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Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High
By Signithia Fordham
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1996 Signithia Fordham
All rights reserved.
Schooling and Imagining the American Dream: Success Alloyed with Failure
One of the guys I met in the West End was called JuJu. A jeweler, he was known all along the East Coast as one of the finest in his profession. I don't know what had happened in life to make JuJu so bitter, but he refused to even talk to white people. He let his wife do any negotiations that required interaction with whites. There were many whites trying to do business with JuJu. A prominent white-owned store chain offered him a lucrative contract to make jewelry exclusively for its stores nationwide, but he turned it down because it would require too much involvement with baldheads. He could have made a lot of money if he'd been willing to venture into the white world, but he said money was less important to him than his sanity. (McCall 1994:322)
Among contemporary African-Americans, resistance is constructed as power and appears to take two primary forms: conformity and avoidance. As conformity, it is interpreted as unqualified acceptance of the ideological claims of the larger society; within the African-American community, it is often perceived as disguised warfare in which the Black Self "passes" as (an)Other in order to reclaim an appropriated humanity. In the dominant community, resistance as avoidance is defined by the larger society as failure or incompetence, the inability to acquire and display culturally appropriate skills (Ogbu 1981c; Inkeles 1968). Within the African-American community, avoidance is constructed as willful rejection of whatever will validate the negative claims of the larger society regarding Black people's academic abilities. Thus constructed, avoidance enables its adherents to retain a sense of power and agency. As Kohl (1994:2) convincingly argues, it is imperative that we not confuse a "willful refusal to learn [with] failure to learn" (emphasis added).
Most people are familiar with resistance as avoidance in that it is generally constructed as oppositional and even antagonistic, and researchers have repeatedly noted that this form of resistance negatively affects the academic performance of adolescents, including African-American adolescents (Fordham 1993; Giroux 1983; MacLeod 1987; Payne 1988; Solomon 1992; Wolcott 1967). But there appears to be less familiarity with resistance as conformity. Indeed, nominal conformity to school rules is often equated with acceptance and, in some instances, even acquiescence to a dominant ideology. However, as I shall argue throughout this book, at Capital High conformity to school norms and values could be and often is interpreted as resistance. Indeed, I shall argue that African-American "success" writ large can be so constructed. It is against this background that the following general historical overview of Washington, DC, is presented as a site where the long-term construction of success among African-Americans can properly be seen as resistance through conformity.
To understand the reasons for the primacy of resistance as a response and the particular imaging of the Black Self among the students at Capital High, one needs a brief overview of the social history of Black people in Washington, DC. That history can best be discussed in the context of the two major emancipations that have occurred in the social and cultural life of Black people in America, particularly among Black Washingtonians.
I offer a four-layer typology. Central to it is the postulate that African-American history can be divided into four historical eras. African-Americans' enslavement has been followed by two distinct revolutions: the First Emancipation following the Civil War and a Second Emancipation following the Civil Rights Movement. The final phase — neosegregation — is just emerging and is not yet clearly defined.
BLACK AMERICANS' FIRST EMANCIPATION
Trying Not to Appear Black
Washington has always been a site of Black resistance, of resistance manifested as conformity, because the Black population that migrated to the city sought to transform Washington's imaging of the Black Other. Black people's primary weapon of resistance was — and still is — conformity to the existing but constantly changing ideology.
Further, Washington has always had a significant Black population (see Associates for Renewal in Education 1983; L. Brown 1972; C. Green 1967; Hutchinson 1977). However, Americans of African ancestry did not become the majority population in the city until after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Historically, Washington attracted Black people who actively resisted the changing yet constant ideological hegemony of the larger society. They came in large numbers from other American cities because, despite the fact that Washington was the nation's capital, the city's White elected officials and government bureaucrats did not find it an attractive place to live (B. Williams 1988). Second, the relatively wide range of jobs available to people of African ancestry and the lack of a competing White population for the lower-status jobs in the city made it preferable to other American cities (L. Brown 1972; C. Green 1967).
Even though Black people were not the majority population in the city until after the Civil Rights Movement, Washington had a large free Black population much earlier, whose resistance was initially manifested in its opposition to slavery. According to L. Brown (1972:17), Washington's free Black population in 1790 represented more than one-third of the entire free Black population in the United States. This population exercised its influence in the city both before and immediately after the Civil War in ways that were unheard of in other cities in the United States (C. Green 1967; Hutchinson 1977). C. Green notes that the existence of this large free Black population was in many ways the catalyst for the heightened aspirations and hopes of the Black community in the nation at large. Certain patterns of social behavior were also manifested in conjunction with those newly formed aspirations.
Imaging a White Middle-Class Life
In my proposed typology, the First Emancipation encompasses the Civil War and the following 130 years when people of African ancestry struggled to "act white" although forbidden to do so. Initially, their newly achieved legal freedom from slavery evoked a response that denied the "permanence of racism" (Bell 1992). Nevertheless, during this entire historical era, being Black was a burden and was frequently conceptualized as an identity to be opposed through conformity to existing dominant norms and values. The following example from an anonymous document is typical of Black conformity in the city and the undermining impact of race on the efforts of an African-American male to find and retain jobs and careers in Washington, DC:
I am personally acquainted with one of the most skilful laborers in the hardware business in Washington. For thirty years he has been working for the same firm. He told me he could not join the union, and that his employer had been almost forced to discharge him, because the union men threatened to boycott his [employer's] store if he did not. If another man could have been found at the time to take his place he would have lost his job, he said. When no other human being can bring a refractory chimney or stove to its senses, this colored man is called upon as the court of last appeal. If he fails to subdue it, it is pronounced a hopeless case at once. And yet this expert workman receives much less for his services than do white men who cannot compare with him in skill. (What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the United States 1907:185)
In another example from the same source, the consequences of resisting dominant imaging of the Black Other (also known as passing) are highlighted.
Some time ago a young woman who had already attracted some attention in the literary world by her volume of short stories answered an advertisement which appeared in a Washington newspaper, which called for the services of a skilled stenographer and expert [typist]. It is unnecessary to state the reasons why a young woman whose literary ability was so great as that possessed by the one referred to should decide to earn money in this way. The applicants were requested to send specimens of their work and answer questions concerning their experience and their speed before they called in person. In reply to her application the young colored woman, who ... [was] very fair and attractive ..., received a letter from the firm stating that her references and experiences were the most satisfactory that had been sent and requesting her to call. When she presented herself there was some doubt in the mind of the man to whom she was directed concerning her racial pedigree, so he asked her point blank whether she was colored or white. When she confessed the truth the merchant expressed great sorrow and deep regret that he could not avail himself of the services of so competent a person [and] admitted that employing a colored woman in his establishment in any except a menial position was simply out of the question. (ibid., 182)
Is this what modern African-American parents mean when they admonish their children to be "twice as good in order to go half as far"? In both these examples, existing notions of race took precedence over all other factors, including education, training, skills, even experience. At the same time, however, acting white was socially forbidden because it entailed encroaching on what White America defined as its prerogatives: going to school, learning to read and write, and seeking and obtaining jobs above the then extant "job ceiling." The era was also characterized by the emergence of a system of schooling which essentially enslaved once again the newly freed Black population (see J. Anderson 1973, 1975; Ogbu 1978; Spivey 1978:16).
During the First Emancipation, Black people constructed acting white as characteristic of those group members who resisted affiliation with Blackness, with the slave experience, and with other Black people in exchange for success. Such a strategy compelled an uncritical resistance — manifested as conformity — to the then dominant ideology. Whites generally deemed this response inappropriate because it negated a "scientific" postulate of the time — that the fundamental social and cultural practices of Black people are conveyed unaltered from generation to generation. Therefore, the stigma of Blackness was unavoidable, and those members who breached existing social etiquette (that is, behaved in ways that paralleled the behaviors and lifestyles of the dominating White community) were subjected to a gender-specific system of institutionalized violence, including lynching, rape, and maiming. Thus, as Michael Wallace (1970–71) notes, racial violence was a perennial weapon used by the dominant community to maintain the ongoing subordination of Black people, especially that segment judged guilty of acting white.
In Washington, DC, which did not become a predominantly Black city until 1959, "colorphobia had been an admitted fact" since the arrival of the first Black residents (C. Green 1967:316). Colorphobia existed in the fire and police departments as well as in the federal and local governments. It was also evident in the 1956 median income figures of Black and White Washingtonians when compared with those of 1950:
In midcentury [1950, four years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision] median white income was $3,425, [Black] $2,190, six years later $6,643 and $3,918 respectively, a drop of 6 percent in [Black people's] relative position. In federal employment itself, 85 percent of the city's 25,840 [Black people] in white-collar jobs were in grades 1 through 4, with base pay ranging from $2,690 to $3,415 a year. The proportion of [Black people] in Washington in the interval had risen from 35.5 to 44 percent of the population, an increase of which an estimated 45 percent was due to in-migration. (C. Green 1967:320)
Green paints a similar picture of the relative economic positions of Black and White Washingtonians in 1960:
The 1960 census showed a slight further decline in [Black people's] income compared to white — a median of $4,800 a year over against $7,692. By the end of 1960, on the other hand, Washington contained 22,000 nonwhite families with an income above $8,000 and 10,800 with more than $10,000 a year (C. Green 1967:321).
BLACK AMERICANS' SECOND EMANCIPATION
Imaging: "Looking White on Paper"
Looking white on paper — that is, behaving in ways and displaying the skills, abilities, and credentials that were traditionally associated with White Americans — became the way to "pass" during the Second Emancipation (circa 1960–1986). Those African-Americans who were able to become White, at least on paper, were embraced by the integration ideology. "Looking white on paper" became the impetus for school integration and for such social programs as the war on poverty, allegedly designed to eliminate the socioeconomic distinctions between Black and White Americans. What "looking white on paper" did not anticipate was the parallel emergence of the Black Nationalist Movement with its commitment to the maintenance of an "uncontaminated" Black identity.
I argue that this brief historical period is critically important because it enables us to look, for the first time, at a generation of Black people born and reared in a maelstrom of cultural forces that provided official support to the humanness of Black people, if only they would conform to the newly extant integration ideology. Prior to the Second Emancipation, there existed both legal (de jure segregation) and extralegal (de facto segregation) means of denying the humanness of people of African descent. I argue that the Second Emancipation forged a revolution within a revolution — a double-layered reformation. I make this claim because, though overlooked, dismissed, and discounted, this double-layered revolution evoked unprecedented social changes and an internal revolution: an identity implosion. The co-occurrence of the Black Nationalist Movement and the integration ideology, manifested in the Civil Rights Movement, created an unprecedented revolution, signaled most boldly by Black people's subsequent imagining of a Black nation (B. Anderson 1991) just as the larger society (the nation-state) was deciding not only to discontinue its "separate but equal tradition" but to include Black people as full citizens of the nation-state. Moreover, as Anderson convincingly argues, a critical element in the formation of modern state systems was the privileging of writing over oral presentations. Thus, the successful imagining of the Black Nationalist Movement — with its parallels to the imagining of state systems — was (and is) contingent upon the successful development of a population committed to writing, or textuality, and the bureaucratized aims of schooling.
Hence the centrality of the Second Emancipation to this analysis. The period was the first in American history in which African peoples born and reared in America were declared legally indistinguishable from their Euramerican counterparts. Ironically, as the legal barriers fell and the integration ideology was promoted, internal cultural barriers embodied in a racialized identity soared. Acceptance of the re-imaging of Blackness, as in "Black is beautiful," emerged. Thus the convergence of the Black Power movement and the fear of the disappearance of a Black identity in the midst of the emergence of the integration ideology evoked concern with how to retain a Black identity in a context where an infantile Black identity was overwhelmed by a flood of White normalizations. The central issue for Black Americans became integration and assimilation, vis-à-vis the struggle for the preservation of Blackness.
Black students born during this period would find themselves facing both unparalleled opportunities and subtle limitations. Unfortunately, most social scientists tend to emphasize the former rather than the latter. Officially, Black adolescents are growing up in a social context which values integration of all segments of American society. At the same time, however, there are definite indicators of continuing racism and other forms of human degradation. There is also the development within the African-American community of an imagined Black nation. The goal of the Black Power movement was never fully realized; many of its proponents were killed or left the country. Nevertheless, the emergence of a wealth of symbols — for example, adopting African names, wearing African dress and practicing African religions, choosing natural hair styles rather than the customary Euramerican styles, returning to the more collective or egalitarian lifestyle that characterized their foreparents' way of life in most of the African countries from which they involuntarily came — these symbols that African-Americans understood and were able to relate to during the 1950s and 1960s forged the development of an imagined Black nation. Hence, for many of these teenagers, coming of age during the Second Emancipation has entailed imaging oneself as a citizen in two competing state systems and having to choose one as primary or central. Moreover, it means that in the Second Emancipation these Black students are compelled to live an improvised life in that the adult population, including their parents, do not fully appreciate the psychological implications of imagining and re-imaging a Black racialized identity in postmodern America and its effect on school-sanctioned learning (Herbert H. Denton and B. Sussman, Washington Post, 25 March 1981, A2.
Excerpted from Blacked Out by Signithia Fordham. Copyright © 1996 Signithia Fordham. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Stalking Culture and Meaning and Looking in a Refracted Mirror,
1. Schooling and Imagining the American Dream: Success Alloyed with Failure,
2. Becoming a Person: Fictive Kinship as a Theoretical Frame,
3. Parenthood, Childrearing, and Female Academic Success,
4. Parenthood, Childrearing, and Male Academic Success,
5. Teachers and School Officials as Foreign Sages,
6. School Success and the Construction of "Otherness",
7. Retaining Humanness: Underachievement and the Struggle to Affirm the Black Self,
8. Reclaiming and Expanding Humanness: Overcoming the Integration Ideology,