For quite a long spell in African-American history, each of us has had to bear the burden of the race on our shoulders. Custom and tradition -- and intense desire for equality -- dictated that we mind our manners and avoid personal acts and activity that would make the entire race look bad. Thus, we were skittish about eating chitterlings and watermelon, especially in public. Washington activist Petey Green eased some of that with a riotous routine on how to eat watermelon (not properly with a knife and fork). Amos 'n' Andy was booted from both radio and television, a banishment spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that persists to this day.
We were also saddled with guilt about poor grammar and incorrect English, "bad" hair that we tried to ameliorate with conks (remember Malcolm X?), processes and other straighteners, skin whiteners and certain cuss words (in particular, the dreaded 12-letter, four-syllable insult that begins with "m"), and we were to avoid or chastise those who violated the unwritten rules of deportment.
We even tolerated and laughed along with a white comedian, Lenny Bruce, who evoked laughter with his shtick mocking Joe Louis' inarticulate interviews after dispatching the white hope of the week.
"Well, Joe, what do you think about the fight?" went Bruce in his nightclub performance.
"Ahhhh, arrrrrah, ughhh, I glad I win ... blah, blah, blah, Deetroit."
Indeed, we were embarrassed.
But no more. That was then. In the interim, we progressed to the point where not even the buffoonery of a Herman Cain can make us shudder and shrink into the shadows to hide our faces. There was a time when such antics would have been comparable to Amos 'n' Andy. But declaring ultraconservative billionaires the Koch brothers his "brothers from another mother" and describing himself as "black-walnut ice cream" only drew snide snickers and disdain from many nonsupportive African Americans.
His ignorance of the war in Libya and President Obama's foreign policy fell only on his shoulders, not the rest of us. His long pauses and poor answers to questions about policy issues that presidents confront daily reflected solely on him. http://www.theroot.com
I've found no one who pays much serious attention to his comments and behavior, certainly no one who has felt embarrassed by them. Cain is on his own to say what he wants and act as he pleases. He does not burden an entire race. He may be straight out of central casting for black exploitation, but that does not bother most of us.
"He's just stupid," a black, politically savvy grandfather in Chattanooga, Tenn., told me. "He knew he had all that baggage in his background before he ran. He is not qualified to be president."
No embarrassment there.
I attribute the change to a general maturing of the African-American community. We all settle down and take life in stride as we grow older. But probably, more significant was the advent of hip-hop and rap, the music and culture beaten into the rest of us by youngsters of the inner cities. Their steady, loud, pounding sounds and harsh words, along with a huge popularity, literally forced the rest of us to take notice and to accept the inescapable barrage of profanity and racist, sexist ranting and raving -- in fact, to look beyond the trappings and see the serious side.
In an op-ed in the New York Times titled, "Amos 'n' Andy in Nikes," with a subhead, "Gangster rappers vs. the rest of us," I noted that E. Franklin Frazier's observation that the black bourgeoisie represented the "manners and morals" of the black community had been undermined by rappers.
Nevertheless, the hard-core softening blows of rap inured us for the coming antics of the Herman Cains of the world. When late-night television hosts and other comedians lampoon him, we know they're after Cain, not us. Most of us knew he was never a viable candidate for the Republican nomination; it seemed everybody but right-wingers was aware of that.
And what did Herman Cain get out of it? A lot of attention to grease his outsize ego, a lot of money from speaking engagements and book sales, and bragging rights to say that not only did he run for president, but for a brief moment, he was actually the leader in his race. But now he'll have to assess, with his family, whether the ride was worth it.
The rest of us are not embarrassed one way or the other. Free at last?