I Like my Coffee . . .

We watched “Malcolm X” recently, and at one point, Malcolm opined that “the only thing I like integrated … is my coffee.”

Which makes me think of my father, who, like me, is a white man. “I like my coffee like I like my women: strong and black!” His wife, from whose womb I did not personally emerge, matches that description, but as he says this, you’ll see him putting cream in his coffee. So, I’m not sure that he actually says that — it might be Uncle Bill, quoting Shaft, or Marcus Garvey, for all I know. Anyway, I think it comes back to integration — strong and black, but all the more satisfying with the injection of some white creaminess.

I got thinking about this topic this morning because I was reading through The Week and I came upon an item from Leonard Pitts, regarding Bill Cosby:

I am sick of worrying what white people think, said Leonard Pitts, in The Miami Herald. So, apparently, is Bill Cosby. At a Rainbow Coalition conference in Chicago, Cosby responded to those who said he’d been airing the African-American community’s dirty laundry. “Let me tell you something,” Cosby said. “Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it’s calling each other nigger… They can’t read. They can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.” Many blacks have been saying as much for years–just not in earshot of white people. Our fear has always been that if we admit to problems, especially serious problems, “bigots will use it to bolster their bigotry.” But Cosby, I think, is right: Standing silent is no longer an option, no matter what white people think.

I live in a city where a lot of black people live. I think the last thing the black folks need to worry about is their urbane white neighbors using black self-criticism to rationalize bigotry. Us white people are too busy tearing down the housing projects and replacing them with $300,000 condos. The “black problem” is so weird for us to contemplate, and even in Chicago, my daily life is too seperated from black people to really care much. I’m aware that there are plenty of “niggaz” in gangsta rap, and I can translate the term, “f’shizzle, mah nizzle,” and I’ve heard some of Chris Rock’s rant about “black people versus niggers” and I know Bill Cosby has turned from the sweet old Jello Man in the argyle sweater to a controversial Godfather in the black sunglasses, airing the disgust he feels at the word “nigger”, uttered from the mouths of babes. But I don’t know much more than that. Us white people are too concerned with our own redneck President, the revival of the Crusades by religious fanatics, and our own jobs and lack of healthcare, than what the blacks might be saying or doing about their own.

Back to Malcolm X, the rationale for 1960s black seperatism was that black people had to do it for themselves. They should not become confused by the alternately bad intentions and good intentions of the white folk — in order to get along as equal, you first have to bring yourself up, to be strong yourself. To rely on yourself. “Black power” was to be derived from “black people.” If you earn your own self-identity, nobody can take that away from you.

Among the numerous terrible crimes perpetrated by our government throughout history, was to compound the crimes of slavery and segregation by not understanding these radical messages, by over-reacting to, infiltrating, and coopting these movements. Said Malcom X, “We had the best organization a black man’s ever had. Niggers ruined it.” Well, the “niggers” were ultimately an instrument of the professed enemy from whom they hoped to separate. Frustrated that black people would betray black people, Malcolm came to realize that the answer was not a matter of black versus white, but the cultivation of piety among all people willing to struggle for justice.

The White Man is preoccupied with other Burdens now, and beyond the unconscious racist tendancies that plague us all, the White Man would just as soon live with equality and racial harmony, side by side, mixed together like a good cup of coffee. I honestly believe that is part of the appeal of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. When you can’t figure out the label, how do you manifest your subconscious prejudice? If you can not judge a man by the color of his skin, you’re faced with the refreshing task of assessing the content of his character.

It is important for the what to be positive and affirming of the self, but we can all catch glimpse of the day, and we can see, and we can know, that it is coming, when the self can not reliably be dictated by the what. The ultimate truth of this social experiment we call America, is that we humans are born and carry so many whats with us, but that we are most likely to thrive when we can transcend our whats to find the self — we need the room to find ourselves, and room is what we afford ourselves, in our vast territory, and in our government that affirms the priority of individual self expression …

… how do you like your coffee? The best answer I found while researching for this article was “I like my coffee like I like my men. Tied up on the back of a mule led by Juan Valdez.”

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