He’s not only the first black president, but the good dad he wishes he’d had. She’s not just the first black first lady, but the good mom her good parents raised her to be. Just being themselves, the Obamas—a stable and mutually respectful couple, traditionally bourgeois in all the important ways—may inspire a more critical healing process than the ongoing one between American blacks and whites: namely, bridging the 45-year-old rift between black men and black women.
It is a great irony of American history that the passage of the longest-overdue social legislation ever written—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—coincided with the collapse in the general culture of the very institutions—religion and marriage—that sustained black dignity and self-respect throughout centuries of slavery and entrenched racism.
America’s resilient majority-white society was rocked, but not completely rolled, by the sexual revolution that erupted at the end of the civil rights era. But the social pillars of a psychologically fragile black community were toppled in that anti-establishment earthquake.
When the acts were passed, 83% of black households were headed by a married couple. In the next 40 years, the marriage rate would fall by a worrisome 17% for the general population, but by a cataclysmic 34% for blacks. Blacks are, according to one researcher, “the most uncoupled people in the country.”
American blacks have the lowest marriage rates, the highest divorce rates and the highest unmarried birth rates of any identifiable group. It seems no exaggeration, as filmmaker Janks Morton baldly states in his revelatory 2007 documentary film, What Black Men Think, that “in the last 40 years, blacks have almost turned their back[s] on one another.” Inter-gender enmity can fairly be said to account for every social ill blacks suffer disproportionately to whites.
Blacks have long been the most over-studied minority group in America by dispassionate observers. What Black Men Think (which had its Canadian premiere on Monday in Ottawa) gets up close and personal; it’s blacks talking about—and to—each other. No punches are pulled.
What really stays with the viewer from this film is the montage of responses to questions posed to ordinary blacks about stereotypes. The negativity in perceptions of the opposite sex is stunning.
When Janks Morton (who writes, directs and narrates) asks young black women and men their opinions of each other, both sexes respond contemptuously: According to black women, black men are thuggish, ignorant, work-averse, disrespectful liars. “They don’t step up,” sneers one woman. Black men complain black women are shallow gold diggers with attitude problems. In response to a specific query on sexuality, black women estimated that about 25%-30% of black men were closet homosexuals (“on the down low”), when the actual number is no more than 5%.
Most sadly, when asked, “Are there more black men in jail or in college?” virtually every answer—from men and women—is, unhesitatingly, “jail.” In reality, in the relevant 18-24 age demographic, there were 864,000 black men in college and 106,000 incarcerated in 2005—a 4:1 ratio. Even in the entire jail/prison population of black men aged 15-55, there were 802,000 black men, less than the black college population. The latter figure is no great honour, but neither is blacks’ ignorance of, and lack of pride in, the former figure.
The film’s gravitas derives from many interspersed frank and intelligent ruminations by a stellar array of black public intellectuals. Calling for change from within the black community itself, all pour disdain on infantilizing government paternalism and such official, but useless bodies as the self-serving NAACP.
The remedies offered by such credible pundits as Shelby Steele, Dr. Alvin Poussaint and Mychal Massie repudiate grievance-collecting and blame-whitey-ism. They embrace blacks’ personal responsibility for advancement.
For change blacks can believe in, they they have only to look at the First Couple and ask: What did they do right to get where they are? The answer: He and she both pursued success through schooling. They married before having children. They stayed married and “stepped up to the plate” as equally responsible parents, transmitting integration, education and civic engagement as core values to their daughters.
“I want the restoration of black relationships,” Morton said, commenting on his motivation in making What Black Men Think. Abraham Lincoln emancipated blacks’ bodies. The Obamas have the potential to emancipate blacks’ presently shackled self-respect. Yes, they can.