Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Too Black and Not Black Enough, Classism and the Untold Tale of Two Black Cities


Yesterday, charges were dropped against Harvard professor and W.E.B. DuBois Institute director, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who was arrested for disorderly conduct when he complained about the actions of Cambridge, Mass. law enforcement for obvious racial profiling activities. Just back from working on a documentary in China, Gates was identified as a possible suspect when an officer passing by his residence noticed the lauded African-American scholar and his driver attempting to unhinge a jammed front door.

After the “misunderstanding” was somewhat cleared up, an upset Gates expressed his disappointment, which led to him being taken into custody. Resultantly, the Harvard community was in an uproar once word of the incident spread. The “liberal” reputation that the small enclave of Harvard Square happily touted was now receiving a downpour of what some saw as undeserved criticism.

The Gates case has added to the blatant events of racism that are reawakening the grave race issue in America. This dialogue is shadowing the era of Obama where a cry of a post-racial conscious had been celebrated by many idealists, but seen as a dangerous delusion by those who knew better to jump too soon.

However, there is a troubling fissure in this dialogue and debate. Another serious issue that is being swept under the rug is class issues in the African-American community.

Several months ago, a burgeoning female scholar by the name of Chanequa Campbell, who hails from Brooklyn, NY, was kicked out of her campus dormitory and not allowed to graduate for her association to a murder suspect. More specifically, she was the friend of the suspect’s girlfriend. The confusing part of this case is that while Campbell was banned and not allowed to graduate, the suspect’s girlfriend, Brittany Smith did graduate and is allowed on campus grounds.


Campbell, who says she is from a poor family and was not part of the black elite student circle, has pointed out that it is because of her socio-economic status that she was treated in such a way, and without the support of black Harvard students or faculty. The silence of black Harvard in the case of Campbell drastically contrasting the racket made in support of Gates illuminates the serious class issues that have caused serious boiling points in the African-American community.

Gates is an established historian known most recently for his documentary, “African American Lives,” a series that connects noted African-Americans back to their complex lineages such as Oprah Winfrey, Tina Turner, and Morgan Freeman. He is at the zenith of his career. He has achieved what many scholars dream.

On the other hand, Chanequa Campbell was at the beginning of her academic journey. She too has been praised for her academic success, but since her dismissal, her whole life trajectory is questionable. At a time when Campbell needed the utmost guidance and support from black Harvard faculty and peers, she was quietly disregarded, suggesting that her less-than-desirable background would possibly mar the reputation of blacks on campus.

Though many do not like to acknowledge the classism in African-American communities, it is prevalent throughout the group. It is a hideous historical social construct that is determined by more than wealth, but also skin color and hair texture (espcially for women), education level, and sadly how distant is one’s slave lineage.

Ironically, Gates, who in his African-American heritage series repeatedly points out the “white ” blood in him, so much so, that he smiles in delight when a DNA scientist tells him that he has more white blood than black, is nothing but black when the police come. Yet he is not “too” black to be rallied and insulated by the black and white Harvard community. Yet Campbell, with her Brooklyn roots, who is a darker, young woman with blatant West African features, is too black, even for black Harvard.

Like in the days of DuBois, who was proud of his European ancestry (Dutch and French) and his Massachusetts roots from a community of free people of color who were educated and reasonably prosperous; his pedigree, which also included his physical characteristics, were perfect for the black elite of that time. DuBois’ elitist ideology was so heavy a belief that he campaigned for blacks to support his vision of the “Talented Tenth” or a group of black intelligentsia that would further the black race and lead the rest of the group. This idea was heavily contested by other thinkers and black activists of the time, but the idea and practice of an insulated, crème de la crème, black circle still remains.

It is not surprising that Gates’ (or should I say gatekeeper's) name has been saved, and in some eyes, has been elevated, while someone like Campbell, who could’ve been the next Gates or Oprah, or perhaps furthered his work, is now forgotten.

****RETRACTION*****When I wrote this article, I pulled a write up from the NY Post that said in a May 25, 2009 report, Brittany Smith was not barred from campus. However, in a Newsweek report I saw yesterday, Smith was not allowed to graduate like Campbell.

11 ish talking intellectuals holla at a sista:

Anonymous said...

She was kicked out of her dorm, and not allowed to graduate, for no reason other than because she associated with a murder suspect's girlfriend? But the girlfriend was allowed to graduate?

Come on, that doesn't pass the smell test. There must be more to the story.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Very deep post. I came over from Field Negro's blog.

I agree class is something we really don't talk about. If Ms. Campbell was from "the Gold Coast" of DC and looked like Thandie Newton I doubt she would have been kicked to the curb so quickly.

I know she's want to move over here to Italy. Good for her. Every country has its issues but I'm much happier since I left the States.

Anonymous said...

Turns out that a lot of black students at Harvard thought she was involved with drugs, and declined to support her.

Black students at Harvard aren't exactly shy about speaking up, so if they didn't support her I think it says something.

GiGi said...

This intelligent black girl took pride in hanging on to thugs and "ghetto life" life there is something great about living in the hood and consorting with hood rats.

The students did not support her because they know the deal. And so does she.

Not every black person deserves support and she is one of them.

Eco.Soul.Intellectual said...

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Eco.Soul.Intellectual said...
i think we forget that college is a time where many children of all socio-economic backgrounds are introduced to different people from around the world. it is perhaps one of the best times to grow and grow up. in college, you can save a life, and you can save your own by stepping outside of your boundaries and getting to know the humanity of a person in stead of casting hierarchal dispersions.

dismissing someone because they are "ghetto" is as irrelevant as dismissing someone because the are "bourgeois". they both are a bunch of bullshit. just like DuBois would find out after nine decades, the RACE problem was the problem of the 20th century in America, and seems to be the problem today, if we do not consciously deal with how interwoven it is in everyone's psyche.

Whitney B. said...

Just dropped in from the Field.

Bottom line, whether it passes the smell test or not, her girlfriend had a hoodlum boyfriend, not her! She may have been booted for some reason other than her association, but if not, then this is wrong.

I will read the Newsweek article.

Thanks for the post, very interesting.

White's are just as elitist with their own folks. I went to a very elite school on a scholarship and believe me, no one consorted with me either.

At the time I cared, but now I don't because it taught me to treat everyone with respect and equality until they prove otherwise. I have homeless people in my "friends" circle.

ayankha said...

Great Article. I am appalled at some of the comments above. So what if she loved the hood life, she did not murder anyone. If it's guilt by association, then why did girlfriend graduate? You're right there is more to the story and maybe class discrimination might be the very fish that you are smelling.

It always amazes me how people say the boldest things when they are anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to through a wrench in the machine and discuss the role that sexism plays in this situation.

If Ms. Campbell were Antwan Campbell, wouldn't we see Harvard's Black faculty, staff, students and alumni mobilize on his behalf? Wouldn't this story be plastered all over CNN and MSNBC? Wouldn't we see the National Urban League and the NAACP and other "usual suspects" decry racism in Mr. Campbell's dismissal from Harvard? And the truth is we would. This situation reaffirms the idea that Black women aren't worth protecting or defending.

DAL said...

Great blog, and insightful analysis. We really need to deal with the class issue in the Black community.

Kjen said...

Nice analysis.

I think Chanequa was a victim of the 'Jackie Robinson/Rosa Parks' role model syndrom.

I know class and gender played a part, but there seems to be this meme that you have to act a certain way in order to deserve certain protection.

I know that people came out in droves to protest the Jenna 6, but months later when some of the black boys were still getting in trouble - but this time race and overly harsh penalties weren't involved - some commented what a waste of an effort it had been if the boys were still getting into trouble. Same thing with Rodney King.

Gates was an easy rallying point because he easily fit into the "good" negro done wrong by the white man role. No possible stains to his character to possibly embarrass our race there. There's a relief in being able to say without a doubt that you are the faultless victim. Much easier stance to defend.

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