I would like to think that I am cognizant and critical of what Adolph Reed has called the tendency to romance Jim Crow where the nostalgia of a more settled, dignified black community often masks class inequalities and deep economic deprivation. I understand his point and yet, I do believe that there were some political understandings in that moment that we just do not have now. Poverty does not make you uncritical; but today’s consumer capitalism, media, mass/popular culture surely do. Today, I am thinking about this in terms of the record we leave behind and how we understand the lives of children of color who are not our own.
The June 12 video at the youtube channel called AllThingsHarlem made me think of this because I see the filmmaker as a Red-Record-Keeper, as part of a historical black protest tradition (and obviously, by calling him a Red-Record-Keeper, I am referencing Ida B. Wells’s writing where she chronicled and protested lynch law).
For me, this kind of video is the best of what youtube and the digital universe have to offer me. Because our digital world is market-driven under new regimes of capitalism and the individualist, neoliberal imperative, this kind of work at AllThingsHarlem is hardly the norm.
I see this Red-Record-Keeper doing something phenomenally different from what I see many folk of color doing online when it comes to youth: building a kind of digital resume of their children’s individual accomplishments and feats. I understand that people live long distances from their extended families and share information online but I don’t get when these sites and images are open to the public, which is more normative than not. And I don’t get when these children’s lives are being chronicled as triumphs of neoliberal accumulation instead of openings into the larger communities in which we come to understand ourselves.
I am reminded here of an acquaintance who pointed me in the direction of his friend, a scholar of color, who he continually INSISTED was a kind of third-world-radical, never really backing down from that position. On the contrary, I saw this person as someone who was performing a kind of caricature of a radical-chic, never concealing how mesmerized by and covetous of whiteness they were, and claiming minority status only when it was convenient after almost a lifetime of passing as white— all of which are pretty common in academia. Simply out of curiosity, I decided to do some google image and video searching. I was convinced that this scholar would showcase all manner of white individualism in personal photos and videos online. I was not wrong. I typed in the scholar’s name and then, just one click in, there were photos of not-so-cute children (I am mean, I know, but I gotta be honest here), with one dressed as Crocodile Dundee and it was NOT even Halloween!! That’s right: Halloween wasn’t even around the co’ner; this was a reg’lar excursion. I’m dead-serious. I really wouldn’t lie about something like this. I couldn’t even make up something like this if I wanted to. Yes, a “third world radical” calling their child the white male character in a horribly racist and colonialist film (I wouldn’t have actually known that the intention was for the child to look like Dundee but it was explicitly named and celebrated as such in the caption/title.) Now, you would think my acquaintance would have mentioned or questioned this stuff since he certainly witnessed all of it way before I did and in much stronger doses (that one photo was all I could stand …I couldn’t even glance at all the foolishness captured on video). Since all these folk proclaim themselves radical scholars, they must think that the very real nooses around black people’s necks in Wells’s The Red Record were simply a theoretical metaphor. And KRS-One’s words about police brutality must also just be more metaphor, just a background song on the video above, all while black and Latin@ children are routinely violated just on their way to school in NYC. This very real violence is simply not part of your politics when you are digitally celebrating your children’s visual proximity to Crocodile Dundee with a peanut gallery of folk of color proclaiming and co-signing this as “radical” consciousness.
Even if this child wasn’t made into the Dundee-Lookalike-Extraordinaire, I would still have questions about this kind of objectification of children’s bodies in a digital universe where all children can now publicly dance, sing, and perform like Little Shirley Temples for the empire’s cameras. Be clear: I am NOT talking about recording and keepsaking children’s wonderful spontaneous moments, school events, sports, or community functions; I am talking about grown folk who deliberately create digital spectacles from children’s orchestrated, pre-rehearsed performances in a living room. In this world, of course, the Dundees, though ridiculously exploited, still come out on top because not all children/commodities have good stock value; some can be discarded like the ones caught on the film above. Cameras can amazingly reveal what we really see and value in the world.
I know this Dundee narrative seems like a crazy detour but it is an example of why I am so drawn to people who do the kind of digital work that you see in the youtube video that I have highlighted at the top. This brotha is not someone who will only construct, notice, and chronicle the individualist accumulations of biological offspring. Maybe it’s because he’s not the academy’s typical critical theorist who is reading books about radical thought but never actually thinking and doing any of it. For him, radical ideas are NOT something that you do for university approval while you live the rest of your life as an imperialist. Adolph Reed hit this best for me when he says such intellectuals are sealed “hermetically into the university so that oppositional politics becomes little more than a pose livening up the march through the tenure ranks. In this context the notion of radicalism is increasingly removed from critique and substantive action. Disconnected from positive social action, radical imagery is also cut loose from standards of success or failure; it becomes a mere stance, the intellectual equivalent of a photo-op.”
I hope to pay more attention to these kinds of Red-Record-Keepers today. I am grateful to my special sistafriends, real maroons, committed allies, and genuine colleagues who will challenge me if I start forgetting or slippin on that kind of work. Otherwise, history will look back on we “radical scholars of color” who did nothing but act as neoliberal individualists who digitally chronicled, celebrated, and defended ourselves/our children/Crocodile Dundee for accumulation of white capital.