“All you need to do is fuck”, R&B singer Chapter chants and waves a Corona beer “and nine months later you’ll get the big bucks.” Behind her, black kids hit each other with Nerf bats in a wild free for all as hood-rat moms dance with 40 ounce malt liquors. Welcome to “It’s Free, Swipe Yo’ EBT”, a new YouTube video with nearly 400,000 hits that uses the image of the “welfare queen”. It’s a cruel act of ambition by a young black singer willing to step on the poor on her climb to fame.
It is troubling that Chapter lends her voice and chocolate complexion to sexist racist imagery. But worse than her music is the loud applause in Black America for her song and earlier this year, comic Kat William’s nationalist rant in Phoenix, Tracy Morgan’s homophobic rant and way back in 2005 Bill Cosby’s call-outs of failed black parenting and Chris Rock’s 1997 Niggas vs. Black People routine. Are we laughing with or at ourselves? What is the role of Black conservatism in an age of austerity? What is its role in Black America?
First, Chapter’s “welfare queen” is not some FUBU shit. Not some For Us, By Us imagery that crystallizes our experience into a solid social vision. It belongs to a tradition of portraying jacked-up black people that is older than the nation. Before the American Revolution, European immigrants learned to be white by seeing blackness in enslaved Africans. It was the darkness of an empty humanity, seething with animal passions.
An early caricature was the head-scratching, watermelon eating coon of the 1830’s minstrel shows where white musicians sang in black-face. By the 1880’s “coon” songs were a national craze. The coon was lazy, stupid and lived with animal-like simplicity. Across the gender line was the lascivious, hot and panting jezebel. The image warped the mass rape of black women into a topic for laughter. And these characters, re-created each generation became today’s welfare-queen.
In his book “Why Americans Hate Welfare”, professor Martin Gilens traced the changing face of poverty. Often invisible, the poor came into view during the 1930’s Great Depression as millions lost jobs. Poverty looked white and rural. They were the “deserving poor”, hard working people down on their luck. During World War Two poverty receded into the Golden Age of Capitalism but unseen, thousands of black families lugged suitcases on North bound trains and filled city slums. After the street rocking 1950’s Civil Rights Movement and 1960’s ghetto riots, whites saw blacks as the “undeserving poor”, social parasites unwilling to work. During his failed 1976 campaign, Ronald Reagan waved the image of the “welfare queens” like a red flag to angry white voters.
The “welfare queen” with her hair in rollers driving a Cadillac fused together two racist images, the jezebel and the coon. It was created in order to place the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. Poverty and laziness is like bread and butter for Conservatives; it just goes together. If you believe society as is must be conserved then the plight of the poor or minorities must be caused not by a defect in society but in their character. They are stupid, violent and lazy. And what better person to blame the victim than a member of the victimized group itself?
And that is where Black conservatives come in. They give a stamp of approval to reactionary ideology. When Rep. Allen West says on the O’ Reilly Factor, “I’m the modern-day Harriet Tubman to lead people on the underground railroad away from that plantation” and by plantation he means “liberal social welfare”; he gets Tea Party love and a media pass. He recites extremist ideology that white conservatives can’t. And the same with Chapter as she sings in “It’s Free, Swipe Your EBT”,
“State of California I need to warn ya’
Free welfare, free dental, free food
Mama says she can’t send me to school
Why am I hungry when we get free food
Free housing, free day-care, free clothes
This is where the tax-payer money goes
If the role of Black conservatism is to legitimize reactionary ideology; what is its role inside Black America? It is an act of exorcism. And at the core it shares with black radicalism a vocabulary of black damage imagery.
Weeks ago, my friends and I sat on the stoop and laughed bitterly at white hypocrisy, white ignorance, white privilege. But we saved the sharpest barbs for our own. One friend, a gay black man said through gritted teeth “There is some ignorant niggers ‘round here.” The heat in his voice and eyes oozed like lava. We talked of stupid fights in the street or the drunk spinning around tipsy while yelling curses or the casual homophobic cat-calls or the same broken man asking us for money or the gunshots, constantly the gunshots. We spoke of the unconscious paper-bag test where black people rank each other’s skin color. We talked of the angry mothers yelling at their children. Afterwards, we seemed to float to our apartments as if raging out-loud gave us a brief freedom from the gravity of despair.
But do we do with that despair? Black conservatism gives us the language of exorcism, images of hood-rats and thugs, drunks and junkies, knuckle-heads and Jesus-freaks to purge the fallen from our lives. Every semester, I ask my Black and Latino students about their lives and they speak in sagging voices about broke family begging them for money. “I just get tired of it you know. They feel like a weight and I’m trying to do me.” It is the same angry fatigue Chris Rock tapped into in 1997, when he prowled the stage shouting, “There’s a Civil War going on between black people and niggas and niggas have got to go!”
Black conservatism speaks of the desire to fit in, pass, blend in but “niggas” are always getting in the way. It’s a powerful ideology because it can point at those around us, real physical people we know and magnify them into ugly caricature. They are lazy, they are stupid, they are holding us back. It’s a viral ideology that re-shaped the Liberation theology of the 1960’s into the Prosperity theology of today’s shady-ass Creflo Dollar and pedophile Pastor Eddie Long. It deformed rap from a political lament of the 1982 song “The Message” into the Ice Age materialism of “Niggas in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye. In Hip-Hip, instead of “black people vs. niggas” it’s “players vs. haters”.
Black conservatism draws a line of “us vs. them” within a black minority which is already the “them” of the national “us”. It is a myopic ideology that shortens our social vision to the immediate and near. But always, against it is the radical tradition which also begins with images of damaged black people but asks as Malcolm X did decades ago, “Who taught you to hate yourself?”
Forcing ourselves to follow that question means we have to see the hundreds of years of history in the present. We’d see a centuries long river of black people spanning the Atlantic from Africa to America, the South to the North, slavery to citizenship, opening its collective eyes in wonder at the distance. Like the scenes in Eyes in the Prize where women sang with radiant joy or in Black Power news reels where eyes sizzled with pride or the last scene of the movie The Wiz where the slaves take off their masks in joy or even the night of Obama’s election. Black conservatism ends when we feel how terrifying and beautiful it is to be free together.