By Torraine Walker
Throughout American history, there’s been a class of African-Americans who served as diplomats between the Black masses and the white power structure. They could articulate the wishes of Blacks in humble, reverent language that flattered white benefactors into offering their patronage, then explain to Blacks the rules and conditions under which that patronage would be bestowed. That relationship dynamic began to change with the rise of the Black Power movement. The polished approach of earlier civil rights leaders was forced to make room for angry militant voices rising out of southern towns and northern ghettos, demanding to be heard.
Sometimes that shift was ugly. Ideological clashes happened constantly and the political often became personal. History repeated itself last Thursday in Ferguson, MO when a local protestor, Michael Hassell, disrupted a book signing by Deray McKesson, who first rose to national prominence by tweeting the events of the Ferguson uprising. The allegations levied during the clash echoed historic critiques of past civil rights figures. While that story is one that will continue to unfold over time, I think the incident itself speaks to the disconnect between the elite Black protest class and Black people in the real world.
In the 6 years since the killing of Trayvon Martin, a social hierarchy has emerged of people who became famous through protesting police brutality. Technology and social media created immediate mass awareness of the depth of American racial injustice and it also created personalities who were able to parlay that skill into lucrative outcomes, whether that be large corporate donations, awards, or becoming recognized authorities on Black suffering at ivy league universities. In the wake of that, the question being asked is who does that help, and how does that benefit the communities these people claim to represent?
Much like the “good white man” in the days of Jim Crow, there’s a white donor lobby that demands to be flattered but doesn’t want to get too close to the people they claim to want to help, or their pain. This is where the negro whisperer comes in. The negro whisperer is modern version of the racial diplomat, and their business model is giving Black people the feeling that someone's working on their behalf, while making white people feel good about themselves so they will open their wallets to you. If you do that well, the doors of the lucrative punditry and speaking engagement world open wide for you. So long as you stay on message. In the protest economy, the raw anger of the victimized is sanitized and when it materializes, both the white donor and the negro whisperer are uncomfortable, because both are removed from the reality of struggle.
While it’s true that social justice work can and should be done on many levels, any action must center the people on the ground and their reality or it can become a circular path of opportunism and self-congratulation. There’s also an elitist attitude in modern protest about who is qualified to speak. On social media, in the press and in policy circles, the only respected voice is the college educated academic who condescends to mix with the masses because it looks good on a resume, but really only respects and listens to people in their immediate social circle. This has created a careerist version of the high school clique, with all the petty jealousy, uniformity of thought, and bullying that high school cliques are famous for.
Last Thursday, Twitter user @DjChubbESwagg asked why a white woman, Timothy Anne Burnside, was made curator of the hip-hop exhibit of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. What followed was hours of emotional defenses of Burnside and cyberbullying of the questioner from popular Black Twitter figures, some with hundreds of thousands of followers, that eventually forced the man to apologize, although he later recanted his apology. Think about that: a group of Black activists, who built their brands by demanding respect and inclusion for Blacks in American cultural and economic life, attacked a Black man arguing for Black curation of an exhibit dedicated to Black culture, in defense of a white associate who didn’t have to lift a finger to make them defend her. It was disappointing, but not surprising from the perspective of a gatekeeper whose livelihood depends on proximity to power instead of acquiring it.
The same thing happened to Stevante Clark, Erica Garner, and Darren Seals, people from working class backgrounds who shouted their rage directly at the individuals representing the political systems they felt were responsible for their conditions. Through their words and actions, they spoke truth to power and upset the idea that justice for Black people could be accomplished through abstract academic theories. That approach was never going to endear them to the protest economy and for their efforts, they were rewarded with ostracism, ridicule, and in some cases, death.
The most telling part of the shutdown in Ferguson was Hassell being pushed out of the building by people telling him “this is not your event.” Imagine how it must feel being forced out of a conversation about your community by people who wouldn’t be there without the risk you endured to bring the conditions in your community to light.
What happened in Ferguson last Thursday and on social media over the weekend was bigger than the incidents themselves. It was about negro whisperers being held accountable by the people who elevated them. It was about who gets to tell the stories of Black people and who profits from those stories. Marginalized Black people don’t need interpreters, they need to be heard. And people who truly want to help them must first listen to them. Poor and working-class Black folks are tired of being played and are demanding results from people claiming to do things in their name. That demand is only going to get louder, and it’s going to shock a lot of people who are secure in their self-righteousness.
Torraine Walker is a writer, independent journalist, and content creator for digital media. His work has appeared in publications including the Huffington Post, Fusion, Abernathy, and Brain Mill Press. In 2015, his blog SUMCity won WordPress' Freshly Pressed Award for best new blogs.