Ben and Barack: What It Means To Be Black In America
Way down south in Mississippi, I find myself thinking about eating breakfast with Dr. Ben Carson and President Barack Obama. No cameras, political agenda or party affiliations — just us talking as 3 black men in America. I want to talk to them about the standard we, as black people, measure each other. I chose these men, because they both hold unique positions. One is the leader of our country, and the other attempted to become president as a black, Republican candidate.
They represent a stark contrast of black ideology, historical legacies, and cultural appreciation. Hopefully, through our breakfast, they will help me understand why people look at those who are different, and strip away the image of God.
I imagine us going to a place like this old local restaurant in Oxford, MS. I chose this restaurant, because both men need to sit in the Confederate room. I named the room after my last visit because Confederate Flags occupy every space of each wall.
One feels like a burning candle sitting there. You give off a pleasant aroma, because you smile and visit with your friend instead of tearing down the wallpaper and burning the place down. You restrain yourself, but it is at the expense of your dignity and self-respect.
The plates and glasses clinking in the nearby kitchen echo the canon fire of a battle lost for states’ rights to own humans. Looking around those walls, you realize the room has been fighting against reconstruction since the end of the Civil War. Looking around those walls, no matter how old you are, you find yourself becoming a boy. Looking around those walls, you find yourself feeling like you should be eating your meal out back.
Ends of a Spectrum
The first thing I would ask these two men is how do they see themselves in Black History. I’m sure they would give me an answer sounding something like, “Tevin, I am thankful to have my position, because there were so many who sacrificed to give me this opportunity.” If they asked me the same question, I would explain I see them as a continuing cycle of black men who find themselves on opposite ends of a spectrum; that they are the same people, but in different time periods.
They are W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington; Langston Hughes and George Schuler; Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; Al Sharpton and Clarence Thomas. I would express to them that I believe they are victims of a major theme plaguing our country and culture. Because of their political disagreements, some black people appoint one good and one bad. This leaves us caught in the balance, and ultimately suffering.
Black In America
I ask Dr. Carson if he realizes he is often looked at as the bad guy of the two in the black community. Some say he is a sell out, Uncle Tom, and not even black. I disagree with the picture some construct of him. In terms of culture, I do not see him as a regression, but as a progression. He, as a black man, accomplished remarkable things and extends the range of what it means to be black. Regardless of the way he speaks, behaves, and votes, people look at him and see a black man. If he were white, none of his peers would question his ethnicity regardless of his political views or cultural appreciation. Why do we?
On paper, these two men are almost identical. Neither wears retro Jordans or fitted caps. Neither man attends churches where they shout or dance during the service. Both went to Ivy League schools. Both speak and dress conservatively. Both married black women, and grew up without fathers. To me, they are similar, but instead they have been caught in the crossfire of the age old question of what does it mean to be black in America.
We can debate in barbershops, fight over long text messages and begin long road trips discussing the matter, but ultimately I hope we find Ben and Barack are not the answer to our problems and questions. They can help, but they will never be the answer.
When we debate about who is more black, or who represents us more, we should ask who are we. We are God’s people, and though sin separated us from him, we were brought nearer because of the blood of our savior, Jesus. When we march in the streets, pleading with the world that our lives matter, we should be able to say why. Jesus above all is the reason our lives matter, because we were created in the image of the living God and should be treated and respected as such. Image bearers of God should not be gunned down innocently, profiled, and treated less than human because of their God-given skin color. Image bearers of God also need to have the freedom to vote conservatively, speak, and dress in any way they choose without their ethnic group disowning them.
President Obama and Dr. Carson are just another example of how we limit others and ourselves, because of a tradition of being told who we are by those who do not consider us human. They left out the part about us being image bearers of God, redeemed by the precious blood of our savior Jesus. We must fight against looking at humans the way our oppressors once looked at us. Being black is not something you learn, you wear, or say. Instead, it is something God gave you to declare his glory over all the Earth.
I understand it is not always easy, but we must fight and carry on the tradition of turning the tide of the things that oppress us, even if it is our own thought processes and how we relate to others. The tradition of winning these battles is in our favor. We shall overcome.