The most reprehensible, ignorant-assed joke, or aphorism -- depending on who's using it -- is, "If you want to keep something away from black people, put it in a book." Even more idiotic are the people who believe it.
The latest craze among black commentators is the belief that black youth academically underperform not because of economic inequities but because of a hip hop-made "anti-intellectualism" virus. It's gotta be the dumbest theory ever to cross the radio waves of black thought -- as if black teen-agers alone owned the domains of cerebral hollowness.
This debate was blown open when Bill Cosby's comments about the black poor's poor manners and English habits, spoken at an NAACP banquet last May, were reported by the Washington Post. Cosby wasn't the keynote speaker, but seized the opportunity after collecting an award to blabber, in an inverted Fiona Apple moment of sorts, about how unappreciative the folks at home are about stars like him who've borne their social burdens for too long.
In Michael Eric Dyson's Is Bill Cosby Right? he picks Cosby apart, detailing the comedian's own academic, familial and social-activist shortcomings, concluding that Cosby isn't qualified to offer the kind of criticism he offered that night.
Meanwhile, another social and pop-culture critic, Stanley Crouch, has dropped a book with similar themes. Crouch's the artificial white man looks at contemporary books and films where cultural appropriation was employed and defends them. Willful miscegenation is Crouch's wonder and he is enthralled with the shocks felt when one culture (Eastern, African or black) is lifted by a Western one, then improved and improvised upon to an awesome end. For Crouch, this is democracy at its finest.
Crouch's least favorite and most preferred examples of this dynamic are, respectively, David Shields' book Black Planet and the movies of Quentin Tarantino -- notably Kill Bill.
Later, Crouch expresses his disdain for black folk-culture hustlers (maybe aimed at Dyson) and longs for a time when "basic ignorance and illiteracy were not thought of as fundamental aspects of 'black culture.'" Crouch dances with this concept until the last chapter, in which he states, "the greatest crisis that has ever faced the black community is the present disengagement from the world of education, which is embraced by more and more of the lower class, the underclass, and even the middle class," punctuated with a high-five to Cosby.
But not on the black-hand side.
Crouch may have to eventually consider that his "greatest crisis" position is based on a rumor -- a poor Internet joke that's been so widely distributed and read that it's self-canceling. But while Crouch and Cosby regurgitate such statements purely out of their own heads, Dyson cites statistics decimating the view that lower-class blacks are literally literature-lazy (though that might be true for middle-class blacks; I went to school with "educated" blacks who couldn't tell Baldwin from a basketball).
After quoting Richard Hofstadter's 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Walter E. Houghton's 1952 essay "Victorian Anti-Intellectualism," proving it ain't just a black thang, Dyson gets to the root of the "smart = white" theory. In 1986, two professors did a study in which one Washington, D.C., high school (one!) was examined to find that blacks didn't study because it was tantamount to "selling out" or "acting white."
However, Dyson points out, a 1997 study in which the students of 25,000 public and private schools were examined led to the conclusion that black students were just as eager as whites to excel academically. Another done last year surveying 11 North Carolina schools found that blacks have the same desire to succeed. This study was covered in a New York Times Magazine article titled "The 'Acting White' Myth" (Dec. 12, 2004).
Dyson's commentary comes at a perfect time, when the National Endowment of the Arts' reading study showed Americans in general have slowed their reading. The study also reveals that a higher percentage of black women (42.9 percent) are reading literature than white males (41.4 percent), as well as a higher percentage of blacks in high school (22.2 percent) than their white counterparts (14 percent). Additionally, while the number of white adults reading has dropped almost 8 percent since 1982, the number of blacks has increased by more than 15 percent.
Where Dyson and Crouch intersect is in their thoughts on "authenticity anxiety" and the impact of tribalism -- the "father of racism," Crouch says. Dyson argues that one's "roots should nourish, not strangle, black identity," mirroring a lot of what Crouch speaks on. "[C]laims to authenticity do not resolve the ethical issues of identity," writes Dyson. That's Crouch's fundamental argument, too. Their only difference is that where Dyson believes society is perhaps too fixated on black archetypes, Crouch believes too much value is awarded to black stereotypes.
While both authors can be prolix, Dyson's the more redundant given his attempt to build a book around a two-minute speech. By the third chapter you wonder why this wasn't just an essay or a newspaper article. Crouch has more material to build on and, though he's at times condescending in tone, he effectively challenges serious writers to step up their game by ceasing to limit themselves to the confines of black cultural provincialism.