$94,000 is enough to buy a lost block in Detroit and place needy families in the homes.
$94,000 is enough to put a gifted child through a respected college for almost four years.
$94,000 is enough to feed a remote South American or African township for a decade.
Yet, $94,000 was not enough to earn 35-year old actress Keshia Knight Pulliam the respect of her peers and mentors on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, whose premier episode aired Sunday night.
As project manager of a team of women assigned the task of a bake sale fundraiser for charity (think soccer mom brownie showdown at your average small town American high school), Ms. Pulliam’s teammates and castmates and show hosts felt she came up short.
$94,000 short. That is all her team ultimately raised for charity. So, she was fired for it.
If Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant have leaped forth as dark angels to provide us with long-overdue narratives to outline and verify real patterns of mistreatment and injury black men endure, then “Rudy’s” puzzling treatment on the same network she helped bolster gives us similar analogy for black womahood in America.
While the admirably poised Pulliam tread lightly and refrained from playing the race card, she pointed out the obvious: two white women brought $0 to the effort. One of them, unlike many highly accomplished reality television cast members who are just having fun on top of fun, is famous for absolutely no talent or contribution. Neither one was fired. A fellow black female cast member was most critical of her boss Pulliam (crabs in a barrel). Ironically, it was a white female who spoke up in her defense–as was the case in slavery and Reconstruction pasts, when white women had to use their safety and privilege to stop torture and enslavement of black women, often with secretive and subversive tactics such The Underground Railroad.
If a black woman had as many children as Pulliam’s white female castmate Kate Gosselin (who was unable to contribute $1 to the team efforts) and kept on appearing on our screens for largely that reason alone, the media would shame her as a welfare queen. Yet Ms. Pulliam, who is the youngest actress in history every nominated for an Emmy Award (age 6), emerges as a black woman who worked her childhood years away on NBC television. She has had a spotless, scandal-free life ever since: down to founding a charity at age 30. No sex tapes or NC-17 films exist with her in them. She is always impeccably dressed. She is still a working actress on sitcoms.
Her crime? Amidst the many phone calls and activisms she made on part of her group’s success, she did not call one person. Just one person. He is a famous, rich person. However, he was only one.
If the goal was to force Ms. Pulliam to respect her sitcom connection as, indeed, the only reason we know her today, then she could have been warned—and her weird burning at the stake would have previewed a manipulated and ratings-booty guest appearance from her former television dad. Or maybe reuniting her whole TV family was expected of her, I suppose. But, fired? Booted off? Shamed early on as the martyr and late night joke, akin to the first Dancing With the Stars castoff who is painful to watch and can’t dance at all or clearly didn’t practice?
$94,000 can pay for state medical school to add a doctor to poor urban neighborhoods.
I did not watch the show because I was busy and I personally do not like it. However, I have seen recaps of Ms. Pulliam’s appearance, knowing the ten or so minutes she appears do not constitute the whole of her experience. The sister is a hustler. She is a tiny powerhouse of energy, work and optimism. She embodies the spirit of a Madame C.J. Walker with the modern confidence of a Shonda Rhimes. She is on-point and focused. Her goal is to win—fairly.
Which is the problem. Celebrity Apprentice is, after all, reality television. And in our American reality, black women like Ms. Pulliam, who display the characteristics she displayed, are painfully disappointing to the most in the worlds where we live and work. Only in our own worlds for our own reasons are we guaranteed proper places.
In “A Letter to My Nephew,” a sorrowful correspondence attempting to enlighten his brother’s son, the late black American author James Baldwin writes: “Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”
In order for blacks to move around a little bit, without upsetting others’ worlds, we have created these stereotypes and humorous demeanors and “ghetto” ways and pleasing natures to keep others feeling comfortable enough not to get upset. Yet there is no disguising hard work and excellence—especially not if they are demanded. So friendly competition or leadership often requires us to act like losers just to be safe.
If “Rudy” had shown up twirling and whirling like “Sheneneh,” I do not care whom she did not call. She would still be on that show. I and many sisters I know often endure what appear to be flashes of anger or drops into moodiness when non-minority crowds or environments finally crystallize impression of us as the same as Ms. Pulliam appeared Sunday. It is worse than being a rich, beautiful white woman with haters because she has it all. At least she is respected, and won’t be fired. But for black women every single day, in schools and corporations and public life, excellence and stellar comportment is a punishment precisely because it hurts others too much to see when they have it all wrong.
I was heartbroken by Rachel Jenteel’s unfair treatment during the Trayvon Martin trial, based upon how she looked and how she chose to express herself. But contrast a case like Ms. Pulliam’s. Now, you see black women have little way out. No matter if she picks 500 bales of cotton day in and day out until she stinks so much she makes herself gag or she picks 500 bales of cotton day in and day out until she wants to be clean, a black woman in America is the ground upon which all others may feel powerful and complete—even when how they do so is illogical abuse doled onto black women.
In her July 2014 New York Times essay “My Brother’s Keeper Ignores Young Black Women,” author and professor Kimberle Crenshaw points out how the forced and artificial pressure to balance out abuse against black men with government-backed programs to “save” black boys leaves black girls out in the cold. She sheds a deeper light on consolation prize of such a program as My Brother’s Keeper with a pretty striking description of it as: “a five-year, $200 million program that will give mentorships, summer jobs and other support to boys and young men of color, most of them African-American or Hispanic, and that entirely omits the challenges facing their mothers and sisters.” Those challenges take root in chronic poverty reinforced time and time again in new ways. In his chapter “Last Hired, First Fired” from A History of the United States, historian David J. Trowbdridge underscores Mary McLoed Bethune’s supernatural rescue of hoards of black women no one would educate or employ in wake of The Depression and The New Deal; they stood behind all women, all other men of color and their own black men for scarce chances to work.
So the ultimate meaning of this discrimination against Ms. Pulliam is the number of black girls it hurts. Her foundation, Kamp Kizzy, mentors girls age 11-16 with free camps at the Atlanta University Center, efforts to pull them out of oversexualized self-imagery and dependency on pipe dreams as opposed to education, hard work and commitments. The $250,000 prize could have inspired countless black girls who look up to women like Ms. Pulliam. Like me. Like most sisters I know. Like the ones of us the media tries to hide. The heartbreak is that many of those girls whom this foundation has already touched may have watched Celebrity Apprentice just to see Ms. Pulliam. They saw yet another “Keshia” work her ample black girl behind off, with not only all the duties of a team member but as a volunteer for the higher responsibilities of the leader…to get fired for it.
What was planted in those young black girls’ minds about hard work, self-respect and paying your own way in life? Will they still be as energized and motivated to get up for Kamp Kizzy, as opposed to the Kim Kardashian video game or whatever haunts them on their streets? Will they fear, far too early, they are at bottom of a caste system with their membership dues twice as high for half as much? Will they think it makes sense to start a business, put on a suit, challenge yourself in a boardroom? Or, will they perceive all that as little use—and drop out early?
$94,000 can buy two working black parents and their eight children a brand new house.