One Reason Not to Cheer About Screenwriter John Ridley's Oscar Win
March 05, 2014
When screenwriter John Ridley accepted his Oscar Sunday night for "12 Years a Slave," #BlackTwitter collectively exhaled and staccato cheers of "Yaaasss!" and "Get it!" and "BOOM!" swiftly flooded timelines.
This was before Ridley’s venomous 2006 Esquire tirade, "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger" resurfaced, effectively halting the applause.
Laden with condescension and animosity, Ridley’s "manifesto" is exactly what one would expect from its title -- arrogant, disingenuous, patronizing. Masquerading as a call-to-arms for Black Americans, it is nothing more than a calculated attempt to distance himself from his own Blackness while castigating "niggers" who dare to sully him by association with the stench of poverty and laziness -- as if these qualities and conditions are solely reserved for Black people.
Ridley wrote, in part:
LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT NIGGERS, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can't catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader but unable to follow in any direction that's navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, niggers will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own. They are not responsible for their nearly 5 percent incarceration rate and their 9.2 percent unemployment rate. Not responsible for the 11.8 percent rate at which they drop out of high school. For the 69.3 percent of births they create out of wedlock.
If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?
I feel you, Steve McQueen. I wouldn’t have clapped for him either.
What kind of Black man mentions incarceration rates without mentioning the Prison Industrial Complex?
What kind of Black man mentions drop-out rates without mentioning the closing of already inadequate public schools in Black communities?
What kind of Black man mentions unemployment rates without mentioning the disparities in White and Black employment or the wage gap that persists despite tepid calls from politicians for equality?
What kind of Black man mentions lack of collective Black wealth without mentioning that the United States stole an estimated $100 trillion dollars for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865?
What kind of Black man employs antiquated terms such as "out-of wedlock" without mentioning the percentage of Black girls raped before the age of eighteen or that families don’t always come in heteronormative and patriarchal packages?
What kind of Black man can look himself in the eye and pretend that Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome isn’t real, that The New Jim Crow doesn’t exist and that institutionalized racism is a thing of the past? By tailoring his words to suit the affluent, white readers who peruse the pages of Esquire, Ridley’s essay can best be summarized as follows: "Please, Mr. White Man, sir, let me define 'nigger.' I’ll do the work for you, just let me join your club."
Ridley’s quest for white validation concludes with him heaping praise upon the shoulders of former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- two of the clearest examples of cosmetic diversity in modern politics. But individual achievement is not collective uplift, and tokenism is not diversity. Instead of speaking that truth, though, Ridley would rather whimper at the window of the Big House (or the pages of Esquire) begging to tap-dance for his supper.
This, though, was the man entrusted to shape a historical narrative about slavery, perseverance and triumph. Solomon Northup became an abolitionist who risked his life to free others still bound by slavery. Ridley had a different vision, whereupon Solomon’s story ended when he was saved by white men. His story ended when he jumped into the back of the carriage, leaving behind the filth and grime of the “niggers” on the plantation -- each mile putting more distance between him and the unrelenting carnage. For Ridley, once Northup was safely ensconced in the bosom of respectability, it was time for the credits to roll.
Other than the soul-gouging performance of Lupita Nyong’o, I was not deeply moved by the film. I was disgusted with the portrayal of Northup as a "good Negro," one who could speak and dress so well as if he were a well-trained, beloved pet who should be grateful for his freedom.
Every single scene prior to his capture was shaped to suggest that he was not only above the situation in which he would later find himself but the Black people in chains alongside him. That kind of love letter to assimilation has never appealed to me.
As I wrote in a Facebook post on December 6, 2013:
I think so many people were distraught about [the film] because it let a lot of elitist, far removed from the Deep South Black folk know that they were still considered slaves... It wasn't so much the slavery aspect that had some people traumatized; it was, "Gosh, he was minding his business in civilized society and they turned him into a slave. That shouldn't happen to that kind of Black people."
Once I read Ridley’s "manifesto," my feelings about the film were immediately vindicated. How could it not have murky undercurrents of respectability politics when the screenwriter is so full of hatred for his own people? Newsflash, Mr. Ridley: Do not think for one moment that Esquire republished your "manifesto" post-historic win without at least some strategic thinking. You think they’d let a "nigger" shine for 24 hours? You don’t get to redefine a word carved from the foundation of racism and oppression with the desperate hope that you can avoid the label.
To white racists, we’re all "niggers."
When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he saw a "nigger." When George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, he saw a "nigger." When Theodore Wafer killed Renisha McBride he saw a "nigger." And despite your asinine, blanket defense of law enforcement, Oscar Grant, Wendall Allen and Jonathan Ferrell were all innocent and unarmed. When right-wingers call the President and First Lady of these United States "monkeys," despite their conservative boot-strap speeches, what they’re really saying is "nigger."
You cannot walk, talk, dress or politic your way out of your skin. Your poisonous rhetoric didn’t give you a white pass then and your shiny new Oscar doesn’t give you one now.
Maybe you should write that down.