City Lit: Dead Reckoning

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In The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, Randall Robinson’s passionate argument galvanized the reparations movement, bringing a certain legitimacy to the controversial idea of compensating blacks for the ravages of slavery. In his new book, The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other, Robinson takes on a topic that’s equally explosive: that some black men, like himself, end up successful, and others are members of an “endangered social species.”

The linchpin of The Reckoning is “The Luncheon,” Robinson’s brilliant and self-absorbed analysis of himself as an invited speaker to a luncheon. This one is sponsored by the Black Male Empowerment Summit at Howard University, whose mission is to “salvage’’ and “empower” black men. “I will give my LEGO talk,” broods Robinson, “patched together extemporaneously from the thousands of speeches I have made before…now I know that this is part of what depresses me. I am giving a performance.”

But this time it’s different. At this luncheon he meets Richard “Peewee” Kirkland. After listening to Kirkland describe a life mired in poverty, crime, and lack of education, Robinson experiences an epiphany: He is part of an elite cadre of black writers, intellectuals, and civil rights leaders constantly pontificating on the American lecture circuit about the social maladies that confront the poor. Yet people like Kirkland, three-dimensional poor and uneducated black men, are rarely in the audience. Forced to confront this dissonance, he concludes that there must be a reconciliation or, as he puts it, a “reckoning.”

Robinson seems utterly surprised by Kirkland’s vivid descriptions of the urban geography where poor blacks live in virtual quarantine. His candor is beguiling: “I live in the District of Columbia but I don’t know how to locate the voting wards on a city map. I know about Bujumbara, Burundi. Why is this? …rationalizing, I could reason, painful though it would be, that I am no different from anyone else, that I, like tens of millions of other wanderlust victims, am an easy mark for the Somewhere Else Industry.”

This straightforward assessment reads like a summary of Robinson’s career. As founder and executive director of a lobbying organization called TransAfrica, he spent his career as an African and Caribbean foreign policy advocate. In the nation’s capital, where TransAfrica is headquartered and where Robinson lived and lobbied on behalf of Africa and the Caribbean, drug-related homicide has literally wiped out a generation of black males. Here, ghettos exist not far from the venetian blinds of the White House and Capitol Hill. If Robinson failed to pay attention to this, The Reckoning is his guilt-ridden call-to-arms for other elite blacks who, like him, earn their living in the social advocacy business.

Primarily through an examination of Kirkland’s life, Robinson descends the social steps into an inferno of black poverty he knows little or nothing about. Kirkland, 56, came of age in the grinding poverty of Harlem. At the age of 13, he was a loan shark and jewel thief, and he laundered securities. (Later we learn that Kirkland was a street basketball legend, getting drafted as point guard by the Chicago Bulls before he ended up, for reasons Robinson does not clarify, a millionaire drug dealer on the streets of Harlem.) After serving 10 years in prison, Kirkland now runs the School for Skillz in New York City, a basketball camp where embattled black males are taught coping skills and encouraged to pursue an education.

Robinson uses Kirkland’s life–which he posits as a linear progression of failure–to make larger assertions about poor black men. Adapting the kind of controversial literary techniques Edmond Morris used in Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Robinson invents “dialogue, family circumstance and personas…inasmuch as I could not learn the internal details of their lives.”

Robinson also uses fictionalized and non-fictionalized stories–a practice prevalent in the work of critical race theorists–to analyze the plight of people of color in American society. His insightful self-introspection shifts to a rigid fatalism in the fictionalized story “Washington, D.C. In The Year 2076,” about the exponential incarceration of black males. In this dystopic vision of the future, “the American public school had become, in all but a few Midwestern and Western states, a pre-prison holding pen for the country’s poor.”

At this point, Robinson’s better-late-than-never analysis degenerates into holier-than-thou outrage. He argues that the American body politic systematically denies opportunities to poor black males and reduces them to “penal grist” for the new domestic form of chattel slavery which he calls the Prison Industrial Complex.

There is something to be said for all this. The urban poor do live with this dirty little secret: that the education they receive does not expand their social imagination, nor does it prepare them for careers. They are being trained for jobs at the lowest level of society or, if truth be told, no job at all.

And yet Robinson represents a group of prominent leaders, intellectuals, and writers who only address the problems of black Americans in terms of white transgression–police brutality and other legacies of slavery. The American lecture circuit abounds with elite black American fatalists who earn stratospheric honorariums for telling well-meaning whites that poor blacks have little or no opportunities.

While it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the social problems of poor blacks, to say nothing of structural racism in American life, many of these highly-paid fatalists come from austere backgrounds themselves, and even have poor relatives they support. Yet they have found a way to become successful. Why don’t they talk about that?

How was it possible for Robinson–reared in segregated Virginia, from a stable family of limited means, only four years older than Kirkland–to graduate from Harvard Law School and reach upper middle-class status? What are the variables of his socio-economic progress? Does it have implications for other blacks who moved to northern cities in the Great Migration? Where is the Marshall Plan within these communities to address the failure of urban education? What are the responsibilities of black parents? Robinson does not say.

Instead, he blithely attributes his success to the unbroken intergenerational ties of his family. This singular explanation cannot solely account for his success. Robinson, the astute African and Caribbean foreign policy advocate, does not elaborate. As a consequence, he leaves us wondering: Exactly what do blacks owe to each other?

Ellis cose knows. In The Envy of The World: On Being A Black Man In America, he offers the kind of codified prescriptions for achievement that are central to the dinner table, barbershop, beauty parlor, and street corner conversations that black Americans have every day about success and failure.

These conversations–strategic planning sessions for achievement–form a legacy of pragmatic optimism. Most of them begin with the premise that black Americans have made progress, while also acknowledging that Colin Powell could still be stopped on the highway for impersonating the Secretary of State.

Cose concedes that racism is a fixture of American life (so are many other things). Offering a step-by-step guide to his own success and what he’s learned from it, Cose charts a course for black American male achievement that is far more nuanced than the linear and inevitable failure for many poor black men foreseen by Robinson.

Robinson is to be commended for acknowledging the debt he and others owe to poor black men, and the consequences of ignoring their plight. But the initial candor of The Reckoning implodes, ultimately extending the loathsome, self-fulfilling performance–the fatalistic performance of an elite black man who earns a very good living on the lecture circuit articulating the inevitable failure of black males–that Robinson so brilliantly critiques in “The Luncheon.”

In his determination to examine Peewee Kirkland and other black men as “slaves” of the Prison Industrial Complex, Robinson avoids the more nuanced realities of poor black people’s lives. The glaring economic chasm between poor and middle-class blacks has been widening for some time. This is not news. The already tragic number of black men in prison continues to grow. This is not news. The dramatic increase of black women being incarcerated is news–as is the growing number of black Americans who work in prisons as correction officers, wardens and counselors. Yet Robinson overlooks these things completely.

Robinson and Cose represent two competing visions, split between pointing the finger at them and pointing the finger at us, of how to address the plight of black males who are not making progress. In its pessimism, The Reckoning divorces itself from the mystery and manners of black American pragmatism–the tradition that Cose roots his book in–where blacks told each other, before their fingernails hardened in their mother’s womb, “Child, you have to be three times better than white folks to make it in this world.”

Hakim Hasan is the director of the Audrey Cohen College Urban Institute.