by Nyle Fort
“You have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”—Nina Simone
Growing up, I loved holiday meals. From the macaroni n’ cheese and glazed ham to the family prayer and post-meal itis, holidays were times when we affirmed our love, told our stories, and upheld our traditions. Following family tradition, the elders forced children to sit at the “kiddy table,” reserving the “grown-up table” for adults. I hated the kiddy table. Compared to the grown-up table, our table was small, cheap, aesthetically inferior, and almost always situated somewhere in the house where we could be, as mama would say, “seen but not heard.” As much as I loved those holiday meals, I couldn’t wait for the day that I got my own “seat at the table”—the grown-up table, that is.
Two weeks ago, Lupita Nyong’o swept (white) America off her feet, triggering a national media frenzy, what many have named “Lupita fever.” Certainly, media “cinderellas” and Academy “darlings” aren’t new. What is new, however, is the color of this “Cinderella’s” skin and the candor of (white) America’s obsession with black bodies. Understandably so, many within the black community are thrilled at Lupita’s rise and relevance within the white worlds of Hollywood and mainstream media. Still, some of us are suspicious. I am happy and suspicious. I am suspicious of (white) America’s obsession with her body, beauty, and brilliance. While I celebrate with all black women who are affirmed by her public presence and find inspiration in, not only her skin, but also her story, I am skeptical of (white) America’s fetishization of her appearance. After all, Lupita is not a safari animal to be gazed upon, chattered about, and named “_______” (insert racialized code word) by a white, wealthy elite. I am not okay with celebrating her uncritically. It’s not enough to call this moment a “fever,” wait for the temperature to drop, and resume talking about Beyoncé’s surfboard and/or watermelon (no shade to the BeyHive). If we are going to call this moment a “fever” (that is, a symptom), then the question remains: what is the sickness that sparked its rise? We are in need of a serious and sophisticated diagnosis—not of Lupita’s “fever,” but of (white) America’s pathologies.
Throughout U.S. history, black people have been told, and treated as if, we are inherently pathological. From politics to media, science to religion, education to law, black people have been represented as nonhuman and rendered disposable. The only thing more tragic than this is that some of us believe it. Some of us internalize white racism and black-phobia, accepting white supremacist fictions as essential black facts. Consequently, black girls and boys are forced to grow up in a world, in a country, in a ghetto, where they are constantly told—by police, schoolteachers, billboards, and even some self-hating black folk—that they ain’t shit and won’t ever be shit. For black women, subject to the evils of white supremacy and patriarchal domination, the struggle is, as Frances Beal once described it, a kind of “double jeopardy.” Thus, black women not only have to deal with the racism of white America, but also the sexism of white and black men alike. Whether the trope of black male criminality or the myth of black female inferiority, the dominant narrative remains: black people are responsible for white oppression.
But what happens when the moral stethoscope is taken off the back of the black body politic and placed directly on the heart of (white) America? If listening critically, I believe a different sound reverberates. With black America as doctor and white America as patient, an entirely new narrative emerges, unveiling the mendacity of the “American dream” and the reality of an unacknowledged American disease. The trope of black male criminality is rendered as code for white fear and capitalist greed, as the myth of black female inferiority is seen as a cover-up for white insecurity and patriarchal domination. In short, that which was formerly declared as a “black problem” must now be diagnosed as a white pathology. Through this diagnosis, it becomes clear that “Lupita fever” isn’t really about Lupita at all. It’s about America and her inherent pathology.
At the heart of American pathology is an absolute denial of the humanity of black folk who, within the (white) American imagination, can be anything but human. We can be sub human or super human, but just not human like white people. We can be a “gangsta” like 50 Cent or a “god” like Kanye but not a “normal” American citizen. We can make it to the jailhouse or maybe even the White House, but most of us can’t afford a house of our own. We are either demonized or deified. And it is here, precisely here, that I see “Lupita fever” at work. Lupita’s celebrity, not all that different from Obama’s presidency, is being lifted up by (white) liberal America as an example for black folk to follow and an exception for white liberals to manipulate. Lupita’s reported “beauty,” “eloquence,” and “professionalism” has less to do with her and more to do with a larger, mythological narrative of black progress vis-à-vis black exceptionalism. There is the idea that black people must be doing better since we have a black president and now a black Hollywood sensation. However, exceptions aren’t new, and nor are they sufficient.
Racial exceptionalism is a dangerous discourse that obscures the realities of black life. The majority of black folk are struggling and there is another, much more insidious “fever” currently sweeping across the U.S.: mass incarceration. And according to recent reports, not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate out of any other country in world history, but black women now constitute the fastest growing prison population in the nation. So the question remains: what does it mean for Lupita’s body to be fetishized while countless bodies of black women across the country are being fettered and locked into cages? More specifically, what does it mean for Lupita’s beauty to be praised less than a year after Renisha’s body was mutilated, at the very same moment that Marissa Alexander is being retried for 60 years for protecting herself, and in the same country that still doesn’t see black women as human, let alone beautiful? It means that we live in a country that has convinced itself that pathology is progress. Now, if that ain’t ratchet, I don’t know what is.
There’s been much talk lately—at academic institutions, among religious groups, and within mainstream discourse—about creating space at the table: “the table” symbolizing access and inclusion into dominant society. When I hear this kind of talk, I can’t help but think about how far I’ve come. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get my own seat at the table, now I’ve learned to say “no thanks”—not merely to the “grown-up table” of my family tradition but, more importantly, to the greedy table of U.S. imperialism. Why I would want to sit in the same place and around the same people that excluded and inferiorized me, and those who look like me, for so long? I don’t want a seat at a table that was built and is maintained in the interest of consolidating power for a privileged elite. I don’t want a seat at the table of white supremacy, nor do I want to fellowship at the tables of patriarchal domination, religious homophobia, or economic inequality. The table is the problem, not me, not black women, not us. Inviting an “exceptional” few from a historically oppressed community to “the table” is not a sign of progress. It’s hegemony masquerading as progress. Symbolism is not structural change. Symbolic gestures don’t fundamentally change, let alone challenge, the system of evil that created the table in the first place. The table, itself, must be destroyed. And we will destroy it. We will burn it to the ground with…prophetic fire!
Nina Simone was right. We ought to get up from the table, any table, where love is not present. But, what’s the point of leaving the table if we still desire the food being served? It’s not enough to leave the table physically if we don’t abandon it psychologically. Prophetic fire is a mode of being, a way of seeing and engaging the world, an everyday practice that includes, but is not limited to, speaking truth to power, radical love, interpersonal accountability, institution building, and artistic struggle. Prophetic fire not only creates the conditions for the possibility of a radical dismantling of the table of U.S. hegemony, but it also begins the process of deprogramming the taste that draws us to the table in the first place.
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Nyle Fort is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, freelance writer and grassroots community organizer living in Newark, NJ.
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