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The Opposing Self

When social pressures stand in the way of black success.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By ALEC SOLOMITA
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Although Acting White suffers occasionally from awkward prose and unnecessary repetition, Christie proves a competent guide through some complicated history. He shows, for example, that despite Booker T. Washington’s promotion of “hard work and economic self-reliance for blacks,” he blinked when it came to true equality, supporting industrial over academic education for blacks and assuring whites that they need not fear social assimilation. Interestingly, Washington and his rival W. E. B. Du Bois traded similar charges of kowtowing to white attitudes. “Acting White” seems to be an equal opportunity slur.

Discord in the early 20th century between Du Bois and the leader of the nascent Back to Africa movement, Marcus Garvey, makes earlier disagreements sound mild. Distrustful of education and opposed to assimilation, Garvey attacked the Harvard-educated Du Bois at first vigorously, and then viciously: Du Bois, Garvey wrote in 1923, “likes to dance with white people, and dine with them, and sometimes sleep with them, because from his way of seeing things all black is ugly, and all that is white is beautiful.” Garvey’s accusations would seem quaint, perhaps, if they were not as current as today’s headlines. Christie quotes a 2007 item from “The Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama .  .  . accusing the Illinois senator of ‘acting like he’s white’ according to a South Carolina newspaper.” And about a year later, Ralph Nader chimed in, saying that Obama tries to “talk white.”

This comprehensive history of the dangerous and self-defeating notion that pursuing an education, speaking well, dressing well, and working in a profession equals “selling out” is both sobering and encouraging. And the failure of many black leaders to relinquish the comforting myth that all of their community’s woes can be laid at the feet of “institutional racism” is causing young African Americans enormous harm.

Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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