What kind of late 20th-Century garbage is this, and what is the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts?
So you think you look pretty good wearing your pants like that, don't you? Underwear exposed. Hip hop style. Well there's something you may not know.Nonsense like this is something I react to viscerally. Even though I first encountered it in Conor Friedersdorf's cebebral article calling it out for racial profiling and violations of civil liberties, this was my first reaction:
You can be fined up to $300, be placed in a state prison for up to 3 years, or be placed in a county jail for up to 2 years.
You still think it's cool? It's the law. Pull up you pants. Respect yourself.
This message brought to you by the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts.
My second reaction was that this has the tone of some paternalistic The Final Call-era Nation of Islam dogma gone horribly askew, so I googled the name of BMHAM's President "Dr. Omar Reid" with "Nation of Islam". Jackpot:
Reid, 44, grew up in the Nation of Islam and spent 14 years working as a psychologist in Boston Public Schools. He recently earned a doctorate in psychology, and has a practice counseling private clients and contracting with schools for educational assessments.I guess all those years listening to WILD on its deathbed and reading The Final Call in barbershops has finally paid off for me. Not only is Reid the founder of BMHAM but he's also a founder of some nebulous "mental health clinic" called Pyramid Builders Associates Inc. and is associated with The Osiris Group / The Osiris Institute. If you were one of the 13 other people in the 617 listening to WILD in the 2000s you'll remember that Larry Higginbottom and The Osiris Group ran those commercials offering to tame your wild children with discipline and were behind the patriarchal Sunday afternoon call-in show "Famlies Do Matter".
If you weren't, suffice it to say that what they sold was a very conservative cocktail of order by way of traditional gender roles (male and female) and pride by way of an over-simplified "Nubian" past. In other words, it's pretty consistent with Respect yourself! Respect our community! Pull up your pants!, which is also consistent with you kids get off my lawn! and "Riots, melees and disturbances of the peace are against the interest of all our people and therefore cannot be permitted."
For the record, I think the saggy pants fashion is stupid. I didn't like it when I first noticed it in my neighborhood around 1990. I disdained it once I got to junior high and it became so mainstream that the white kids ragged on me for having tight jeans. I think the posture surrounding the fashion statement is most often immature and reeking of false bravado. I thought it was going to die a long time ago.
Some things that I dislike more than baggy pants, though, include: racial profiling, enforcing status offenses, perpetuating stereotypes, and people who keep instigating against cultural acceptance after the battles have been long-decided. In respect to these, I have a few questions for Reid, Higginbottom & Co.:
1) Why, as a group ostensibly advocating for better mental health care policy and access, does BMHAM give tacit support to a law that could place criminally innocent people into a corrections system that is notorious for woefully inadequate mental health care?This kind of stuff is destructive because focusing so harshly on imaginary "problems" with some black people is always at the expense of fighting institutional racism and celebrating the astounding strides black people have made in the face of such debilitating adversity. In no way do I mean to diminish the immense struggle still facing the Black Underclass, and I understand that self-sufficiency and discipline have yielded positive results for black society since at least the days of the founding of the HBCUs, but telling young people that innocent pieces of their culture are disrespectful engenders more feelings of inferiority and more resentment toward the people who are trying to help them improve their psychological and socioeconomic conditions.
2) Why, if you describe the group as (emphasis mine) "the primary and collective voice of Black Americans, ethnic cultural groups and poor people who may not be represented at the mental health policy table" is it simply called the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts?
3) Are you aware that plenty of people who are not black wear their pants in this fashion? If so, why are both of your ad models black?
4) Are you aware that there has been a trend in hip hop for years towards form-fitting pants? If so, why do you specifically call it "hip hop style"? If not, why are you speaking publicly from a position of ignorance?
5) If BMHAM, The Osiris Group and Pyramid Builders collectively believe that "Blacks have been damaged from slavery as well as the American Apartheid" and "[black people] have to educate [their] children about how to keep [their] own power by creating [their] own opportunities" it is right in line with the NOI doctrine of Black separatism. In light of that, how can these organizations put their moral support behind incarcerating people of color into a prison system built upon the pilings of the American Apartheid system?
By wagging the finger like this BMHAM implicitly places blame on black kids, puts them in the same class as drunk drivers, reprises the zero-tolerance/tough-on-crime racist tropes from the 80s and 90s and legitimizes law enforcement thug tactics like racial profiling and stop-and-frisk. In doing so it goes against over a century-and-a-half of Black Americans using affirmation of self and affirmation of culture to fight for better conditions in America. In my own study I have seen this as early as the 1850s (Sojourner Truth delivered her Ain't I a Woman? speech in 1851 and Frederick Douglass's novella The Heroic Slave was published in 1852) and I have seen it repeatedly since then, in literature:
"The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves."in protest:
and in music:
Not only that, but for every Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ralph Abernathy, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Ella Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, Amiri Baraka, Erykah Badu, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Jim Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Common, Bill Cosby, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Medgar Evers, Curt Flood, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Marvin Gaye, Althea Gibson, Peter Gomes, Lorraine Hansberry, Alex Haley, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Spike Lee, John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall, Curtis Mayfield, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Toni Morrison, Mos Def, Huey P. Newton, Charles Ogletree, Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks, Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell, Richard Pryor, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Chris Rock, Bill Russell, Bayard Rustin, Gil Scott-Heron, Al Sharpton, Fred Shuttlesworth, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Alice Walker, Denzel Washington, Cornel West, Isabel Wilkerson, August Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Richard Wright and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz there are untold numbers of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, professors, teachers, social workers, journalists, postal employees, accountants, bus drivers, retail managers, custodians, community organizers, caretakers and caregivers who are all just as unapologetically black and dignified. This very list demonstrates the amazing diversity of style, political belief, socioeconomic background and sexual orientation found among the most successful in the black community, a scope it seems groups like BMHAM, The Osiris Group and Pyramid Builders cannot fit into their narrow conception.
Instead, from that camp we get comments like this, from Sekou Mims, co-author and co-founder of Pyramid Builders:
"The bottom line is that 'We need to 'de-niggerize' [sic] our folks so that they can move ahead, organize, and find success. "First, [sic] Black folks need to eat right so that they can physically develop a healthy body and mind. Then, they need to eliminate the stereotypes presented in the media and truly examine the facts about who they were, who they are now, and who they need to be. Next, they will need people who can help them learn how to walk again, think again and act again..."Call me crazy, but if you want people to respect themselves you probably shouldn't say they need to be "de-niggerized" and tell them that they don't know how to walk, think or act. Instead of preaching something as inane as self-hate as a path to self-respect it might be better to remind them that the history of their people in the United States is centered around making something out of nothing, that there are many different recipes to do it, and that every single one of them already has the stuff inside to make it happen.