas and land here. Again, I have gotten "Aha" enough times from folks to let me know that this material is substantive and unique enough to stop people in thier tracks. Every once in a while I hear a 'never before', or an 'all my life until now'. That makes me and boohab smile.