Sunday, April 01, 2012

"Don't Get Caught Up in No Throne": The Pharisee Complex in Black America

Everyday I think of the question that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. posed in his last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “Where Do We Go From Here?” This was one of King’s more militant and fiery orations during his last year of life and also the title of his posthumously published book. Aside from it being a speech and a book title, I believe it is something that our contemporary society needs to consider more often than not. No, this is not 1967, but in 2012, Dr. King still urges us to ask the difficult questions of not just our society and how it is governed, but how we live in it and engage each other.

There are no shortages of international and domestic situations that bring us to ponder such questions. Currently in America, the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin has garnered all types of media headlines and rightfully so. This is potentially one of those great watershed moments in our nation’s history, not just about race but also about the very fabric of this nation—who it is and is not for—who it will and will not protect. I can hear my late grandfather, Pastor John Mitchell, Sr., in his commanding ministerial tone reciting Matthew 25:40, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Meaning that how we treat the most vulnerable in our society says much about the society in which we live. Particularly in a nation that has a selective engagement with its association to Christianity—America likes to pick and choose which parts of the faith and its Holy text it adheres to—the cries for justice about the Martin case illuminate a series of issues in the United States.

Many have responded to join the fight for justice for Trayvon and his family. Speaking truth to power, however, will require more than just wearing hoodies. While a great gesture, as Prof. Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, we cannot “confuse the symbol with the politics.” In a recent lecture at Ithaca College she spoke about a parallel situation during the late 1980s, early 1990s, when blackfolk wore “X” hats in honor of Malcolm X and later because of the movie by Spike Lee. Still, the hats were more than just a celebration of the film and much more than a fashion statement, it spoke to a growing frustration within our society about unfair and continued unequal treatment under the rule of so called law. For further proof, all one needs to do is listen to and watch the video for Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power.”

Today I am urging us to take this moment and not to lose sight of the bigger issues at play; and to re-evaluate where each of us is in terms of our commitment to making this nation, our communities, our families and ourselves better. Freedom is a “constant struggle” as the old hymn reminds us and we need not forget that. Right now it is “cool” to talk about fighting against an oppressive system of misapplied laws, and injustice that seems to find new and innovative ways to replicate dominance and past repression. Right now, everyone wants to be seen as being on the right side of the Martin case, just like other injustices that capture the attention of the nation. However, what happens in those days when Trayvon Martin is not on the news? Where will the concern be in our communities and families when it is no longer fashionable to wear a hoodie or weigh in on the case on your favorite social networking site? Even now there are those who have been baptized in the waters of self-righteousness, who will go (and have gone) to unbelievable and embarrassing ends to demonstrate how much they are dedicated to this cause –when in fact, their actions are more about displays of their own egos—and not about Trayvon or injustice. People like this remind me of Scene V from MacBeth, “…full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” We don’t need these types of people rushing to be out in front of any cause, protest or movement. Nor do we need those who want to be associated with being on the “right side” of history following them either. We need commitment and dedication to ideals bigger than self. We need to continue to not just be reactionary, but vigilant in a world bent on suppressing our right to exist and be respected as human beings.

Dr. King once gave a sermon about the “Drum Major Instinct” that dealt with the innate need for humans to seek praise and adulation from peers--sometimes at any cost. Instead of selfishness and arrogance he said the he wanted to be remembered as a “Drum Major for Peace.” We should each try to find the courage to speak and act similarly. Today, we still have folks who want to be drum majors—not for peace or justice, but for their own desire for attention and glory. Furthermore, we also have a Pharisee Complex that infects many more within our race and in our nation.

In the Book of Luke, Christ chastises the Pharisees—one of the priestly classes of Jews in the Bible. They, along with the Sadducees, were part the ruling elite of Israel and came into constant conflict with Jesus of Nazareth. In the Book of Luke, the eleventh chapter specifically, Christ famously scorns some of them for being hypocrites. His rebuke of them is based on their arrogance, pride and sanctimonious attitude toward their fellow Jews. The Pharisees believed that they were the keepers of knowledge and all things decent and just—according to God’s law. Christ informed them they were indeed mistaken.

Additionally, the Biblical Pharisees and Sadducees, as Howard Thurman points out, loved their Jewish faith and their Hebraic traditions, but they loved the physical and psychological perceived "safety and security" that Rome provided just a bit more. Thus, Jesus of Nazareth had to go, just like the minor prophets before and after him. If that narrative doesn't work for you think about how Dr. King had to convince his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to help with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Those folk were not too keen on blackfolk who took the bus riding in their nice Buicks and Cadillacs. Then too, there were those who were scared about losing their jobs and more importantly for them, their so-called middle class status. “Ye Hypocrites!”

Likewise, "Ye Hypocrites!" is all I hear when I think about the over 50% of blackfolk who vehemently disagreed with Dr. King at the time of his death, yet those same folk were there in D.C. during the unveiling of the MLK Memorial furthering lies about how they marched with him.

Many of us are just comfortable enough to NOT do anything of substance...nothing that creates institutional change or empowers our righteous minds and those of our children.

We suffer from the same intra-race class antagonisms the plagued our forefathers during the nineteenth century who tried to legislate what was "good, decent, and respectable" for Africans—slave or free (check out discussion of the Free African Schools in places like New York City in Leslie Harris' In the Shadow of Slavery). Continuing such thinking and action will be our own undoing.

One of my favorite emcees ever, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), best captures my point. In his artistic rebuttal to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hit track, “Niggas in Paris” entitled, “Niggas in Poorest” he ends the song by imploring his listeners, “Don’t get caught up in no throne,” a phrase he repeats nine times—he could have repeated it many more. Outside of that being a fine piece of artistry, Bey is doing more than just turning the name of Mr. Carter and Mr. West’s hit album on its head for the sake of what many mistakenly think is a ‘diss record.’ Bey is getting at the fact that many of us seek and are defined by the very trinkets and shiny things that are mentioned and celebrated in “Niggas in Paris.”

Similarly, and I would argue more damaging, are those who have the ability to help on a small scale, yet refuse to do so because they want to protect their perceived class status like a government secret. I’ll give you an example. There are many who have signed petitions or written letters in support of Trayvon Martin as a show of solidarity—I know of one group of black men, who belong to an organization founded to help provide positive engagement with the community, who said they were not interested in writing or crafting any such letter because the Martin case had nothing to do with them. “Ye Hypocrites!” These types of blackfolk are more dangerous than any avowed racist. They too suffer from the Pharisee Complex. They are defined by their proximity to structures of white power and perceived privilege and to hell with those who dare to compromise their happy little world.

This is just one of many instances of how time and time again, we turn our back to the voiceless, while compromising the integrity of our communities and any movement for justice. Many want to be viewed as “down for the cause” and “authentic” yet when help is needed in the smallest of ways, they retreat to a paternalism that trumps that of their oppressors. I think back to the Book of Luke again. When Christ chastises the Pharisees he explicitly mentions their love for the “uppermost seats and the synagogues and greetings in the markets,” which is no different than those who want to be seen and acknowledged as “important” in their places of worship, in their communities, etc., but are not willing to do the work required for such respect. The notion of servant leadership is lost to them.

I return to the question posed by Dr. King, “Where do we go from here?” We must first ascertain where we are. Then we need to be mindful of those of us who provide the illusion of hope, change, and empowerment, but only want the association with those terms in the abstract. Yes, rhetoric is good for inspiration, but after the rallies are over and the issues important to us are no longer part of the 24-hour news cycle, we need the brilliance, creativity, passion, and imagination of those willing to do the work required to pick up where our forebears left off. We need those who are ready to actualize justice for our people and our communities…but remember as Yasiin Bey says, “Don’t get caught up in no throne!”
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.negrointellectual.blogspot.com.