In 2011, African American journalist (Washington Post, MSNBC) Eugene Robinson published a book called Disintegration, in which he talked about important changes in the black community of the late 20th and early 21st century, and how these changes are related to class and ethnicity. He saw the disintegration of the black community as he had known it most of his life. Robinson identifies four categories of people in today’s African American population, which he names as ‘the mainstream,’ the ‘abandoned,’ the ‘transcendent’ and the ‘emerging.’ In today’s United States the mainstream represents about forty percent of the African American community; this group includes both the old and the new middle-class of the black community. The transcendent are those who have risen beyond middle or even upper-middle class status, they are movie stars, sports stars, famous judges and people in the corporate world. The abandoned are the roughly forty-two percent of blacks, from America’s ‘old diaspora,’ who continue to live in poverty, in violent neighborhoods, where there is little household stability. They are numerically the most represented among incarcerated blacks, and the least educated as well, as a group. Finally, there is the group of the ‘emergents.’ Robinson sees this group as composed mostly of African and Caribbean immigrants and their descendants as well as children of ‘bi-racial’ couples. They are emerging, in Robinson’s view, as an outward-looking, optimistic group who share African American identity but also maintain other ideas of who they are that are different from the others.
I mostly agree with Robinson’s typology. I want to talk about that third category, which I think has also got several sub-categories. This third category describes, among other things, the poor or almost poor blacks living together in almost exclusively black urban neighborhoods. Some of the people in these socio-economic circumstances have almost climbed the ladder to category one, only to slide back down due to a few too many social or health issues that cost the family too dearly. Contrary to what many think of, these households might include one or two family members who have made it to college, and actually completed an undergraduate degree. These are also families who have college-educated members who didn’t finish due to economic as well as social problems. Yet, this group provides significant leadership for the black community through church work, service organizations, and social networking. Unfortunately, it also provides considerable fodder for police aggression and the gangs of the black ghetto, to the AIDS wards, for the liquor industry, and mass incarceration. Often they don’t choose or care to imitate white behaviors for the sake of networking for jobs and ‘getting ahead.’ Unlike immigrants, they tend to think that since they are American then their way of speaking English or otherwise expressing themselves in song, dance, or social exchange should be acceptable, while immigrants do their utmost to speak America’s standard English. This has important consequences for the public school experiences of children from the two groups.
“There is this American folk belief of [and dependence on] the black position as producer of newness and difference”
As I said, this ‘abandoned’ group provides an unfortunate number of the young black men in prison, as well as young black teen-age mothers, many of whom are also in prison. The majority of people in this category live in some version of an extended family, and this social and economic environment is often at odds with them ‘getting ahead.’
The contrast of the nuclear family success to the extended family’s fragilities tends to support the idea that culture can be part of the reason for not getting out of poverty. If communities don’t follow the atomized, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal of the nuclear family and the self-promoting individual, they are at greater risk for health disparities and social sanction, like imprisonment or breaking probation rules. For example, one of the main probation rules is to not socialize with any felons or formerly arrested and charged individuals. What then, are people supposed to do if this describes half of their family? Is there really any way to follow the rules of probation when you live at home with your family, can’t get an apartment due to a criminal record, and don’t have the money anyway to move elsewhere?
The great irony is that this mass of folk were once considered (before integration) as the conservative, exotic Negro community; the original, the real Negro, the nice Negro, the religious Negro, the interesting Negro of anglophone North America. These are the folks who brought us jazz, blues and hip-hop. These are the people who developed rhythm and blues styles, who popularized barbecue, chicken wings, and fried fish with hot sauce. They have functioned as a sort of Adelphi Oracle of American popular culture; a sort of magic, interminable cultural well that constantly waters the North American cultural landscape. One wonders to what extent that can continue – where is it all coming from? How long can it last? When will this seeming endless capacity to re-invent, to re-create, to improvise, be exhausted? Should we be worried about that? Protect it? Even the African genius (maybe what Mbembe calls the ‘heretical genius’?) (2016) can be wasted, used up, badly exploited.
There’s a danger here to the whole of American culture. It is the impossible standard that has been raised: this unspoken sense that this creativity is magic, it came from Africa, it can’t be used up in spite of poverty and moral corruption. This is the American folk belief of the black position as producer of newness and difference, hence in the face of racism the black cultural obligation to be different, to keep improvising, to keep nourishing a society with an insatiable appetite for the new, the different, the sensational. This includes ideas of incredible sportsmanship, the untouchable musician, the unbelievable dancers. There is not a rational idea of where to stop, when enough is enough, of where Africanisms/Negro-isms simply should not be put out on the market, just for popular entertainment, at the risk of destroying the source of cultural production. What an expensive way to defray the aggressions one endures for being poor and uneducated. This price is more than blood. Blacks are allowed to experience calamity after calamity in order to continue to sell the blues.