I was a grad student at the UCLA film school, getting my MFA in screenwriting, when a consumer-trends company asked me to work for them. Why did they want me? Well, they advised major corporations on how to best situate their products for the African-American consumer market, and in order to do that effectively, the company needed people who understood African-American values and behavior and could turn those factors into macro trends. In essence, my job was to predict the things black people did today to hint at future behavior and, from that info, identify the strategies companies should use to reach black people.
Now, I’m not going to go into what I told various clients, but if you’re black and you enjoy your daily cup of java from a restaurant with Golden Arches because it seems to speak to you, let me just say: You’re welcome.
Although I don’t work for this company anymore, the powers of observation that I learned can’t be turned off. My brain is constantly observing the world from the perspective of African Americans, and each qualitative data point gets stored, ready to be grouped together as a macro trend or discarded as irrelevant. At some point, the observations begin to light up, a bit like how John Forbes Nash Jr.’s chalkboard lit up in A Beautiful Mind as his equations began to make sense.
Don’t believe me?
Three years ago, I observed that African-American college students at predominantly white colleges and universities were increasingly unhappy, and campus racism was running rampant. It was little bits of info here and there, a conversation there and here. Those observations were the catalyst for my new book on campus racism, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. And guess what? Over 100 campuses subsequently erupted in protests over campus racism as university officials and educational reporters watched, slack-jawed, trying to make sense of it all.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
I may not be Negrodamus, but Negrodamus is definitely my play cousin. It’s qualitative analysis over an Excel sheet full of data points. An educated gut that your mama told you to follow, writ large on a diverse demographic of 40 million black people. In other words, I know black people.
So, as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile became members of the black Twitter hashtag list that no one wants to belong to, my Spidey sense perked up. Something had changed in the African-American zeitgeist. It went beyond the usual anger to a whole new place.
If the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, it was clear that we as black people are firmly at acceptance-level TNT. Not acceptance as in capitulation to white supremacy, but acceptance of the idea that African America has spent precious brainpower explaining, cajoling, protesting, pleading and, yes, begging for white America to recognize our humanity—and, ya know, that we just might have to stop doing that.
White America ain’t listening and, more importantly, doesn’t care about the pain of black people. In essence, as TLC once told us, it might be time for us to stop chasing waterfalls.