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Bill Maxwell

Cultural baggage and the problems it carries

Because my column is syndicated, not a week goes by that someone somewhere in the United States does not e-mail me with a message like this: "You black people need to drop your baggage."

Years ago, I stopped reading such words as an insult. Instead, I treat them as an indication of American insensitivity and ignorance regarding black people born and reared in this country.

People worldwide have what scholars pejoratively refer to as "cultural baggage," the collection of hard-wired memories, beliefs, sentiments and other traits and patterns that give human beings their basic identities. People are the sum total of their cultural baggage that comes from their complex history, from their customs and traditions, from their experiences with their immediate neighbors, from their treatment in the wider world.

Historians Darrett and Anita Rutman contend that our cultural baggage permeates our thinking, speech and behavior without our being aware of the process. Our baggage, which includes our unconscious assumptions, determines in profound ways how we interact with people of other cultures.

Although baggage is universal, the baggage of select groups is judged to be superior to others. Some are treated gingerly, even reverently. Others, such as that of blacks born and reared in America, get no respect. As I have said, we African-Americans are constantly admonished to get rid of our baggage, to "get over" our history.

I do not know of another group in this country whose history is viewed so cavalierly as being disposable.

Paradoxically, many white Southerners, even while channeling the defeated "Forget, Hell!" baggage of their slave-owning forebears, lead the drumbeat in telling the offspring of slaves to "move on" and forget all those generations of being human chattel.

Southerners, along with many Republicans nationwide, are not alone in rejecting black traits and patterns as the election of President Barack Obama shows. Many whites voted for Obama precisely because he did not exhibit black traits and patterns — black cultural baggage.

Ironically, while legions of whites were encouraging the junior senator from Illinois to run for the White House during 2006, many blacks had not given Obama their support because he had not shown that he was "black enough." Remember that? Hillary Clinton still enjoyed widespread black support.

I wrote back then that the Obama phenomenon was not new. Like they had done for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, whites, along with pundits of all stripes, declared that Obama transcended race. He was that rare black politician who is not seen as a "black leader," a mostly disparaging term ascribed to the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

Obama did not discomfort white people, having learned that black politicians who do so commit suicide if they run for national office.

Colin Powell has been the most forthright black at the national level with regard to race and black cultural baggage. In an Ebony magazine interview nearly a decade ago, he acknowledged that he was hugely successful, in part, because he did not look black, did not sound black and did not act black. In short, he said, he made whites feel comfortable.

In his bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope, published before he was a presidential candidate, Obama had a Powell-like moment of introspection. He wrote that "my own upbringing hardly typifies the African-American experience" and that "largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the average black man must endure."

While we Americans pride ourselves in having elected our first black president, the reality of that claim is dubious.

White voters could support Obama and avoid coming to terms with black history and black experience. They did not have to contemplate the corrosive and residual effects of slavery, lynching and burnings, destruction of black homes by the klan and other white supremacist groups, separate-but-equal public schools, redlining and other horrors of bigotry — all the stuff of our cultural baggage.

Obama's election was not an embrace of blackness. As the president wrote: His "own upbringing hardly typifies the African-American experience."

Cultural baggage and the problems it carries 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 5:47pm]

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