Thursday, January 01, 2009

When is Being Cool, Too Cool to Survive?


When is Being Cool, Too Cool to Survive?

As a young man growing up, dividing my time between the Pueblo Del Rio projects and Watts, in South/Central Los Angeles, one of the first things I learned about survival in the Black community was the importance of being cool. To be cool meant to gain popularity through a well developed sense of style, while at the same time maintaining an air of feigned indifference. The key to being cool was to be able to play it off as though the very demeanor that you were dedicating every waking hour trying to perfect, was absolutely meaningless to you. If a young man could pull that off, it would go a long way towards keeping him safe in a very dangerous environment. Thus, in a very real sense, one of the most important qualities for a young man to learn in order to survive in the Black community, was how to become the most effective phony that he could be.

That continues to be the case today, among many of the weak in the community, because it is primarily the weak, those youngsters who lack parental support, who find it necessary to turn to the street and gangsterism to find a sense of identity. The only difference between when I was growing up and today is, the sense of style, the first component of what it meant to be cool (and the very characteristic which often made it possible for a young man to escape to a better life), has been completely overwhelmed by the latter, feigned indifference, an attitude that all but guarantees that many of today's young people will be trapped in a downward spiral for life.

The problem is, feigned indifference has become, actual indifference–an indifference towards life, dignity, knowledge, responsibility, and all the social tools and resources that are necessary to establish any kind of viable lifestyle in a modern society. Social indifference has become so much a part of these young people's lives that they go out of their way to corrupt even the most routine social conventions, like tying their shoes, pulling their pants up, or wearing their caps straight. The message is, I don't have time to be bothered with such nonsense. But unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of nonsense that goes into being able to raise and support a family.

Ordinarily one would be safe in saying, ok, each to his own. If they don't want to tie their shoes or pull up their pants, that's their prerogative. But it's not as easy as that. We're not just dealing with the chosen lifestyle of one individual, or even a handful of individuals–we are now tasked with having to stamp out an attitude that is permeating our entire community.

This attitude of gross indifference towards society is perniciously insidious, and due to its widespread dissemination through the hip hop and gangster rap culture, it's affecting an entire generation of young people. And I'm not only talking about a dress code here--this antagonism towards social convention is also having a negative impact on our young peoples' ability to speak business English–"What it is?"; "What it be like?!!!" Verbal constructions such as these can all but guarantee that a young man won't be able to get through a job interview, or support a family.

Our young people aren't born with an antagonism towards society, they are taught these attitudes early in life as a defense mechanism against the lowered self-esteem attendant to their early failures. Due to the Black community's low priority for education, many of our young people don't have the support either in the home or the community to become effective learners. As a direct result of that lack of support, if (make that when) they fall behind in school, they stay behind, and as the material becomes progressively more complicated, they see it as impossible to catch up.

Once that downward spiral begins, these young people become frustrated, and start looking for a defense mechanism to salvage their self-esteem. Then with the able assistance of those in the community who insist that their "inability" to learn is a "White plot" to keep the Black man down, our young people are given both a convenient excuse for failure, and a foundation upon which to build a lifetime of hostility towards society.

But before I go on, I'd like to make several points abundantly clear. First, it is not my contention that the larger society is completely blameless in this scenario, but Black people are not helpless children, so in the final analysis, it is primarily our responsibility to salvage our own community.

In addition, since knowledge is free, while we can blame the White man for a number of atrocities over the years, trying to blame him for our failure to educate ourselves stands as a direct assault on our own credibility. Education is a proactive endeavor. One cannot BE educated--one must educate one's self. And since there is just as much knowledge in the corner library as there is at Harvard University, if one is undereducated, it's one's own fault.

And finally, I'm not so old-school that I don't realize that with every generation the older generation brings up some of these same issues, but sometimes they're right. They were right, for example, about some of our excesses in the sixties. Many of the problems that we're currently having with crime, drugs, the disrespect of our women, and political corruption is a direct result of our laissez faire attitude towards social convention during that generation. Think about it–if Richard Nixon had done anything close to what George Bush has done over the past eight years, he would have been impeached, and maybe even jailed. But George Bush is literally getting away with murder, and a flagrant assault on the United States Constitution–and the reason he's getting away with it is because our society is rapidly slipping down the slippery slop of decadence, due to the apathy brought on by society's growing tolerance for ignorance.

So now is an excellent time for Black people to level the playing field, but in order to do so, it is incumbent upon us to step up to the plate to curb the excesses in the Black community. We must start by refusing to settle for the status quo, and insisting on a lot less talk, and a lot more action from our churches, politicians, and others who benefit from our community's support. Our churches do an excellent job of spreading the word, now we need them to become just as prolific at spreading the deed–we must insist upon it. We must also insist that these institutions initiate, encourage, and support programs in the community that assist low-income families, promote the education of our young people, and thereby, lift their self-esteem.

And finally, we must begin to lavish our props and rewards upon those who bring excellence, knowledge, and honor to our community over those who simply bring entertainment. Because, to paraphrase an old sports announcer from years past, if life was a department store, you'd find music and sports in the toy department.

Eric L. Wattree

A moderate is one who embraces truth over ideology.

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