'Are You Still a Slave?' would tag 90% with yes

May 05, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Shahrazad Ali, author of a controversial 1990 book, "Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman," has written a new one, designed to help blacks determine whether they have freed themselves from the psychological trauma of slavery.

Mrs. Ali's "Are You Still a Slave?" (self-published; 162 pages; $10) hits you with a series of true or false questions, an analysis of the correct answers and a guide to help you interpret your grade.

And, I might as well get this out of the way right now: I failed the test.

"Er, what exactly does that mean?" I asked Mrs. Ali yesterday.

She laughed. "You know what it means. It's right there in the book."

This is how "Are You Still a Slave?" analyzes my score: "You are straight out of 'Roots,' a recognizable, hardcore slave who doesn't even pretend to be free. You are dedicated to the principles, habits and ideas that our ancestors suffered from in bondage . . . trapped in the lowest dungeon of post-traumatic stress . . . a slave, and your chains are clearly visible to the trained eye of Blacks who are free."

"Gee whiz," I exclaimed after digesting this bad news.

"Don't worry," Mrs. Ali assured me. "Over 90 percent of us would fail this test. But the score isn't important; understanding the truth and learning from it is what's important."

A self-taught writer who lives in South Philadelphia, she is a feisty, witty woman who carries herself with great dignity.

She published "Blackman's Guide" herself and says that more than 100,000 copies were sold.

And it triggered a great deal of discussion, though I found "Blackman's Guide" to be ill-considered, with its ugly caricatures of black women and its lunatic recommendation that black men slap their mates around to maintain order at home.

But Mrs. Ali has won my grudging respect for being an entrepreneur. Whether we agree with her or not, she has been provocative.

Published a few weeks ago, "Are You Still a Slave?" promises to be as controversial as the earlier book. For instance, isn't reading to your kids a good idea? (I answered yes.) Mrs. Ali says that most books for children "indoctrinate" them with the self-image of slaves.

How about laughing at a joke told by a white person, so long as you honestly find it funny and inoffensive? (I answered yes.) Mrs. Ali says that laughing at the "master's jokes" is a habit we learned from slavery.

And shouldn't you call the police when you witness a crime? Mrs. Ali calls it "snitching to the man," just as in slave times.

"Slavery," she told me yesterday, "is an issue that has never been settled for most of us. Our only expression about our slave ancestry is anger and hostility. We didn't get an apology. We didn't get our 40 acres and a mule. We didn't get any therapy. Nobody ever recognized our pain and as a result, I believe most of us are suffering from post-traumatic stress from slavery."

Mrs. Ali said she got the idea for the book after watching Larry King interview comedian Bill Cosby on TV. "They were laughing -- you know, that Cosby is a very funny fellow -- and then, that white man absolutely reached out and patted that black man on his head, like he was a dog or something. I said, 'Lord, we are still slaves and don't even realize it.' "

I suspect there is a great deal of truth in Mrs. Ali's thesis, that blacks and whites continue to act out patterns of behavior and attitudes first established during slave times. I know that for most blacks, including me, our slave heritage remains very painful. For instance, it is not easy for me to admit that, based on Mrs. Ali's test, I remain in psychological bondage -- even though I believe I can defend most of my answers. Calling any of us any kind of slave remains a powerful insult.

"Any therapist will tell you that the first step on the road to recovery is to learn to forgive yourself," Mrs. Ali said. "I didn't write this book to harp on the subject, or to inspire hatred of white people. I wrote it because we need to talk about what happened to us. We need to understand how slavery continues to dominate our lives. We need to rebuild."

I, for one, refuse to concede that I am still a slave. But she is right: We have not confronted the legacy of slavery. Maybe it is time we did.

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