Currently the black world stands at an ontological impasse that represents opportunity and challenges. Since the benchmark publication of Mbembe’s Black Reason (2016), the elements of this impasse have increasingly become the subject of public and scholarly debate. These reflections were complimented and in some ways extended, by Felwine Sarr’s book, Afrotopia. (2016) The complexity of the African Diaspora, with its layered-ness and charged history, is now more understood and studied than ever before. Social dynamics in the U.S. black community are the particular focus here. I want to address the problems of naming, identity, and belonging, which have become fraught issues in contemporary black America. Eugene Robinson anticipated some of these challenges in his book Disintegration, and the topic remains important in cultural and political ways that are without precedent. The question of ethnic and racial category has always been at the nexus of social life in the United States. As social actors struggle to confront and change this remnant of coloniality that persists in all aspects of social life, the question of dismantling racism remains the focus. The former binary approach of the social and legal sphere, whether in terms of race (black/white) or in terms of gender (male/female) is no longer tenable and the realities of lived experience are forcing public and scholarly discourse to revisit not only the meaning but the consequences of binary thinking.
In this context, the edifices of ‘black’ and ‘white’ must necessarily crumble or transform. If whiteness is questioned, blackness, too, becomes an object of interrogation. Mbembe (2016) engaged this problem with the seriousness that it demands, and cautioned that the human future rests in large part on our ability to come to terms with evolving ideas of humanity and personhood. For the black community/communities of the United States, an important question that must be faced is the changing nature of the categories that have historically been imposed on people of African descent. Mbembe refers to this when he speakes of the ‘volatile nature of blackness.” (2016)
Several scholarly works have engaged the question of ‘who is an African?’ It is reasonable, then, to engage the question of who is an ‘African American,” and whether, indeed, the work of categorization is beneficial as well as what it signifies. For example, is the work of creating new categories an extension of the racist colonial world view of categorization and counting, that Appadurai (1996) described? What does the black American community’s historical practice of absorbing diverse people of African descent into a generic black community mean, in the twenty-first century? The question I want to examine here is not whether we need new categories, but how social realities are impacting the use and understanding of existing categories.
There are many signs of the ontological challenge that I call attention to here. Current public discourse and scholarly work has led to conversations about ‘white fragility,’ white supremacy, and the meaning of whiteness. In that whiteness is the oppositional twin to blackness, and there are ramifications for all who are assigned to the “black” category. Both communities, the ‘black’ and the ‘white,’ particularly those who self-define as descended from pre-19th century Americans, are experiencing a wave of xenophobia. This difference is that the aggregative process of the production of whiteness is slowing, while the process of ‘becoming black’ seems to be becoming more complex, expanding, and taking on new and unexpected directions and geographies. At the same time, ‘black’ is gaining a new adjunct meaning as the name of the foundational sub-group of African Americans. Black Americans emerge as a particular historic community in this process, recognized as a specific ethnic group among people of African descent now living in the United States. Likewise, black Americans reclaim their cultural and above all, historic, specificity in face of the greatly increased diversity of people of African descent in the United States. This diversity returns black Americans to the debates of the early nineteenth century reported by Sterling Stuckey, when the ontological was a pressing and existential issue. Having recently been consigned to homogeneity at that time, people of African descent sacrificed diversity on the altar of survival.