Identity & Culture

Black without boundaries?

post-blackIn Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press), cultural critic Touré aims to “destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness,” which he feels “cuts us off from exploring the full potential of Black humanity.” Touré develops the idea of post-Blackness which he describes as a “modern individualist Blackness…open-ended and open-sourced and endlessly customizable.” Real freedom, he argues, is the freedom to be Black in any way one chooses, safe from “self-appointed identity cops” who see it as their personal mission to determine the authenticity of other people’s Blackness.

In his review of the book, law professor and TheRoot.com contributor Randall Kennedy argues to the contrary, stating, “…a black person should have no immunity from being de-blacked. Any Negro should be subject to having his or her membership in blackness revoked if he or she pursues a course of conduct that convincingly demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance.”

This is based on Kennedy’s premise that any group or nation must have boundaries which distinguish “us” from “them” in order for membership in that group to carry any meaning. Furthermore, collective action to maintain the group necessarily requires some amount of coordination, discipline, and policing based on rules of group membership. This is why nations have treason laws, and why countless movements from Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam have purged members based on their suspected in-authenticity.

Kennedy explains, “Unlike the United States, individual states or Indian tribes, Black America lacks mechanisms of sovereignty — courts, for example — that can provide centralized, authoritative and enforceable judgments regarding membership. In Black America, only an amorphous public opinion adjudicates such matters, generating inconclusive results. Nonetheless, black public opinion should and does exercise some control over its communal boundary, determining in the process a person’s standing as member, guest, enemy and so on.”

While this may seem like another bout of identity politics, I find such debates important in reflecting who we ultimately deem as allies in our movements toward Black liberation. Does Pan-Africanism minimize variations within the Black world to the point of crushing individual spirits? This is a debate about personal and collective identity, self-definition, and self-determination, an age-old topic that has received additional attention in recent years due to books like Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration and Ellis Cose’s The End of Anger both of which attempt to examine how differences in age, class, and education have shifted the ways that U.S. Blacks think about and relate to themselves in the era of Obama. While both of these authors argue that traditional unifying identity markers seem to be slipping away (a fact that Touré would celebrate), Kennedy suggests that romantic libertarian notions are untenable if we hope to maintain any type of Black solidarity and collective advancement in the future. He proposes using peer pressure to “de-Black” politicians like Clarence Thomas who flagrantly throw fellow Blacks under the bus whenever possible.

For some, this debate always raises more questions than it answers. For one, if we are ex-communicating people based on their lack of concern or outright hostility toward Black people, are we kicking out the Black drug dealers, gangsters, and pimps whose missions include becoming rich and powerful at the expense of our communities? Though they could be sympathetically viewed as victims of the systems in their own right, many of these criminals have made non-repentance quite fashionable, with the “I don’t give a f*ck” mantra seemingly a part of their job description. Maybe such criminal acts are distorted attempts to challenge an oppressive system, or the result of internalized racism, but they are hurtful to our communities nonetheless. After all, the victims of these individuals – the addicts, the victims of heinous crimes, the sexually assaulted and exploited, the young people with lives cut short and wasted – are overwhelmingly Black. At what point do issues of social oppression  become issues of social responsibility? While it is common to  focus on the Black corporate ladder-climbers and power-hungry politicians when we want to point out an “oreo,” we rarely question the Blackness of those who stay in the ‘hood to do their dirt. The late Dr. Amos Wilson might say that this reflects our tendency to identify authentic Blackness with criminality and poverty, while considering wealth and power as signs of having “sold out.”

The second question: who exactly are we seeking to keep “in?” The talented tenth?  Internalized racism is a clear and normal result of hundreds of years of enslavement, torture, rape, disenfranchisement, propaganda, brutality, and domination. Without having confronted these issues explicitly, most Black people will display some tendencies toward self- and group-defeating behavior. This includes the aforementioned criminal behavior within our community. Where would we draw the line? Are we to kick most Black people out of the race? And who gets to define what’s in our collective interest, anyway? Everyone is not going to go along with even the most well-intentioned agenda (ask Marcus Garvey). Will dissenters get to stay Black, even if they don’t agree on how Blacks as a whole should move forward?

And if we can kick people out of Blackness, can those who truly love us be given honorary status, even without the right bloodline? It’s a hypothetical question just begging to be asked. Legendary South African freedom fighter Steve Biko argued that people become Black through their allegiance to anti-racist movements. Anyone who poises themselves against an anti-Black state becomes an enemy of that state, and thus takes on the struggles associated with Blackness. So are we ready to accept our non-African allies as members of our mighty race?

So, who is out, who is in, and where the hell are we going anyway? I think that both Touré and Kennedy are correct. We certainly do not live in a post-racial society. Indeed, most of us will always see Blackness as an immutable albeit socially constructed characteristic. Yet we can all look around and recognize that Blackness is not monolithic. There is diversity within the race – economic, spiritual, sexual, cultural, political diversity. Touré’s lofty goal is for our conceptions of “Black” to be broad enough to accommodate us all. Fine, but even within an “open source” Blackness, different circles will embrace different agendas and different rules of membership. We each create our circles based on values. To be a proud person of African descent who embraces the notion of a collective fate for Africans worldwide is a choice. For those of us who choose to structure our identities this way, there is a bounded sense of community, a definite “us” and “them.”

Whether the debate is between Bill Cosby and Michael Eric Dyson, or WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington, this is not a new division among Africans in America. But it is still a false one. The only thing new is that we have the privilege at this particular time and place in history to believe that we have so many options. To be able to be Black and believe in individualism as strongly as Touré may itself be a sign of progress (or severe delusion, depending on your take).

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