Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Day of the Geechee

"You know the damage one ignorant Negro can do?" - Sgt. Vernon Waters (A Soldier's Story)

Every now and then it just can't be avoided.

It happened to me when I was in undergrad. One afternoon, a quartet of us made a donut run to a local Minneapolis pastry shop. Our little syndicate consisted of three black dudes and a cool ass white guy named Dave. While we were ordering, to the amusement of the white patrons, and to the mortification of Dave and me, my two black buddies started a heated argument about which of them had the biggest lips.

It happened to me shortly after I began working. One day, while I was on my lunch break, back when I was unfortunate enough to be living in Milwaukee, I was walking to a Chinese restaurant with a diverse group of coworkers. Along came Troy, a good brother who I knew from a previous job, who spotted me and shouted (at the TOP of his lungs) "MY NIGGA!!!"

It happened to me again this morning. I was getting suggestions from some of the women in my office about Christmas gifts to buy the spouse when a sister (a real country gal and the only other black person in the department) chimes in with, "Well, you might have to niggerate her a gift and make it yourself. You know what I mean? Niggerate?"

I'm sorry to put it this way but if you're black, you will occasionally have to endure another black person coming along and just flat out embarrassing the shit out of you. There's just no circumventing it. I'm not referring to the occasional mangled syntax or inappropriate application of slang either. I'm talking about the kind of migraine-inducing buffoonery that will make you question whether or not the Civil Rights era really occurred and for what, if anything, tens of thousands of freedom fighters gave their lives.

In my experience, these cringe-worthy guffaws are usually committed by those lost, unconscious souls who my wife simply refers to as "The Element." Yes, indeed. Each one of us knows who she means. Those brothers and sisters who talk and laugh the loudest, curse and fight the oftenest, and are the first to be interviewed by your local news station. We all recognize them when we see them. Those hairstyles. Those clothes. The names that they give their children.

The reaction of the black middle class to the actions of the Element is, perhaps, best summed up by the antagonist of one of my favorite movies, A Soldier's Story. Sergeant Vernon Waters who, for my money, is one of the most fascinating and conflicted characters in the history of American cinema, has decided to focus his efforts on culling from his ranks black officers that he finds intolerable. His venomous outlook is perhaps best summed up when he speaks to CJ, one of his victims. "See, the Black race can't afford you no more. There used to be a time, we'd see someone like you singin', clownin', yassuh-bossin'... and we wouldn't do anything. Folks liked that. You were good. Homey kind of nigger. When they needed somebody to mistreat, call a name or two, they paraded you. Reminded them of the good old days. Not no more. The day of the Geechee is gone, boy. And you're going with it."

Sergeant Waters, who represents the so-called New Negro - black folks who through sweat and effort negotiated their way into the middle class - is convinced that the Element must be wiped from the face of the Earth. He believes this because he views their existence as a discomfiture and a threat to his upwardly mobile ambitions. Moreover, he is fixated on the possibility that (God Forbid!) the white man for whom he works will lump him in with the Element. White folks often have difficulty distinguishing between hardworking black folks like himself and ne'er-do-wells like CJ. This won't do. So, instead of attacking the real enemy, the oppressive agent that has historically ground him and his people into dust, he attacks those who languish at the bottom of the pile.

Which brings me to my point. Like it or not, every time we bristle at the regrettable exploits of poorer and/or less educated blacks than ourselves, we side with the Sergeant. If we're embarrassed by the ill-considered actions and words of certain members of the black underclass then perhaps we're the ones with the problem. Perhaps the next time I find myself wincing when another black person opens his or her mouth, I'll step back and take a good hard look at myself.

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At 9:06 PM , Blogger bint alshamsa said...

"Niggerate"? For real? Oh man, that's messed up. If she'd have said "afro-engineer it" then I might have just shook my head a little bit but "niggerate" is enough for me to want to start a riot in the place...Of course, that would only reinforce the idea that we really are only capable of acting like "some niggers". *sigh*

You just can't win for losing sometimes. My dad is one of those folks like Sergeant Waters. To an extent, my mother was too. Even when we were as poor as a church mouse, my mom and dad made used to tell my and my brothers that they wanted us to be able to feel comfortable anywhere we went. Their usual example was about the queen of England: "Even if you were sitting in front of the queen of England, I want you to be able to look and sound like someone who would fit in." Why they chose the queen of England, I'll never know.

I kind of like you and your spouse's term "The Element". Me and mine usually refer to such people as being "Very Urban".

"So, instead of attacking the real enemy, the oppressive agent that has historically ground him and his people into dust, he attacks those who languish at the bottom of the pile."

This reminds me of the Bill Cosby controversy that went on a while back. On the one hand, I do wish that our "Urban" brethren wouldn't make it so much harder for those of us who, for the sake of our families and finances, need to be able to fit in with White society. However, when we have folks like Cosby trying to school black folks who haven't had the economic or educational opportunities that he's had, then it just provides fodder for the bigots who can turn around and say "See, even their own people know that the majority of n____ are like that!"

At 12:40 AM , Blogger Tha L said...

Your last point is exactly what I was thinking of as I read this post. Good self-awareness, bruh. It's not wrong to be taken aback by the ignorance, but taking the next step and addressing it is courageous and absolutely correct. And removing that word "underclass" from the vocab is a great first move. I'm just sayin'.

At 8:58 AM , Blogger Breez said...

I agree. Like Bint (as she and I hail from very similar backgrounds) my parents also had that thing about "the Queens English." Unfortunately for my family, if I EVER were to have audience with the Queen, I was pretty much going to behave like Rick James. "Enjoy yo'self bitch!" (Not precisely like the skit, just wanted to give you a point of reference.)

One thing that I've noticed, whether urban, or middle class, there are a LOT of self-hating black folks around. Those less educated, in my opinion, have more of an excuse than these "New Negroes" who think that something isn't right until it's received the Euro-stamp of approval.

There are times I will still shudder, which partially stems from a feeling of "there but for the grace of God go I," but it's more out of sympathy than anything.

The more African values that we abandon in efforts to Euro-cize our lives, the further we slip.

At 9:38 AM , Blogger Another Conflict Theorist said...

Peace Everyone,

Bint: What's happening? Yes. "Niggerate." What could I do? I actually like this sister a great deal and she's cool. But..WOW. My mother and I still have arguments about the black middle class v. underclass divide. While she doesn't share Sgt. Waters' bloodlust, she doesn't have any use at all for poor black folks. She believes that if she can work two jobs to put food on plates then anyone else can too. She's resistant to my attempts to complicate this matter for her.

L-Boogie: What's up? I've got a friend who's always making disparaging about "these niggas" and I called him and told him to read this post right after I'd finished it. Surprisingly, he thought I started out strong but he disliked the conclusion. BTW, I think the term "underclass" is sociologically applicable. It's not a dismissive descriptor.

Breez: What's up, Sis? You're right. You can choke on the judgmentality and self-hatred sometimes. It's as bad as it's always been. On another note, have the random ride requests begun yet?

At 9:59 AM , Blogger BLESSD1 said...

Wow...this post hit me at so many levels. I too shudder at public displays of ignorance, but at the root of the word, ignorant means to lack knowledge of...and so many of our people lack knowledge of the damage using "nigga" publicly does, and also lack understanding of the embarrassment encapsulated with its usage. I get upset, and even protest to my friends who do this, but they aren't to blame for the sociopolitical/economic conditions that cause our people to be downtrodden and disenfranchised. Excellent post, of your finest yet!

At 10:59 AM , Anonymous viece said...

Ok. I have to admit. I am a tad bit confused. I have a student who is extremely intelligent, yet frequently walks around as though he just crawled from under the over pass near campus and went to class. He smells. I tell him frequently, that the least he could do is put on clean clothes (yes, he has them) becuase whether he likes it or not he is representing somebody.
Do you think he's black or white?

At 11:17 AM , Blogger Another Conflict Theorist said...


blessd1: What's going on? Thanks for the kind words. I have to admit, the public usage of the term "Nigga" is the one that gets under my skin the most. I just wish that one away.

Viece: After allowing my stereotypical thought process to run amok I would wager that your student is white. I don't know much about white subcultures but I do know that it's NEVER been cool for black folks at any level to walk around stinking. Am I right?

At 8:25 AM , Blogger Breez said...

i guess that's the blessing and the curse of moving to a new place and becoming a hermit. though my drunkard homegirl has decided that i will be her designated driver lol.

At 9:37 AM , Anonymous Viece said...

He's black. His white "friends" won't tell him that he smells, but because his black ones do, they "don't understand me." Whatever....

At 1:28 PM , Anonymous pink said...

I enjoyed reading this. I don't really have anything to add but I read this yesterday and today I thought about it as I sat on the subway across from a black woman (the only other black person on the car) and watched her eat some fried chicken wings while sucking the bones. I kid you not, that chicken must have been finger licking good. I was mortified.

At 3:08 PM , Blogger Another Conflict Theorist said...


Breez: You're just lucky that you didn't win a truck.

Viece: Damn. This kid sounds lost. Maybe you should just tell him the truth and let him know that someone who can hang out with him without mentioning the fact that he stinks probably doesn't give a damn about him.

Pink: I had to laugh after I read your comment. Those white people who saw her eating that chicken were probably thinking, "So it's true!"

At 3:42 PM , Blogger Breez said...

Oh the sofas and beds I would have to move...

At 8:51 PM , Blogger Clifton said...

The issue you brought up here will be the defining issue for our generation. Most of us all have some of the "The Element" in our family or around us.

The problem with segregating our own community between acceptable and unacceptable is determining what criteria makes you worthy of being an acceptable black person. I like to think of myself as a pretty progressive brother but I have my moments of "niggeration" from time to time. I damn sure not a Geechee.

Maybe Sgt. Waters should have embraced C.J. and tried to make him more enlightened. Many of us seem to be trying to ignore that portion of our community that reminds us of where we could have ended up. We need to help them and strengthen them. It can only make us all better. Aren't we all one or two missed paychecks from being right back next door to them anyway.

At 3:43 PM , Anonymous said...

We're discussing this issue on the "hataboard" right now, and it's going to get heated. For some reason, I can't access the site from my office pc - when I get home, I'd like to refer this post. (if you're interested)

At 4:49 PM , Blogger Coffey0072 said...

Love this post.
I recently had a situation, where I hung out with a former colleague and "phone pal." Not only did she c*ck block when an attractive brother tried to introduce himself to me ... she screamed that my name was "Karen" and that I wasn't interested... and scared him off... She then proceeded to talk loudly about her jailbird boytoy...
Oh yes, and she pissed behind a building and loudly proclaimed she's gonna "drip dry" for she was slated to take a bath later on, when she got home. She also caused a scene in my favorite hipster joint, by cussing out the owner and wait staff... that night was crazy. It took me at least THREE weeks before I would show my face there again. I'm just not a fan of ANYONE embarrassing the hell out of me... but it stings and makes me shrink away into a fetal position, when it's one of my own.

But yes, anyway, is it bad that I find the term "Niggerate" hilarious, and am tempted to use it in the company of close (black) friends? ;-)

At 5:25 PM , Blogger Clifton said...

I think Coffey's friend has a few more issues than being a Geechee.

At 9:33 AM , Anonymous Mr Mandingo said...

Having been in this particular situation on several occasions I can totally identify with you on this one. I work with teen mentor programs and many of them have the misguided mentality that there are certain things that 'white folks' do and others things that are inherently black. One of the kids wanted sushi and another proclaimed loudly, "Gul you black! We don't eat that mess." I used this not only as a cultural learning experience, but as a lesson in public decency. Not only did this young lady enjoy sushi after trying it, but she learned that her actions, vernacular and preconceived notions of cultural compartmentalism were all incorrect. I said all that to say that we ought to take the time to strengthen our brethren. When they put themselves in these situation and engage in public displays of ludicrosity we ought to take them aside and aide them in seeing another way to handle situations and conduct themselves. Why you ask? Because had no one done it for us, then we would be just as ignorant. "Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend". As far as your other statement, "So, instead of attacking the real enemy, the oppressive agent that has historically ground him and his people into dust, he attacks those who languish at the bottom of the pile." There's a difference between attacking those who languish at the bottom of the pile and those who revel in being at the bottom of the pile. Some of 'the element' like where they are and see nothing wrong with being ignorant in public although they 'know better' and can present themselves in a better light. Unfortunately, there are those who can do better and be better, but for some reason, it’s like they feel guilty for lifting themselves up to the middle class’; as though they have betrayed the blackness or something. I sometimes wonder if my brother and I were raised in the same house. He chooses to act like the element and chastens me for 'talking white' and 'acting white.' We were afforded the same opportunities in life, but he chose the other path. To borrow from your colleague, he chose to 'niggerate' his future!

At 7:30 PM , Blogger Stephen Bess said...

We share a favorite film with A Soldier Story. I'll have to come back to "really" read this post.

At 11:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father wanted to know if I could make him a cd the other day and send it to him. I live in NJ so I told him I'll send to him in NC.Out the blue I hear, do you have nigger ears? I couldn't believe it. Intrigued by his dumbass comment, I replyed what the hell is that supposed to mean? "it's when you only listen to black music." sadley I go along with hisingnorance and ask him flat out if he has "Cracker Ears."He saids why,because they have big ears" so I reply,yeah so they can listin to a large variety of music. No lie.

I don't know how to reponsed to stupid people.

My friend is Puerto Rican ,she has a habit of saying "My Nigger", even after I tell her to stop.

At 2:05 PM , Blogger Angryindian said...

Damn good post. Only, I wish folks would stop picking on us Geechees, man.

At 1:21 PM , Blogger Changeseeker said...

I hesitate to step in here because of what I look like, but this post is just TOO well done and TOO important not to. I look European-American (reminding my students and others that many if not most people who look like me have at least some African heritage). But I've been culturally very bi-racial for decades and find myself uncomfortable so often--on both sides of the color line--it's become expected, particularly because virtually anybody who knows me at all knows where my head is at about the "socially-constructed, political notion of race."

The other night, for example, while talking to an African-American man at a party, I noticed several African-Americans as they stood at the side of the dance floor observing a group of White people trying to do a popular African-American group dance. I wanted to crawl under a table. I was so embarrassed, I had to turn my back.

On the other hand, I have many friends of color at various socio-economic levels, who I tend to converse with in setting-appropriate vernaculars. When one of them "acts out" in public when we are together in a majority-White setting, I'm left speechless. I obviously can't and frankly don't want to "correct" my Black friend or acquaintance, but I'm keenly aware at that moment of how much "damage" they're doing a la the Sergeant Waters line.

As for my two cents, I don't think it's always as simple as "ignorance." It works for the White Supremacist system for African-Americans to speak and act in these ways, so to the extent possible, these modes are encouraged in a whole range of ways. Music and movies produced with White money, for example, often suggest that these behaviors are just "keepin' it real." Real what, might be the question.

When I was working with juvenile delinquents in Miami, they gave me to understand that, for them, "talking White" would be construed as abandoning their culture, their manliness, and their strength, and result in their getting their "ass beat" regularly. When I told them that I wasn't trying to take their ability to function in the neighborhoods away, but rather give them the option of speaking a different "language" in a different setting if they wanted to (the way they could hear me doing), they dug it. They saw it then as empowering rather than demeaning.

I also got schooled one time by a Black man of the street who said, "Yes!" when he saw another Black man belligerantly toss an empty potato chip bag over his shoulder in the middle of an intersection observed by many drivers. People who have been relegated unapologetically to "the bottom of the pile," to spend their lives getting the least of the best and the most of the worst in this society must feel great rage. When folks, Black or White, try to challenge me that Condoleeza Rice being Secretary of State proves that anybody can be anything in this society, I respond that some people of color making it is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit and the endurance of the African heritage, not proof positive that every person has everything they need to do whatever they want. We know better.

The only thing that bothered me about this great post, ACT, was the use of the word "Geechee." This subculture is not the problem being discussed here nor is it typical of the problem, so far as I've been given to understand.

At 11:06 AM , Blogger Gigi said...

I'm sorry I found this post years after it was written. This is very timely.

I'll be returning to LA, my home in about a week. The first thing I will encounter is a situation like this.

I'll have to examine myself more closely.

Thank you.

At 8:39 PM , Anonymous Elias W. said...

I got to this page through a google search for the meaning of the word Geechee but, after reading it, I have to commend you on "getting it", ie correctly identifying what is going on, "reaching the right Conclusions" - despite your understandable discomfort from a personal standpoint. That is the sign of a thorough and strong mind, the likes of which it is upsettingly Uncommon to find as time passes.. Folks like us (on a good day I'm "there" too) are as crucial to the world as breathing is to a body because we help put the oxygen back in that clears out the smoke and smog of laziness and/or bigotry that is more of a "default" tendency in society than clarity, especially in hard times. When folks get "Systemically" frustrated, the most natural impulse is to find somebody to blame, to curse - a skapegoat. It's SOOO much easier than confronting or attempting to change a big, "abstracted", established, institutionalized system, buffered by bureaucrats, cops, lawyers and security guards - Designed to foil you at every turn. And it gives you a little shot of "Righteous Relief" (that lasts for a minute maybe). But it's a dishonest little delusion and perhaps most importantly, it doesn't get you UP OUT of your predicament, Or where you want to go.. It's (past) time we add as much "Real Talk" And Real Direction/Movement to the mix as we can get in there. Peace Brother, Elias W., N. Calif

At 4:37 PM , Anonymous observer said...

I was taught to be aware of what I do but to also love my people flaws and all. From the middle class doctor that fled the hood and won't let his daughter date black men that aren't wealthy to the poor ignorant woman in the hod that cries foul after her criminal son gets shot and killed for being in the streets. I don't try to fit in, but i m also not boisterous and loud when talking with others. I don't change up my views or way of speaking around whites or blacks. I guess since I'm from the gutter and didn't fall victim to mybsurroundings I have a soft spot for those in the ghetto being ignorant while at the same time being frustrated and mad that they are trapped and not trying to escape. I often find myself going for women from urban areas like myself even though being from the same area is all we have in common. Seems black women from richer areas also want me to be this thug because of where I'm from and when I'm not they end up losing interest. White women always show me interest while I ignored them because of my ancestors going through what they did. So.....where does that leave me.

At 4:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A white guy here jumping in.

... OR you could have just accepted that good people will judge YOU on the content of your character. Why even feel associated or embarrassed in the least by anyone else's bad behavior? Good people judge PEOPLE and not groups. I could care less how poor white people act, calling each other redneck etc.

I believe that you have touched on something very significant, and that is a FEELING of inferiority, or at least a reminder of inferiority which has been subjected upon you by mostly white society. All I can say is that when I encounter anyone who is 100% comfortable and confident in themselves and what they stand for; I don't even see their race. And even when they choose to make their race a stereotype, I consider the source OF THAT PERSON and not their race. Upbringing and values are the heart of this. It has nothing to do with economics, education or opportunity. It has everything to do with dignity and pride in ONESELF and not in any group.

At 8:47 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

did twofer write this?

At 3:03 AM , Blogger stark said...

Blacks should never disown or look down on one another. For lack of knowledge or a few reasons. There where slaves who wouldn't fight for our civil rights kept there mouth closed. So they wouldn't be hanged. Even switched on the very ones who risk there lives for our freedom. And would snitch on slaves that were trying to escape. We should always continue to care and enlighten one another. For they are our brothers and sisters! Never look at your financial blessings as to separate you from said underclass. Give back teach and empower one another with knowledge of peace and prosperity!

At 7:14 PM , Blogger Little Lauretta said...

Me too. Geechee and Gullahs are the last of the African indigenous people in America. Their rich culture and land are being wiped out by high taxes in order to acquired their land that they had since the civil war! All the islands along side east cost of America from Jacksonville, NC to Florida, NC were the Gullah Islands. This is where Africans were brought to grow rice. This knowledge of rice agriculture was brought from Africa. They also spoke Geechee, people thought it was broken English. Some words were traced back to Africa. Some things are taken away and some things are given away to become like everyone is when everyone is being themselves.

At 10:46 PM , Blogger Little Lauretta said...

Check out this recent video on the Gullah/Geechee

At 1:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis and discussion of a highly underrated movie.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that Sgt. Waters gave up on CJ; and I thoroughly reject any notion that Sgt. Waters was responsible for CJ’s death. Conspicuously absent from the discussion is the idea that in having CJ incarcerated, the sergeant may have been attempting to teach him a lesson. Indeed, in his deposition with Capt. Davenport, Wilkey said as much, “It was the sarge! He ordered me…said I’d get my stripes back. He wanted to teach CJ a lesson.” The fact is, as a senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) Sgt. Waters had a responsibility to prepare his men for possible command positions they might assume later in their military careers, and in a more immediate context, for enemy engagement in the European theater (i.e. WWII). Maturity is required in both military leadership and combat, especially when commanders must sometimes knowingly send men to their deaths in battle.

Professionally, perhaps the sergeant sensed those qualities were missing in CJ and wanted to teach him a hard lesson in military decorum. Interestingly enough, Wilkey would also go on to say that CJ’s suicide was something the sarge couldn’t “figure,” an act of defiance committed as though CJ were “spiting the sarge.” The alcoholic stupor into which the sarge drank himself testifies to his inability to understand an action he in no way intended to produce.

Socially, of course, the sarge “despised” CJ. Perhaps because CJ represented a barrier to what the sarge was working hard to achieve, an America in which his son (and by extension, other members of his race) would be viewed as intelligent members of society who were able to shake off the shibboleths of past racial injustices and rise to unimaginable professional heights (for instance, becoming a US Army Master Sergeant in 1940s America, or becoming a commissioned officer in the case of Captain Davenport). Sgt. Waters hinted at this notion when he lovingly and proudly shared the picture of his son around table with other SNCOs. Granted, the sarge had Wilkey put the pistol under CJ’s rack in order get CJ put in jail, but only temporarily…to scare him. CJ chose to be insubordinate in the barracks scene before Sgt. Waters fought Peterson. CJ chose to hit the sergeant the night of the barracks raid. And CJ also chose to hang himself before his hearing and trial.

In every discussion about this movie, the one person that is rarely mentioned or reviled is Peterson (Denzel’s character). He showed his disdain for the sergeant early on when he asked, “What kind of Black man are you?” Disdain that would later lead to the murder of a soldier and father. Disdain rooted in the belief that only Black people who acted a certain way were truly Black people. Isn’t this the same thing we typically vilify the sarge for? Sgt. Waters alluded to the murder of a Black troop in France at the Café Napoleon during WWI, “when we slit that fool’s throat he had to the nerve to ask us what he did wrong.” Whether the sarge held this troop down, held the knife or (like Paul in the book of Acts at the stoning of Stephen) was simply there giving his approval, we cannot be sure. Peterson, however, is a different matter. As far as I’m concerned, he is the real one with blood on his hands.

At 1:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...



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