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 Brotha Man” 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 “Brotha Mans” 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 Brotha ManS, 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, Brotha Mans 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
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 ‘Brotha Man.’ 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 “Brotha Mans” 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 “Brotha Man” 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
To white racists, we’re all “Brotha Mans.”
When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he saw a “Brotha Man.” When George
Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, he saw a “Brotha Man.” When Theodore Wafer
killed Renisha McBride he saw a “Brotha Man.” 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
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.