The Fungibles

Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation. If Afro Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them -- from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth -- it's because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic diversity to subsume those fictions.
-- Greg Tate

Who the hell is Greg Tate? I've never heard of him? What does he know anyway?
-- You

Edited by M.D.C.Bowen
last updated January, 2003 (and then March 2018 adding five names)

The following is a list of the only black people that count in America. You know it, I know it, so let's just get over it and admit it. You want details of why? Check out the Isbell Theory below. You want it more scholarly like? Try Bell's Rules.


OJ Simpson Johnnie Cochran Colin Powell Thomas Sowell Shelby Steele Michael Jordan John McWhorter Bill Cosby Condi Rice JC Watts
Alan Keyes Maxine Waters Louis Farrakhan Jesse Jackson Al Sharpton Khalid Muhammed Cynthia McKinney Spike Lee Charles Barkely Denzel Washington
Halle Berry Barry Bonds Willie Horton Will Smith Puff Daddy Tupac Shakur Cornel West Skip Gates Oprah Winfrey Tiger Woods
Ward Connerly Chris Rock Sam Jackson Barack Obama Ta-Nehisi Coates Kanye West Trayvon Martin

Each of these individuals represent some opinion, character flaw or character strength against which all African Americans are judged.

The Isbell Theory
Charles Isbell October 1995
There is a Black Leadership vaccuum... but it's not for Black folks, it's for White folks. The leader and messiah being sought is *not* being sought by Black people, but by White people. The mainstream wants a national Black leader--a spokesperson really--so they can have someone to point to, someone to reason with, be angry at, hold onto, respect, hate or whatever, but make no mistake, it is a leader for *their* sakes, not for the sakes of Black people. By contrast, Black America is happy to go on being the non-monolithic people we've always been and to address our issues locally, individually and internally. I don't think we have a messiah fixation or a particular desire for a national leader.

Sure, Jackson is respected for having done something and some folks will follow him, but that does not a Black National Leader(tm) make, as should be obvious. Farrakhan is respected as the head of an organization that has shown some concern for the community and has actually made some inroads in addressing a particular set of problems and some folks will follow him, but so what?, that still does not a Black National Leader(tm) make. Colin Powell? Oh, please. Cochran? Oh, he won one for the gipper, but a spokesperson? Sorry, I don't want one, I gave at the office.

Having said that, I should point out that what Blacks do seem to searching for is a symbol--not a person--that makes our oppression clear. The Rodney King beating is a symbol that says "SEE! We told you about the cops!" but nothing more. Mark Furhman serves the same purpose. It is important to realize that this is a search for an event so powerful that White folks cannot ignore what we know is true; it is *not* a search for a leader, a Moses, a Messiah.

Now, to the extent that an individual can articulate our frustration, our fears and make the event clearer, we are grateful, but I don't think we're really searching for a person to do that because, well, there's no leadership vaccuum we need filled.

Why is all this important? Well, it says something about the way the nation views its Black population. We are, essentially, aliens, a group whose experiences, culture and world is so foreign--and monolithically so--that the rest of the country needs some person to bridge the perceived gap.

Sadly, there is a gap of perception, but there isn't a person who is going to articuate it for America and make it plain (especially since this isn't even what the country wants; the country wants a Black leader who will make Black people understand the country, not the other way around). The only way to fill this gap is to listen to the masses and what they are saying in common and in discord to you everyday, not to look for one voice to provide you with a soundbite. The only way to deal with this gap is accept your own responsibility in bridging it.

As to the MMM, its center role in all this is ironic. For Farrakhan, this may have been about White America--I don't know and I don't care, really--but for the rest of the folks there, this wasn't about White folks at all. It was about Black folks. I don't think we were sending a message to White America, though there is one there for White America, we were just talking amongst ourselves. America, we were just talking amongst ourselves.