Brain Surgery with a Switch-blade

By Melvin Bray 7-07-2008

The Fourth of July is always a weird holiday for me. It's not that I don't enjoy the nostalgia, picnics, barbeque, fireworks, and romanticizing of history--I do--yet as a student of history I can't help but be reminded of the July 5, 1852, speech of Frederick Douglass, given at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. If you haven't, you should read it: "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." This was a full 10 years and then some before Emancipation. Though I do not mourn in the same way or for the same reasons, I feel I owe Douglass's proud patriotism some homage. So I remember in (mostly) quiet yet hopeful ambivalence. January 1, (1863) is much more straightforward for me.

Exactly one week prior to the Fourth this year (not by accident, I'm sure), the largest segmented survey of African-Americans ever conducted was released by the research firm Yankelovich. The study was commissioned by Radio One, the largest radio broadcasting company primarily targeting African Americans in the U.S. USA Today was given the first opportunity to review it.

I am always amazed at how serendipitously life tends to sync up with what I am currently reading. On the very day Black America Today was released to the public, I coincidentally began reading Dark Matter, an anthology of speculative fiction. I was floored by the incisiveness of the following statement found in the introduction:

In his 1953 collection of cultural criticism, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison cautioned readers not to stumble

'over that ironic obstacle which lies in the path of anyone who would fashion a theory of American Negro culture while ignoring the intricate network of connections which binds Negroes to the larger society. To do so is to attempt a delicate brain surgery with a switch-blade. And it is possible that any viable theory of Negro American culture obligates us to fashion a more adequate theory of American culture as a whole.'

This became the lens through which I processed the Radio One survey in the shadow of Independence Weekend. I'm not left with a cohesive image, but rather a disjointed vision cracked by nagging questions.

Of course, Radio One's interest is profit driven. They want to better target their primary demographic and sell more ad space. Nonetheless, the study will be marketed as the most comprehensive glimpse to date of the landscape of Black America--a kind of declaration of commercial independence. But is such a positivistic claim a good thing? The hope is that the Black community will cease to be seen/discussed/engaged as a monolith. A monolithic view of all things of color is not new in the West. Anything not Western has been considered "Third World." (By the way, who is Second World?) In much the same way, Westerners view/discuss/engage Africa as a country, rather than a complex pseudo-boundaried, multi-national, post-colonial continent.

The Radio One study is reportedly meant to demonstrate "the power of the Black community--as thinkers, activists, consumers and citizens"--and to reflect its "texture and diversity . . . which often gets lost in mainstream portrayals of Black Americans." It's supposed to provide empirical data for product, service and strategy differentiation. Still I can't help but wonder how many might read it as final justification for their prejudices, or as a sort of vindication for seeing themselves (or the ones unlike themselves who have won their approval) as differentiated from "those people." How many might see the findings of the survey as a reason to fear the rising tide of "minority" influence? On the other hand, how many will simply disregard its findings as irrelevant and of no significance (as they would treat the thoughts of Douglass and Ellison)?

It probably won't occur to many that not all (or even a majority) of the 39 million Black folk in the nation received a survey (I never got one). Nor was there likely a fill-in-the-blank answer option that read, "How might your answer vary if we weren't trying to force you into these narrow, easily tabulated categories?" Is it just because we've learned to write our numbers just so, that we now have confidence to believe that 3,400 people (ranging in age from 13 to 74) are an adequate and representative sampling of 39 million?

Don't get me wrong. In a wiki-world, I believe every group has the right to tell their own story, which, undoubtedly, Radio One sees itself facilitating. However, how many will now believe they know mine?

I once read somewhere that Martin Luther King Jr.'s critique of the Black Power movement was not that what it demanded was wrong, but rather that it chose such a narrow, self-interested path at the very moment that the Black struggle in America was being embraced globally as the quintessential human struggle. King's gripping analysis rings in my ears, leaving me with the hope that people glean from the survey not the story of just one group of people, but how that collection of stories gives range and depth of tone to a broader American story which in turn constitutes only one (prayerfully) harmonic part in the chorus of humanity. I hope it reminds us of the importance of all (heretofore marginalized, overlooked, disregarded, discounted) people. I hope it teaches us how to see ourselves in each other.

Melvin BrayMelvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, seeker of justice, purveyor of sustainability and believer in possibilities. As founder of Kid Cultivators, he lives, loves, works and dreams with friends in Atlanta, Georgia.

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