Categories
Entertainment Family News Relationships+ Family

Ooh Kill ‘Em!: Black Male Mentoring and Fictive Kinship

I love the South.  I love country folks.  I love country Black folks from the South.  I have two of them for parents.  And if you have them southern roots (pronounced “ruhtz”) like I do, you probably have more “play cousins” than you can count.

“Play cousins?”

For those of you without it, I’ll give you some cultural capital in context.  Stick with me, because I’m about to engage in come circuitous storytelling:

I’ve been outside the country for the latter part of the last few months, so I missed a rack of happenings in American popular culture.  Amongst the movies, new songs, and references I noticed when I got back was this “Ooh kill em”, often used in hashtags.  A quick internet search had me landing on this gem:

 

 

First of all, if you’re not familiar, Vine is the latest phone app that allows you to overshare things in your life no one else wants to see.  Thankfully you can only film these “events” for six seconds at a time.  However, every once-in-awhile one of these videos is so funny/clever/bizarre/annoying that it deserves our six seconds of attention.  Or more.

Since posting their Vine videos, lil-dancin’ Terio and his co-signing cousin Maleek have become internet-famous, inspiring everything from NBA point guard copycats to hip hop diss records.

So what does all of this have to do with cultural capital, play cousins, and fictive kinship?  Maleek and Terio aren’t related by blood.

In this epic Complex interview (you gotta listen to the audio.  Nobody short-sells answers like a nervous six-year-old!), the following exchange occurs with Maleek, Terio’s 16-year-old cousin who provides the footage and the soundtrack for his dancing and hooping protégé:

Interviewer: And so, how’re you guys related?

MALEEK: That’s my lil’ cousin.

Interviewer: Is there like, a parent’s sister’s son or something?

MALEEK: Nah, we like…he like, stay next door to me

Translation: they play cousins.  (Not a grammatical error).

Brotha and Sistah vs Brother and Sister: Are y’all Really Related?

In academic-speak, this is an example of the formation of a fictive kinship, a relationship in which people who aren’t related by blood claim a familial bond.  These relationships occur between and within all races of people. African Americans in particular have a long-held desire to unify through shared experiences, largely due to a unique and sordid American history of having their cultural practices denied and ridiculed.  For example, during American enslavement, Black family structures were routinely destroyed by the trade of humans across the Atlantic and between colonists.  This African American practice of identifying each other as “brotha”, “sistah”, and yes, “play cousin” developed as a valuable way to ascertain who was “down”, as well as in creating extended functional families.  These ties were especially important when blood bonds between Black people had been broken. Today, Black Americans still use these fictive kinships in the same way.

 Black-on-Black Male Crime Mentorship

I don’t know what the day-to-day interactions between Maleek and Terio look like.  I do know from my own experiences with the teenaged “old-heads” in my neighborhood where I grew up in Ypsilanti – and with my older play cousins in North Carolina who I saw when I visited my parents’ homes – that these dudes were excellent part-time role models and informal mentors.  They were flawed no doubt (I’m thinking right now about the time when this old-head named Tim tried to tell how you had great sex with girls.  Looking back, there’s no way in hell he had learned anything for himself; that bullshit had to have come from sneaking into someone’s porn collection), but they were well-meaning and had nobly taken on a role passed down to them by older play cousins who had done the same for them.  To be clear, I’m not talking about some Big Brother, Big Sister-type of relationship where these dudes provided daily and guided interactions.  I’m talking about those times when me and the rest of the young bucks had our bikes in a circle talking about girls/bikes/cars/sports and a couple of the older dudes would roll up on their bikes and start schooling us.  Just from reading and hearing the interview, I could hear at least the same type of bond between Maleek and Terio.  Are they closer than that?  Maybe.  But I know play cousins when I hear them.

Ideally these two kids maintain a healthy relationship and Maleek becomes or remains an important mentor for Terio.  It doesn’t have to be some “wonderful story” where Maleek becomes the main influence in Terio’s life, deters him from joining a gang, pushes Terio to go from wannabe rapper to English professor, Terio writes a best-selling novel, and Tyler Perry directs the movie version of his life (starring a light-skinned dude, of course).  Maybe Maleek is just the fun “cousin” whose video-based encouragement plays a small part in helping Terio feel just that much better about himself.  That’d be a realistic and important outcome.  Hell, despite Tim’s ridiculous sex advice, he always told me how smart I was, and he taught me how to pop a wheelie.  It’s that type of mentorship that makes play cousins special.

This article originally appears on alineinthesand.com.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington.  Maurice has been a mentor, old-head, and play cousin for a long time, but refuses to give bad sex advice.  Ooh kill ’em!

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013

Categories
Blogs Featured Politics

“I Hate Myself!”: What are Respectability Politics, and Why do Black People Subscribe to Them?

Sgt Waters
Adolph Caesar as Master Seargant Vernon Waters in the movie A Soldier’s Story

You may not be familiar with the term “respectability politics”, but you’ve heard them before.  Maybe you’ve even engaged in them.  Whether it’s Don Lemon’s recent rant, actor Romany Malco’s open letter to Trayvon Martin sympathizers following the George Zimmerman trial, Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake speech” and even The Talk co-host Sheryl Underwood’s remarks about nappy hair, respectability politics remain an enormous part of our conversations about Black American culture.

So what exactly are respectability politics?  In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture.  Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both.

A Brief History Lesson

This whole idea of respectability politics began to solidify at the end of the 19th century, when a bold group of Black women from the Baptist Convention – a well-intentioned, church womenimportant, pro-Black, yet chauvinist, and patriarchal organization – broke off to form their own group: the Women’s Convention.  On the positive side, an essential part of their focus was to uplift the Black community, while perpetuating a sense of solidarity and philanthropy.  Unfortunately, in practice it involved a lot of patronizing behaviors towards “lower-class” Black people.  For instance, one of their major campaigns was to go into impoverished Black communities and hand out pamphlets that “taught” these po’ folks how to “behave” in public places, the value of chastity, and even how to properly bathe themselves.  Side note: if you’ve read that and don’t have a problem with those three things as important values, that’s understandable. Now, imagine someone comes to your front door regularly to remind you to do them…

These respectability politics gained popularity and organization nationwide, and solidified into a regular part of Black life.  For example, the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most important Black media outlets, published the following list weekly as a reminder to its newly arrived Southern readers who came to Chicago during the Great Migration:

  • DON’T HANG OUT THE WINDOWS.
  • DON’T SIT AROUND IN THE YARD AND ON THE PORCH BAREFOOT AND UNKEMPT.
  • DON’T WEAR HANDKERCHIEFS ON YOUR HEAD.
  • DON’T USE VILE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC PLACES.
  • DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO BEG ON THE STREETS.
  • DON’T APPEAR ON THE STREET WITH OLD DUST CAPS, DIRTY APRONS, AND RAGGED CLOTHES.
  • DON’T THROW GARBAGE IN THE BACKYARD OR ALLEY OR KEEP DIRTY FRONT YARDS.

Behold the Underlying Truth

Don’t the above admonishments sound familiar?  And note how every statement begins in the negative.  That’s because the primary premise in which respectability politics are grounded is that Black American culture – and Black Americans themselves – are broken and need to be fixed.  And “fixing” means improving the “Black underclass” that holds us back.  It reminds me of the movie A Soldier’s Story, and in particular, the character Sgt. Waters.  The scene below epitomizes what respectability politics cause the Black bourgeoisie to do to the Black “underclass”.

Super ObamaWaters has made it his personal mission to rid the army – and maybe the world (?) – of ignorant negritude, starting with CJ.  Apparently he thinks the work he’s doing will leave us with Negrus superioris, purifying the race and eliminating all traces of inferior Black folks.  Sergeant Waters, and those who think like him, are actually suffering though.  This later clip reveals that anguish and the secondary premise of respectability politics:

 

Wanna hear it again?  Go to 1:04 on the video.  The secondary, sinister premise of respectability politics is the belief that teaching Black people to meet White cultural standards is the way to improve Black culture.  From talking “proper”, to hair straightening, to skin bleaching, to more coded ideas like “acting White”, respectability politics teach us that the White man’s ice really is colder.  In a country that operates on the premise that Black people are inferior, respectability politics cause the sort of sentiment the utterly defeated Waters whimpers at the 1:04 mark.  He’s realized that after years of trying to get White people to see Black people as equals by teaching them “White culture”, he’s actually the broken one who needs to be fixed.

What’s an Alternative, Then?

In my critiques of the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve said that the focus on changing laws and changing peoples’ hearts overshadowed efforts to define and build Black American culture.  While all three are important, the lack of emphasis on that third aspect has left us today with respectability politics as a giant cultural hurdle.  Black American culture, like all cultures, is continuously being defined and redefined.  The next step then, is to Kwanzaa cardreplace striving to emulate a White American cultural construct (the concept of “White culture” as everything positive, wonderful, and goal-worthy) with striving toward a Black one.  Love it, hate it, or leave it, the Kwanzaa holiday is an excellent example of Black Americans deciding for themselves what Black American culture will be.  While it incorporates ideas from other cultures (as all cultural traditions do), it isn’t based upon turning Black American culture into someone else’s “superior” one.  And to be clear, whether or not we choose to identify with our African roots as we define Black American culture – though I’ve chosen an example that does – is nowhere near as important as the overall act of simply continuing to define Black American culture in general.  As long as we move purposefully away from respectability politics, we’ll continue to eliminate the self-hatred that hinders us from continuing to positively do so.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington.  Maurice believes that the “geechie” is actually more important to Black American culture then Sgt. Waters.

(The original article appears on alineinthesand.com)

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013

Categories
Reviews

“Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” Book Review

His story starts in America’s historically black neighborhoods, where segregation brought people of different economic classes together. Robinson says that began to change during the civil rights era.

“People who had the means and had the education started moving out of what had been the historic black neighborhoods,” Robinson explains.

He cites Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood as a prime example of this because of how Shaw was home to a vibrant black community and a thriving entertainment scene in the 1930s through the 1950s. By the ’70s, Shaw had become a desolate, drug-ridden area.

“In city after city, African-American neighborhoods, that …once had been vibrant and in a sense whole — disintegrated,” Robinson says.

He attributes that change to African-Americans taking advantage of new opportunities, resulting in a more economically segregated community.