Professor William Henry Mackey, Jr. Pt. II Griot Scholar Speaks to Bernice Elizabeth Green
(Published in Our Time Press monthly, 2/97 & 4/97)
… on Spoken Word.
In all cultures the spoken word came before the written word. The spoken word is natural. Reading and writing are artificial, acquired characteristics.
Unless there’s some kind of physiological defect, you are born with the ability to utter sounds. It is a natural thing for people to talk. And if it’s natural for you to talk, along with talking comes the direct opposite of that, which is to listen.
- People in any culture who master language well, speak well, talk well – and I’m not talking about so-called Proper English; I am talking about people who are able to convey a sense of interest in whatever topic they are talking about – very quickly get the interest of whoever is around. Reading and writing are relatively recent phenomena — no more than 5,000 years old as far as we know. What we do know is that the first thing a child reacts to is the sound of its mother’s voice.
Obviously, the baby does not understand the sound. But if the sound is soothing, that coupled with caressing, transmits a message of comfort.
Looking at the role of language in society, it is self-evident that storytelling and listening to stories are probably the oldest forms of human entertainment.
“Histori”a comes from the Greek through Latin. History, a story. The meaning was that you sat down and you narrated a story.
… on Observation.
Observation is an experience. When you observe something, you are experiencing something. If you attempt to sing, you are experiencing vocalization. You’re hearing the sounds and you can also tell if you ain’t doing a good job by the look on people’s faces.
The thing is that if we sharpen our faculties of observation and combine them with sharpening our mental capacities to think and try to approach these things with an open mind the knowledge and education you will get will certainly be superior to what we would learn by absorption from other people.
And therein lies one of the problems.
For example: You attempt to train children to survive on their own in the natural world. The first five years are the most productive in a child’s life. There’s more growth in a child’s first five years than all the rest of the time on earth — even if the individual lives to be over 100 years or more. There’s a process.
Humans develop through life, progressing from one stage to the other. Depending on the presence or absence of other peer groups, this will determine how much time it takes the child to get up and start to walk.
Circumstances alter cases.
Whether the stimulation is good, bad or indifferent, it will still have the same impact, positively or negatively. As a child progresses from sliding to crawling to the hesitant first steps of walking, the different stages become closer and closer.
You can leave a child in a room and go back to find the child standing in the window in that short span of time. They make these stages when the time comes; not always when we are looking at them.
The first thing you do is grab the child and put some heat to its behind. That’s out of fear for its safety. What you’re doing is sending a dramatic message. That child, toddler, is going to make a connection between getting in that window and his behind hurtin’. Obviously, you can’t be doing it to appeal to the child’s intellect or ability to think. The child may not be able to communicate verbally. What you are doing is using the most dramatic message you know to send a message to this child through the vehicle of sensation. All cultures do this. It’s not that you are a parent who abuses children. It’s just that, instinctively, the child has no concept of distance of how far up the sixth floor is.
But the child gets the message immediately when you react. It will cry, but you have no problem with the crying. Of course, the next step is to tell the super to get some bars on the window. What’s interesting is that when we want to convey instant information, we use the result of something physical — the change of tone in the voice, some kind of emotional thing — to get the message across. You’re accustomed to thinking a child is limited, then you see it moving around on the floor. That’s how fast it takes to develop. The whole process of growth is speeded up. And there is no reading or writing involved at these stages.
It’s all been on what is called the first level or stages of talking and speech. I would argue that the concepts of body language, oral language and expressions are some of the most effective ways of communicating information to people. They’re the first things we became accustomed to.
… on Power, Comfort Zones, Demons.
Now when you talk about children not developing or progressing because they come from troubled or so-called dysfunctional homes — our children? — that’s a whole ‘nother thing. I ask, “Is that actually true?”
I am in the counter-class. I’m an idol-smasher. My empirical experience — and I don’t pass it off as some kind of laying down of the final word — has convinced me that the problem in society is not so much in terms of family, but in terms of the people in the society that make the decisions. That power thing!
Some people might say that’s an easy cop-out. But I’m prepared to explain this. History shows us whenever a society is in trouble it has this tendency to blame the least powerful unit in the society. Let me give you an example: in the society we live in, the concept of power is based on race–and I’m using this objectively. This is not a passionate thing. This is observation. It has always been based on race, particularly in terms of how power is distributed or not distributed.
No ruling class likes to have its comfort zone disturbed. Whenever it is messed with, there is a tendency to blame someone, the designated demons, the bogeyman. That term is not used so much as I am aware of, these days, but when I was growing up in the South, it was s
tandard procedure to hear a white mother say to their children, “If you don’t behave, I’m going to get the bogeyman after you!”, while pointing to a Black person.
What is being done here? You’re deliberately creating a concept of the demon. And things that threaten them are always considered anything or anyone of darker hue. How does it tie in? Very simple. When you look for a demon to blame, you are looking to escape responsibility. That’s why the term scapegoat exists in this society. In earlier societies, if something negative happened and the group or clan could not explain it, they took an animal and beat it and hoped to God this would please the gods! What you are doing is protecting your comfort zone. Once you can convince yourself that these things are happening to me because of some outside force, and these are the folks who are doing these things and causing these things to happen to our family, it may not change things from happening but it absolves you of any responsibility and guilt. Now, more and more, as a society becomes more sophisticated, there is a need for more denials.
The demon could be Blacks, Muslims, Native Americans… anybody who is
different. And the less concrete information you know about others, outsiders, the more you demonize them. You don’t even think about it. You wake up in the morning. If it’s raining, you say, “Oh yeah, it is so and so’s fault. It’s a bad day; they did this.”
All this has to do with disturbing the comfort zones of those folks for whom the system theoretically works. Now let’s go back and look at the concept of family in this society. My grandmother, Harriet Sibley Weston, didn’t know what the hell a behaviorist was. When I didn’t behave, I got my butt handed to me. But do we know all victims or perpetrators? As society becomes more technologically oriented, as more and more of these new inventions and new creations come online, they’re supposed to make life easier for you, but they really don’t. Who’s at fault? Is it me? Is it you? Do we really want to deal with this? One of the things that’s very difficult for people in a so-called techno-society to deal with is that they have been programmed to think that things are going to get better, but it isn’t. This is a culture that constantly thinks in terms of progress, meaning progress on whatever level you’re on. It means that whatever happens this week, you’re supposed to be on a higher level next week, always be moving upwards. No retrogression. Just progress. And what’s it all based on? Statistics.
The average person cannot tell you what the Gross National Product is because they don’t see it as being a part of their everyday survival. But they know it’s something. The government says if the GNP is up, progress is going up. If you ask the president what the hell are you talking about, he and Greenspan will get up and give all these statistics.
The real purpose of the GNP is to use it as a control mechanism: planting ideas and programming people’s minds to believe that a culture needs more and more statistics.
All these things really are modern versions of soothsayers, magicians and oracles. When you’re looking at the Gross National Product, you’re looking at modern sophisticated versions of the same old thing.
By habit, if you turn on the radio in the morning, someone might give you a five-day forecast based on sophisticated instruments, satellites, charts and big egos. I would argue that, realistically, the only weather you can predict is the weather that’s happening right now. And if you sit down and keep some real statistics on how often these people are wrong in their predictions, you would find they are some of the most inefficient, highly paid people in the world. What they are doing is dealing in a psychological, emotional thing that goes way back – a desire to know the future, and we really don’t want to know the future. We just think we do.
All of us are impacted by this total society. Look at our values. I could get on top of a car at the corner and walk on the tops of those cars to the next corner without my feet hitting the ground. And about 90 percent of these cars out there are not cars people have because they
absolutely need a car to get where they goin’. I have a car, Betsy — 33 years old. What’s the automobile? It’s considered an economic necessity for the overall society.
In order for that economic necessity to be fulfilled, society has to be convinced that if you get one, you need two. If you need two, you need another one for someone else in the family. Most people who own cars never finish paying for them. Why? Because it is believed that if a car is over two years old, you somehow lose status. It is in the interest of the system and their comfort zones that people have more cars. When you consider the fact that the economy in this country is based on the automobile or the internal combustion engine, it is totally in the interest of the system and their comfort zones that there’s turnover. In other words, people should have more cars. The industry is based on planned obsolescence. That’s nothing new. But I want you to get the whole picture.
Even the demons have comfort zones. There are also demons of inconvenience. When you say that the bogeyman is going to get you, you’re planting the image of the bogeyman in the head. It’s not just a physical connection. This can all go off in so many different directions. You can’t destroy demons or demigods. That’s one thing that’s nice about it. You can’t destroy them.
These are just simple things. Whether they point to the bogeyman or not in their quest for manifest destiny, all they have to do is plant the concept in people’s heads – who the demons are and what their destinies are — for it to work. This is the rationalization, but it doesn’t make sense.
They lose jobs, too. But it doesn’t matter. When you’ve been so programmed with this demon stuff, all hell can’t pry it out of your hell. We have people who have lost hope because the whole game is just companies making money. But they still get rid of people because investors on Wall Street say, “I want a higher return.”
“60 Minutes” did this piece on the downsizing of America. There was this 50-plus-year-old man with all kinds of experience who lost his top echelon job. He was looking for work for over two years. Meanwhile, the niggerization (although they are white) process set in. All of a sudden, the community and the clubs shunned him. His friends thought he had the mark of Cain on him and they didn’t want to catch it. They advised him to sell his house, meaning they wanted him out of the neighborhood. In other words, “Here’s your hat, what the hell’s your hurry? Get the hell out of here!”
Because everyone’s programmed, the marriage fell apart. He was in this “I own the job” syndrome and fell from grace when he lost it.
Funny. By definition, a job is something you do for somebody else. My grandma said, “It’s something somebody gives to you, and they takes it back.” She was right. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. But I’m talking about the lord of the manor. So finally, when he begins to analyze these things from a whole different perspective, the “lazy Black folk” don’t look so lazy anymore. He’s now at the unemployment bureau looking for work right along with the cleaners, the charwoman or whoever. And the folks sitting behind the desk–petty bureaucrats–are scraping away your dignity each time you go in there.
Finally, he offered to put himself in temporary slavery. He went to two places and said he would work for nothing for two months. He said, “If in two months I don’t prove myself, you don’t owe me anything.” In both cases, the guy said, “We will have to think about it. We’ll call you.” They never did. This is cold. You offer to sell yourself as a slave and nobody wants to play master.
So, if you talk about predictions based on oracles, like the weather report, the GNP, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are meaningless on their face and you are making – don’t forget — you are making decisions – political, legal, economic, social – on misinformation. I don’t know what else you could call it but crazy. It’s crazy and it’s power drunk.
… on Family.
Now, if this is an upscale quote unquote “Caucasian” family I’m talking about, what percentage of the breadwinners in Black families in this modern industrial society even know that man’s kind of world? Damn few. We have desires like everybody else. We’ve been programmed to want to belong, and if you fail it is your fault. We don’t want to look at that glass ceiling above us. Matter of fact, they don’t even put the ceiling up there for us. Ain’t even glass. They just tell you, don’t go up there. This ain’t yours. It all comes under the heading, “Catch a sucker by his head.” And it is society that says, “You are responsible for your own welfare, and if you do not make it in this society — and it is an economically equal society, a level playing field–then it’s your fault. Now that is patently untrue. When they come up with this, they really want to ignore 600 years of history. “Slavery is your fault. You sold yourself into it.” Or the alternative is, “While you were a savage practicing cannibalism, I came out of the goodness of my heart and Christian charity, and I enslaved you to bring you here to lift you up to what you could be. Of course, you can’t be as much as me because God made you inferior.” Now that’s for openers and it goes downhill from there.
.. on The Miracle!
How does it hit the Black family? Never mind the damn statistics. How did the masses of us get here? On slave ships. Packed up like sardines. Defined legally as property. How many families did we bring with us? What did the law say about chattel slaves? Remember: chattel is from the
old Anglo-Saxon word meaning cattle. By definition, it’s nonstationary property: chair, cushion, glasses, shoes, socks, cows, horses, slaves. Property. Nowhere in the slave codes was there a legal provision that said that the family of the African was sacred and that the family
should be held together at any costs. I’ve got all of these books here. I ain’t seen any laws like that. If you can find me one, I will gladly know it, then. Those laws specifically stated that you had no right to have a family, so even if you were lucky enough to be packed in the same sweat hole with your father, your mother and your siblings, when the boat docked the buyers came. Ma went one way. Pa went another. The child, another.
They’ve got the balls of brass ass monkeys, as the old folks down home used to say, to talk about the breakdown of the Black family. What’s tragic is that we’ve got miseducated Black folk, political, social scientists who run around using the same statistics. If you look at the history of African People in the Diaspora, let me tell you what the miracle is. It is a miracle that we got any families at all. The miracle is that we have any families at all. And I keep coming back to this, and it is important: You can’t take other people’s word for who you are. These are soothsayers who are labeling you as demons. How can you trust that? You allow somebody else to define you, don’t even get up out of bed! Don’t bother going in. Nobody’s going to ever define you to your benefit. Particularly if their experience with you and perceptions
about you have been almost totally negative. When stuff is put out there about the unfairness of affirmative action, level playing fields or the endangered white male, it’s an insult to the peoples’ intelligence. It’s one thing for you to like me. One thing for you to try to scapegoat
me, but don’t insult my intelligence. Don’t call me a fool. Last time I looked at Wall St. and I’m down in that area two, three times a week — who do I see with their attaché cases? A bunch of white males going to work to become endangered. The powers that be should understand this clearly. It is not what is real that impacts on most people, it is their perception of reality.
The perception of what is real is the magician’s fundamental stock in trade. What the magician does, he diverts your attention. That is why the French word is legerdemain, “lightness of hand,” sleight of hand. The hand is quicker than the eye.
They pull a 20,000-lb. elephant out of a top hat. Your intelligence tells you this is impossible. First of all, you can’t lift it up.
While he’s diverting you over here, he is running a game over there. You’re just mesmerized by how did he do it. Not if he did it. The system is run the same way. But if you go by what you see right around you, it can tell you what the truth is regardless of the lies being told.
Note to Our Readers:
Due to space constraints in this issue, the following stories
have been rescheduled for placement
during July and August.
Rediscovering Lost Values
Caption: A Home for Legacy and The Goldmans’ Family Gift
Orators in Our Time
Caption: Graham Weatherspoon and Taharka Robinson
Events at Magnolia:
Caption: Journal-Making with the Brogdan-Cruz Family and
Telling Our Story with Spring McClendon
Juneteenth’s Fashion Factor
Caption: Marcia Pendleton Walks in Grace at the CCC Event
and One Woman’s Fashion Statement Salutes History and Her Story