Idris Elba, Ben Carson and the Good Negro Trap

Keith Boykin

by Keith Boykin

Back in the day before I shaved my head, I used to get a hair cut every Friday afternoon from my barber in the District of Columbia. I loved the look and feel of a fresh hair cut, and my Black friends would often comment when they saw me. In contrast, my white friends rarely noticed the difference.

There’s something about the shared experience of Blackness that allows us to see each other in a way that outsiders often don’t perceive. A hairstyle, a choice of clothing or a turn of phrase can provide clues about another person’s background or enable us to gauge levels of connectivity to the larger community.

From my experience, Black people are often good judges of other Black people. But because we live in a white-dominated society, we don’t always get to choose which Black people are selected by white gatekeepers to represent us. That’s part of the reason I was disappointed to read a quote from author Anthony Horowitz this week that British actor Idris Elba was “too street” to play the role of charming British spy James Bond, as if 007 weren’t also a gambling, murdering womanizer with an alcohol problem.
Horowitz suggested Adrian Lester, a lesser known Black actor, would be a better choice than Elba. Lester seems a capable actor, but he lacks the star appeal or the sex appeal of an Elba, who has graced American magazine covers from Ebony to Esquire to GQ.

Horowitz later apologized for his comment, but there was still something troubling about the idea of white gatekeepers determining acceptable Blacks based on coded language about their identification with the “street.”

The comment reminded me of the demeaning way in which white Republicans derided Barack Obama as a “community organizer” when he ran for president in 2008. The underlying sentiment in both comments was that white gatekeepers would prefer Blacks who are not “too Black” or “too threatening.”
Black Republicans like Ben Carson — who is now surging in GOP polls because of his “niceness” — fit perfectly with the notion of non-aggressive Blackness. “Carson has a very traditional American attitude toward success,” writes Rich Lowry in the right-wing National Review. “Don’t consider yourself a victim. Don’t begrudge others their success. Get an education, work hard, and thank God you were born in the greatest country in the world.”

In Lowry’s eyes, Black Americans are not supposed to acknowledge or deconstruct the persistence of racism in their lives or prescribe any non-market-based solutions to address it. Hence, he purposefully misdescribes Obama’s policies as rooted in the principle “that you can’t help yourself.”

The juxtaposition between Obama and Carson or Elba and Lester harkens back to classic contrasts of the “good Negro” versus the “bad Negro.” NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois was often compared to the less political educator Booker T. Washington. Anti-Vietnam boxing champion Muhammad Ali was pitted against the image of his clean-cut predecessor Joe Louis. The Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X was compared to peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Martin Luther King Jr. Even Seattle Seahawks’ Christian quarterback Russell Wilson has been compared to San Francisco 49ers’ tattoo-loving Colin Kaepernick.

For most African-Americans, we find space for all these Black heroes to coexist, but what we resent is the notion that white people, with little knowledge or interest in Black culture, get to decide who represents us, or that we have to be limited to one form of representation in the first place.

On the occasions when we do express our preferences for one Black person over another, as in Obama over Carson or Thurgood Marshall over Clarence Thomas or even Susan Rice over Condoleezza Rice, our viewpoints are often invalidated by conservative white decision makers who try to convince us that we’ve been duped by “race hustlers,” as if we’re not intelligent enough to think on our own and come to our own conclusions.

Black people are always jumping through hoops to prove their worthiness to white society. We’ve learned to live with the double standards that require Black presidential candidates like Obama to hold two Ivy League degrees while acceptable white candidates like Sarah Palin or Scott Walker barely make it through, or don’t complete, college at all.

We’ve learned that society rarely validates us in history, and we’ve created institutions to validate ourselves. But we’ve also learned there’s always going to be some smart-mouthed white guy, who probably can’t tell the difference between cornrows and dreadlocks, who claims he knows what’s best.
Meanwhile, Elba waited patiently through the controversy and finally responded with the same suave wit one would expect from James Bond. “Always keep smiling,” he said on Instagram. “It takes no energy and never hurts! Learned that from the Street!”

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