How to Write About Black People (and Other Humans)

I didn't want to get in the way of Jelani's excellent piece on New Birth by offering commentary in the post, but I do want to hone in one particular portion of his post:

If the reaction of the faithful was any measure, Long's survival was already assured. One woman shouted "You don't have to tell us nothin" before he began to speak and the place erupted again. And she was right. For many there was no need for Long to explain himself, to detail what might drive four young men to lodge separate yet similar claims of abuse or confess how exactly he came to text photos of himself in tight workout clothes to adolescent boys. At that point I recognized that my concerns were misplaced. There would be no disillusionment, no void in the spirit as Long was guilt proof. For years he had offered a theology meant to immunize his ranks from the hurts of the world, to inure them to the wounds of life - even those that might be self inflicted. 

It didn't matter that he gave a non-denial denial: "I am not a perfect man, but I am not the man you've seen on television." Or that he essentially dragged a portable crucifix into the sanctuary and nailed his own palms "I am under attack... this is the most difficult time in my life." Or that the words innocent, untrue, slander, false, baseless, lie or exonerate appeared nowhere in his comments. I gathered that in building New Birth, Long had essentially wrought an elaborate knot of the kind that any attempt to untie only serves to tighten it.

I spend a lot of time here bemoaning writing about black people. I do not bemoan its "negativity." I do not wish it to show us "in a more positive light." I would not have all our images modeled on Soul Food. I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor--boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.

This is the quality that I so often find in Jelani's writing. He is talking about black people, ostensibly, but what he's really writing about is a branch of humanity, something reflective of the whole, not a deviant part. The two graphs I've pulled out are beautiful, but their beauty does not emanate from ornamentation or majesty, but from their clear-headed aggression, their confidence and their modesty. Jelani does not delude you into thinking that he is going to answer all your deepest questions about black folks. He is simply telling you about one man, at one church, and how race--among many other things--helped shape his situation. What he brings back is fresh and clean.

Clean writing proceeds from clean thinking. Over the next few days you will see many people brandishing their latest "Whither Eddie Long" scribblings rendered through the lens of popular debate culture (Negroes--homophobic or not? Go.) Most of these people will be pretending to ask questions that they know full well don't have answers. That will not stop them.