The Fifth Young Man

The fifth young man introduced by the good reverend was a young man of athletic build and with the movements and easy confidence of someone used to catching admiring looks. He had a head full of dreadlocks, with a Bob Marley look of danger, attraction and passion. This was someone you felt you ought to have noticed more fully and you wondered why not, as if without a concentrated glance you could not distinguish his dark features.

The minister waved him forward. “Dennis Francis,” he said, “or, as he prefers, Denabu Fantum, a fictitious name that he has constructed from his small exposure to African languages. This young man has everything going for him, but he prefers to reflect on what is happening all around him: One in ten young African American men is in prison. One in three African American children grows up in poverty. Even the best African American minds are on the outside of the power elite. It is a people under siege, a Diaspora that bears many similarities to that experienced by the Jewish people at key times in their history. But because ours is a people united only in the adversity they have suffered, comprised of Africans from a continent of different cultures, a mix of cultures trampled down to the bare minimum by oppressive slavery, you find them disorganized, discouraged, unable to rally around any prophet. An alien religion — yes, our own beloved Christianity — sits heavy on their shoulders like a yoke. How can we ever find our identity, our identities, unless we are able to find our way back to Africa? Dennis?”

The young man looked at the minister with a quizzical look. “You surprise me with that introduction, Reverend. It is not as if we are able to shuck three hundred years of Western acculturation and return to Africa. If we go to Africa, we go as visitors. The sad, hard truth is that we are a people without a home. At the same time, we must accept that we are part of this country — a misunderstood, undervalued, misrepresented part — and that we must work here and now to take what is our right as full citizens of this nation. White America has always sought to minimize our contribution to society — and even more, to circumscribe what parts of society are available to us. We cannot wait for an invitation to become full members, because that represents the wrong way to understand our rights: those who seek to block our entrance into the mainstream of American culture will not be swayed by our pliancy. They have a vested interest in defining strata in society — defining not only our place, but others’ as well — and they will not let the idyll of a real melting pot challenge that interest.

“Imagine,” he said, stepping forward, shaking his locks, planting his feet and spreading his hands dramatically, “that you are standing at a gate that controls access to a resort, your resort. There is a large throng of people at the gate, all asking to enter. You are torn between the interest to charge more people and the knowledge that if you let more in, you will antagonize those who are there. You hire muscle to open the gate just far enough to replenish the pool of those who leave. ‘Who should I let in?’ they ask you.

“Look around, ladies and gentleman. How would you decide? What markers would you use? Dockers? Khaki pants? Tweed jacket? Carefully curled hair? Knee-length skirt? Personal hygiene? How many rules would it take to prepare your staff?

“Or — or — perhaps you say: See those people with the black skin and that tightly curled hair? They don’t get in. See those Hispanics and Native Americans? They don’t get in either. ‘What about those New York Italians? Do they get in?’ Italians? Swarthy skin, but sure, yeah, let them in. Just none of the blacks.”

He put a hand up in the air to forestall imaginary complaints. “My allegory misses much of the point — the history of slavery, the denial of humanity, the cruelty in the name of civilization. And, indeed, the unspoken decision to exclude us was made hundreds of years ago, not today. What do the difficulties experienced by a modern African American have in common with the plight of those in slavery a hundred and fifty years ago?” He smiled broadly and looked around behind him. “We should be grateful, after all, should we not, that we are treated so evenhandedly today. Right? Grateful? Grateful? So evenhandedly?” He waited for a chorus that did not emerge. “Grateful to the gatekeepers. But even so, ‘evenhandedness’ in today’s America does not mean that your hand is level with my hand. That would be a misunderstanding. It means that the hands stay where they are — yours higher, mine lower; mine higher, yours lower. It does not mean that we will try to even the hands so that all may take part equally.

“Affirmative action? It’s illegitimate, because we want to be evenhanded, after all. How could we hope to be the great, free country that we are if the great great grandchildren of slaves were suddenly given privilege over poor working white Americans? After all, we want to be evenhanded.

“Racism? There’s no such thing, and if it exists, it’s against the law. Laws ought to be enough for these African Americans. Right? Even if the gatekeepers are still there, still doing their best to keep us out, because, after all, it’s illegal.” He looked around as if contradicted on all sides. “Oh, you don’t believe it? Racism?

“Why,” he said, now assuming a studied academic air, “then, does the African American community continue to suffer from an unbroken cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, frustration, and self-destruction? Why do drugs flow in ever greater quantities into this country, and with such ease into the poor communities that are predominantly black? Why are blacks put away for drug offences at four times the rate of whites, even while the overall drug usage rate is the same? Chance? Evenhandedness?

“Why are blacks uniformly underrepresented on, if not downright absent from, elected bodies in this country — when they make up fully 12% of the population? Chance? Is this the way the cookie crumbles in a democracy? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s the tyranny of the majority — an undifferentiated mass of uncoordinated individuals, united only in their desire to see the gates close on their tail sides rather than in front of them. This danger, esteemed members of the public, is exactly why this country was not given direct democracy, but rather a representative democracy, made of men and women who are not bound to any higher terrestrial authority than their own conscience, a bulwark against the tyranny of us-them thinking. The only problem is that these same men and women are driven not by their conscience, but by the tyranny of the voter. We were not served well when we were given a representative government that enshrined notions of democracy above equality. What we should have gotten was the principled democracy that Thomas Jefferson promised us in the Declaration of Independence: a universalist government that serves human rights first. Today, the decayed notion of human rights serves primarily as a tactical weapon in the dodgy games of politicians and interest groups fighting for the moral high ground.

“And black America still waits for the hand to pull us up to an equal footing, and to stop, once and for all, pushing us down again and again.”

A minute of silence ensued, as Denabu looked around the room, a faint smile on his face, absorbing the shocked and sympathetic looks as if applause. This was no high school student given a loose script. You might have supposed that the real reverend had revealed himself here, if you were not immediately drawn to the now hunched figure of the minister coming up to the performer from the side, shaking his head slightly, like a veteran seeing the future in a rookie. He lipped “wow,” then with his hand invited Denabu to step back into line.

“Well,” Minister Brown said quietly, “well.” He looked at the audience, which was still dividing its attention between him and the intellectual, and moved his eyes among all the attendees. Another few moments of silence, then he went on: “There is a lot of anger in that young man. And we can feel with him, feel his frustration, understand his dissatisfaction with this great country and the suffering of black America. There’s truth in his words, yes, there is a truth in his words. But Denabu, we need to remember the central words that Jesus uttered in the face of his radical critics: ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ We cannot put our stock in a government of men, as if there were a magic solution for the ails that we feel. We should not kowtow to Caesar, no, but we should not imagine that when he is gone we will have created the promised land. No. The promises we have lead somewhere else: they move beyond America, into the past, through Africa and back out. We look to the stars at night, ladies and gentlemen, and we are forced to see it, to feel it. God will not let us be silent; we must lift our voices to him. Each cry a prayer, it is our cries that he waits to hear: our joy, our anguish, our grief, our outrage — and our love. God, the Christian God we have adopted and who has adopted us, has defeated indifference — and for that we must be eternally — eternally! — grateful. Everything else is the drama that we live out, as best we can, one minute at time, one evening at a time. Thank you for your attention, my friends, and a good evening to you.”