The versions of Powell’s life examined in this chapter contain two overarching features ethnographers claim are means by which immigrant blacks work to accrue “good” black status. First, their emphasis on Powell as the son of industrious Jamaican immigrants comports with the common practice ethnographers locate among second-generation black immigrants of consciously telegraphing their ethnic heritage as a means of “filtering” themselves for the dominant culture so that they can ward off downward social mobility still linked to a black racial identity in the United States. The inclusion of ancestry in life stories by political hopefuls is not in itself remarkable, but the Powell stories so conspicuously emphasize his distinctive black heritage that they suggest a peculiarly potent symbiotic relationship between its utility both for Powell the “candidate” and for the dominant culture. Second, Powell’s “superior” black narrative endorsed and enacted the strategy of racial “exiting” rather than of “voice” to effect social entry or, to use Steele’s terms, the strategies of “bargaining” for white racial innocence rather that “challenging” it. Many American blacks have long gravitated toward collective political “voice” to redress racial inequities, but some immigrant blacks—particularly those with strong ethnic identities—have favored individual strategies for mobility designed to elude the stigma of stereotypical “inferior” blackness. Steele contends that because whites yearn for a clear racial conscience, the most accepted and, therefore, successful blacks are not racial “challengers” but racial “bargainers,” those blacks willing to grant “white society its innocence in exchange for entry into mainstream” by saying, in effect, “I already believe you are innocent (good, fair-minded) and have faith that you will prove it”; black challengers, by contrast, annoy by confronting white society with the goad, “If you are innocent, then prove it,” thereby holding white innocence captive until some ransom is paid. Thus, racial bargaining accommodates “exit” symbiotically: individual blacks escape the taints of blackness while members of the dominant culture escape the taints of racism.
Copyright © 2006 South Carolina University Press. This book chapter first appeared in The Rhetorics of Display.
Book edited by: Lawrence J. Prelli
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Tonn, Mari Boor. "Colin Powell's Life Story as a 'Good Black' Narrative." In Rhetorics of Display, edited by Lawrence J. Prelli, 344-73. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.