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Broken promises... moving on (11/30/2003)
By Janet Lewis Burns
"Shelby Steele challenges black Americans to embrace a pride based on achievement and cultural contribution, and to abandon the self-defeating pride of victimization." This was taken from the introduction to a brilliant, candid compilation by an award winner writer and English professor at San Jose State in California.

"The Content of Our Character," copyright 1990, said to be "the perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate," written by black essayist Shelby Steele, was so spellbinding that I weighed every word. Of the controversial entitlements issue, Steele remarks, ..." a dispiriting impact on blacks...Such policies have the effect of transforming whites from victimizers into patrons and keeping blacks where they have always been - dependent on the largesse of whites."

Steele alludes to the explosion of "black power" in the late sixties, when racial preferences became the order of the day. He decries, "If this paradigm brought blacks entitlements, it also brought us the continuation of our most profound problem in American society: our invisibility as a people."

About writing such a book, the professor commented, "Now I know that if there was a secret to writing this book, it was simply to start from the painfully obvious premise that all races are composed of human beings." Believing that the real trouble between American races is that they are competing power groups, he states, "Black anger always, in a way, flatters white power."

"Collectively, we can resist oppression, but racial development will always be, as Ralph Ellison once put it, ‘the gift of its individuals'." Steele's closing chapter "The Memory of Enemies" is his heart-charged plea to individuals of all races to stop hiding behind the powerful symbol of skin power.

Shelby Steele's conclusive statements are impacting. "...inferiority anxiety, a victim-focused identity, that peculiar mix of personal and racial self-doubt, fear of failure, and even self-hate all combine to make for a fear of self-interested action. And without such action, there can only be despair and inertia."

"To retrieve our individuality and find opportunity, blacks today must - consciously or unconsciously - disregard the prevailing victim-focused black identity," a resolute Steele declares. "Though it espouses black pride, it is actually a repressive identity that generates a victimized self-image, curbs individualism and initiative, diminishes our sense of possibility, and contributes to our demoralization and inertia. It is a skin that needs shedding."

No comment that I could make would do justice to this intellect. Insightfully, Shelby Steele reiterates, "There will be no end to despair and no lasting solution to any of our problems until we rely on individual effort within the American mainstream - rather than collective action against the mainstream - as our means of advancement."

"I believe it is time for blacks to begin the shift from wartime to a peacetime identity, from fighting for opportunity to the seizing of it."

Wow! Contemplating the words of ethnic writers and well-known individuals, the single thread that seems to weave through all of their accounts is their desire to be heard... "Please listen, I have something noteworthy to say. I want you to understand where I'm coming from."

Eleanor Roosevelt's statement could have graced Steele's novel: "Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one."

Maya Angelo has a very deep well. "My grandmother, who was one of the greatest human beings I've ever known, used to say, ‘I am a child of God and I'm nobody's creature.' That to me defined the black woman through the centuries."

Just think, individual human beings, with open minds and desires for change, could transform all this food for thought into reality...

"Ebony and ivory, living in perfect harmony." Why not? 


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