The late, great Maynard Holbrook Jackson, for whom the Atlanta airport, the busiest in the world, was partially named for often talked about something he called the “scared Negro syndrome.” Many of us would laugh nervously when he would use this term, referring to an African American who was too afraid of pissing off, raising the ire, or falling out of favor with Whites—particularly those in position of authority—that they would forego pursuing their vested interest. This, of course, results in lost opportunities for economic, political and social advancement for African American people.
Calling an African American a “scared Negro” was not equivalent to calling him or her an “Uncle Tom or Aunt Thomasina” or “sell-out,” but it was not meant as a complement either. First, even in 1973 when Maynard was first elected mayor of Atlanta, to refer to a black person (Afro-American or African American) as a Negro was derisive. To Maynard, a scared Negro was someone who may not be conscious of his fear because he (or she) has internalized it. The SN, consciously or unconsciously, sabotages his interest and censors his desires and aspirations, holding out for the chance he may be liked, trusted and, ultimately, used as a tool of the “white power structure.” The difference between the “SN” and the “Tom” is one of courage rather than character.
Gathered with a group of friends this weekend discussing the upcoming General State Elections in Georgia in November, I thought of my many conversations with Maynard and his views on what African American leaders and people needed to do to advance in society, individually and collectively. He would say something to the effect, “Freedom isn’t free . . . You have to struggle to get free and struggle to stay free.”
I wondered what the first black mayor elected in the deep south would think of former state representative and Minority Speaker of the House Stacey Abrams’ chance of winning the Georgia governor’s race and to what extent negative thinking on the part of some African Americans and “scared Negros” might hurt her efforts.
I know it is not so simple as to declare that Blacks are scared who believe that this may not be the time when the state of Georgia turns from red to blue. But if you listen closely to their reasoning, there is a mixture of fear, envy, and jealousy in their pessimism. They lack hope, faith, and a belief in the ability of the African American community to lead meaningful change. This is not to say Abrams can, or would want to, win without a broad, multiracial coalition of Georgia residents supporting her. But she does not need permission from others to run. The way African Americans are expected to perform amazing feats in the athletic arenas and entertain the world in music, dance, and other forms of culture, we, too, must take our rightful place running billion dollar businesses, major universities, state houses, and higher offices, across this nation.
As of the publication date of this column, Abrams is in a statistical dead heat with her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, according to an average of credible polls. Both are polling between 42-44% of anticipated voters.
This discussion about Abrams’ chances took me back to the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama when there existed much doubt throughout the nation, including in the black community, about his ability to defeat Hilary Clinton and then later, the recently departed war hero John McCain. The black community’s lack of faith in Obama was never expressed as personal dislike for him. Rather, it was always, “Man these white people aren’t going to let a black man with a funny name take the presidency.” Or, as a putdown of the black grassroots: “Man, black people don’t vote like whites . . . and don’t let it pour down raining, blacks won’t show-up at all.”
Many of these negative thoughts emanate from scripts submerged in the subconscious of some and they’re self-defeating. This possibly comes from a deep seated fear Jackson spoke about 40 years ago. I am not arguing that racism does not play a role in limiting qualified Blacks’ advancement to higher office. There will always be bigoted Whites who will never see African Americans as fit or qualified enough to hold high office. But in 2018, over 150 years after the end of slavery, considering the relative high educational levels within the African American community, and given its gross national income, why are some Blacks, today, still lacking confidence in what can be accomplished by African Americans who have paid their dues for a turn at leadership?
Certainly history showed the doubters to be wrong in 2008. It could show them to be wrong in 2018 as well. African American voters in 2008 participated in historic percentages. Large numbers came back out in 2012 as well. In fact, black participation, as a percentage of total vote, in both elections outpaced that of their white counterparts.
For what it’s worth, black voters, like other voters, are motivated when they believe there is something at stake for them. Voting for politicians and seeing very little returned to them as individuals or to their communities do not inspire robust political participation no matter how often we remind them that others who came before shed blood for their right to vote.
The freedom or right to vote means little without the right of one to lift his voice in a refusal to vote, if circumstances warrant it.
Are we on the verge of another Barack Obama moment? Is Stacey Abrams the one? She is in the right place at the right time. If the 45th U.S. President does not motivate black, brown and other Americans of good will to go to the polls to put an end to his racist and misogynistic rhetoric and policies, I do not know what will. Second, Abrams made a smart decision several years ago to expand democratic voters by registering new potential voters, rather than focusing on trying to get more Whites in the state to vote for her when Obama and Jason Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, could not.
The all but forgotten working class (referred to as the middle class under the Obama-Biden Administration) wants progressive change and reform. And, in case you have not spoken lately to a millennial, low wage worker, or a single parent, they do not care—or care if others, consider national healthcare, debt free higher education, $15 an hour minimum wage, protecting our environment, and criminal justice reform, as socialism.
Finally, Stacey is her own person (from her hair, size, and brain . . . former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole once called her the brightest graduate of Spelman of all times). That is saying something. Abrams is the real deal. She has a compelling narrative that should resonate with all Georgians, if they accept her for who she is: a self-made individual who worked her way to the top of her chosen profession through effort and sacrifice. Her example suggests if she can make it (with all the obstacles she had to overcome), you can, too. No model looks. No privilege to inherit. No catering to 45 and stupid talk about rounding up immigrants in the back of one’s truck. Just a high quality human being whose time may very well be at hand.
Stacey is part of a long line of progressive leadership in Atlanta. She is not now and has never been “scared.” She knows freedom isn’t free, and the struggle once you get free is to stay free—and to extend it to all.