The sad thing about Tracy Morgan’s insights into homosexuality last week during a stand-up act—among which was that homosexuality is wrong because “God don’t make no mistakes”—is that they are part of a sad pattern. Wise people like to point to the racism lying always “just underneath” our thin American skins. Well, an equally wise observation is that a certain especially acrid brand of homophobia lies “just underneath” in too many of America’s black men.
Too often, when things get a little ugly, or a little funny, or a little uncensored, out it comes. Morgan regaled the audience with the likes of saying that if his son came home gay he would “pull out a knife and stab that little nigger,” a statement rich enough for a book’s worth of analysis in itself.
Or, one gets “faggot.” The actor Isaiah Washington, of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, pulled that one during an altercation with co-star T.R. Knight in 2006. Washington’s subsequent defense, that he didn’t say it to Knight but to Patrick Dempsey, is hardly soothing—why that word at all? More recently, Kobe Bryant, ticked off at a referee, called him a “fucking faggot.”
Objections that white people are no stranger to the relevant word are of no interest here. Yes, it wasn’t blacks who taunted Tyler Clementi into killing himself, nor were Matthew Shepherd’s murderers black. But the truth is that homophobia has a nastier sting in the black community overall than it does in the white community overall. There is a problem. Talking around it helps no one. Nor will the fashionable strategy of tarring the whole discussion as “pathologizing” the black community, as if black people’s history in slavery and Jim Crow somehow makes us exempt from criticism.
A Pew poll showed 65 percent of blacks thinking of homosexuality as wrong compared to 48 percent of whites. Black voters played a disproportionate role in getting the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008. On a more intuitive level, when’s the last time we heard about Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, or Steve Carell calling people faggots in heated moments?
There’s a reason: The word has a particular place in black culture. Black culture is many wonderful things. But being rooted in it is unfortunately also why a college-educated black man like Isaiah Washington, earnestly and reasonably billing himself on the cover of his new book as “actor, father, and philanthropist,” is also someone who could erupt with “faggot” when things got tense backstage.
“The smart kid is second only to the ‘faggot’ as a target of scorn among many black children,” I once wrote, expecting no black reader to have any problem with the weighting of the f-term in the cultural sense—and none, to my knowledge, have. That’s because the particular place that the word has in the culture is so plain to anyone with any experience in it.
Even whites seem to unconsciously internalize this sense of blacks on the gay question. One of the things that made Al Franken’s Stu Smalley character on “Saturday Night Live” in the nineties so funny was the running implication that among his various problems was an unacknowledged same-sex preference. And, wouldn’t you know, the guest star who was written as actually calling Smalley a “faggot” was Martin Lawrence.
CNN’s Don Lemon, who came out last month, pretty neatly nailed the nature of the thing. The problem is partly rooted in the strong role of conservative Christianity in black culture, and then there is a highly traditional conception of black manhood, very John Wayne. Talk about black people’s history: Neither of these things is exactly surprising among a people with a history in subjugation. Both are useful to an urgent brand of community strength. How useful would Alan Alda have been on the Pettus Bridge in Selma?
However, in all cultures, some traits outlive their usefulness, like blood feuds in Albania. Among a people making their way in a post-Enlightenment, post-countercultural Western society in 2011—and let us not forget a little something called the Civil Rights revolution—reviling gay men as displeasing The Lord and being insufficiently studly is backwards. It is no longer a coping strategy; it’s baggage.
And as such, unconscious, no doubt. Black men do not develop this attitude on purpose. We’re talking tacitly inculcated cultural assumptions, just as to be American is to think of red meaning stop, to expect Chunky Soup cans to be a little bigger than regular Campbell’s cans, and to think of minor key as more sincere than major key (yes: think about it). But this doesn’t make it any less of a problem, any more than a general tendency to think of female voices as less authoritative. There are unintentional biases which demand not just historiography, but correction.
It’s really pretty simple: If America is supposed to do a month of penance every time a white person uses the N-word—and even when just referring to it, a la Dr. Laura last year—then it’s time for black people to start buttoning up on “faggot” and other expressions of unenlightened bigotry against gay people. It’s not funny. It’s not overblown—say “get over it” and remember that if T.R. Knight had called Isaiah Washington a nigger, Knight would never have worked again.
And, at this point, it’s just embarrassing. Black leaders and thinkers insist furiously that America is not “post-racial” and that anyone who doubts it is either ignorant or a moral pervert. Yet here are black men—even educated, cosmopolitan ones—thinking it’s okay to haul off with the word faggot when they get mad.
No, it’s not okay. This time it’s black people’s Teachable Moment. Men like this must start exerting the same exquisite self-control that they expect of the rest of America.
Will there ever be no homophobia among black Americans? No—just like there will always be some among others. But no more black, wealthy comedians, suave actor-philanthropists, and megastar athletes tossing around epithets and remarks about gay people of the sort which, when aimed at black people, are considered demonstrations of backwardness and evil. Talk about “Yes, We Can”—here, we not only can, but must.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
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