On Joy

What is it about joy? We cannot force it, but we all hope for it. We cannot wish it into existence; sometimes we don’t know what exactly brings it to us. It seems to me, though, that joy is often quietly abiding in community.

Having spent the last few days in a fairly rural part of southern France, I was struck by what I perceived to be simple manifestations of joy. I don’t mean my joy, although I was certainly happy to be there. What I mean is the contented aura of the many people milling about in a small town square who appeared to have something to do. The square had a small fountain in it. Despite what financial austerity the community, the region, or the country might be facing, water was running in the fountain. It was sunny and warm. People greeted each other and even me, obviously a stranger. It was a Saturday. Children were going by with parents, teenagers wandered around in small groups or in pairs. Some appeared to be coming from or going to school. The fountain water glittered in the sunlight. Smallish cars and the occasional motorcycle zoomed past on the nearby main street. The streets were clean. Men and women of all ages were sitting at cafes, together or by themselves. Everyone – save a very few – was dressed well. By that I mean they appeared to be clean and neatly dressed. There didn’t seem to be any strain to achieve the latest fashion; rather, just an inclination to look as well as one might without too much effort.

All around me people chatted with intention and animation. Some were laughing. Some appeared to be discussing something serious. Others seemed to be enjoying delicious gossip. At each café (they are closely situated, one after the other) clients chatted with the waiters and waitresses as well as each other. If I were to search for a way to describe the quality that I felt pervaded among the people, I would say that there was an absence of effort. There seemed an absence of effort to be observed, to be admired, to be heard or to be included.

I think there is something about community that allows joy to manifest. It is tied to security but it isn’t just security … security might be one of the most boring things about such a place. Maybe it’s reliability. By that I mean the reliability of the social contract, of knowing folks in one’s community, of sharing routines and practices. I believe these conditions allow for the multiplication of opportunities for small joys.

This is not an essay that addresses the social ills of France, of which there are many, especially in the big cities. What I want to bring up here is the sense that people – in this small town – seemed to feel the right to be joyful. Also the right to the pleasure of being old, or young, or short, or tall, the pleasure of being alive. I tried to imagine this sort of abandon in a small American town but it was difficult.

What have we done? Somehow we have capitulated to despair and unease, dissatisfaction and wariness of each other. We are not sure we deserve beauty in our surroundings, or what beauty might signify for us. We seem more secure in measuring our differences, our displays of wealth, or not; or our indifference to aesthetic pleasures. Underneath, there is a steaming anxiety that everything we have is not enough. We are more preoccupied with the material belongings we can count (or think we should have). Objects, more reliable, ease our active judgement of one another. With such a measured life, maybe there is less likelihood of the accidental and the coincidental. We leave insufficient space for joy in the social fabric we have so tightly woven.

Creating the Angry Black Woman

It is a sad truth that in the imaginary of some white people in the United States there is a vivid conjectured  stereotype of ‘the angry black woman.’  There is first the fact that some whites, and indeed most Americans, know that there are many things that might indeed make black women angry, and with reason. That is a healthy and rational interpretation of events. In this essay that is not the circumstance that I am talking about. Those are not the people I am talking about.

Here, I am talking about situations where a white person, often unconsciously, creates a situation that engenders conflict and presents unnecessary discomfort or hardship to a black woman, and then continues to push the situation forward. When the ploy does not produce the (unconsciously desired) angry and explosive outcome that could have happened, irrational responses from the perpetrator follow. These responses, instead of de-escalating the situation, typically proceed to amplify antagonisms.  But that’s not all.

The really fascinating thing about these scenarios is that they are most often not about big issues. They are about small, mundane issues. They are about trivia, things and tasks that should normally proceed easily without particular notice or perturbation. These actions might be productively described as ‘passive-aggressive.’ Some internal machinery seems to make it attractive to the white person in question to draw out and prolong, and to amplify, a very small and negligible circumstance.

It seems to me that these are ‘triggered’ responses, deeply buried in the psyche, that make up part of the repertoire of race conflict, or if you like, race war in the United States.  Unconscious aggressions that operate to frustrate the target, engender strong reactions, and push the target to ‘act out’ are efficient acts in the making of the ‘angry black woman.’ The results of such actions are twofold: conflict and opposition around ‘small stuff’ can wear a person down; they are signals that say ‘it is worth it to me to oppose you on even the smallest grounds’ and second, they have the potential to create the ‘angry black woman’ that the white person in question perhaps already sees when he/she looks at her – she will be pushed to conform to the unconscious stereotype that the perpetrator carries around in her/his head. I have heard of many such situations from friends of color (“non-whites”).

Here’s the thing: it is BORING. It is so boring, and a little tragic.

The white person who is unaware of their unconscious desires and needs to thwart and discourage nearby black persons in the course of everyday life by throwing small barriers and other negative ephemera at them is a rather tragic figure. The need to do such a thing is tragic. The lack of self-awareness is particularly tragic. And especially, the unnamed programming that produces such behaviors is very tragic. These acts cannot and should not be elevated to significant white racist behavior. They can be classified, perhaps, as ‘habits of racism,’ buried deep in the psyche. These acts recall the behavior of a child who thinks that his/her naughty behavior or bad thoughts cannot be discerned. They are like a small, mean bacteria that such a white person is unknowingly host to. But to persons of color, or people not from the U.S., these behaviors are often painfully obvious.

For a black woman who has had the good fortune of distance from the petite race games that proliferate in this country, these games are only tiresome. Often, one sees the expectation of such a white person for the black person to join into this old American tradition. But really, nobody wants to be bothered with this kind of small, but insidious, intrusion on their mental well-being. These utterances and acts are part of a very strange game that whites and blacks play in the United States; I say this as an American. To respond strongly is to join the game, and to uphold an undignified struggle that is child-like and pathetic for adults.

The work needed to resolve this engagement with illusion and fantasy is not for the layperson. This work needs to be done by trained psychiatrists and psychologists.

For the rest of us, those who have been able to get ‘out of the box’ and observe from a distance, it is just boring. Boring and sad. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Black Precarity

I love the United States, but it keeps wounding me.

It wounds Iike an unhealthy relationship with a neighbor who has the upper hand; like a mean father, like a cruel mother, or a wily adversary. Like a crafty jealous sister, or a cruel, sadistic uncle. The United States continues to inflict these wounds.

Every time another young black person is killed in nefarious police circumstances, I feel a wound. My psyche bleeds anew every time.  Just when I think it can’t, it bleeds again. Inter-group violence is something I understand – it is human. Young black people fight terrible battles over territory, over drug markets, over insults. I don’t like it, I feel bad about it, I am heartbroken, but I do not feel wounded. The classification of these young people by certain powers as superfluous, though, is painful.

What wounds is the random act. What wounds is the sterility of the action.

In 2016 Achille Mbembe said one of our difficulties in this era is knowing the difference, in this moment, “between absolute murder and absolute justice.”

 (at Duke University in April, 2016).

Think about that.

Teju Cole wrote an article about the black panther. He talked about the fatigue of being seen, perceived, understood as being from ‘Africa.’  He spoke (with regret? disgust?) of how public discourse does not recognize black specificity, does not engage realities of African countries, of African nationalities. He also talked about being in the U.S. and his evolving or evolved relationship to the concept of blackness.

On the Blackness of the Panther. ‘In my wildest dreams, there …

https://level.medium.com

There is a blackness all African descendants feel, in the face of unmoved whiteness.

What I really wanted to talk about is black precarity. The precarity of black lives at this moment in time. In the United States, Britain, or France, the supposed black culpability. In the United States, the disposability of young black lives. I live in the United States where there are statistic probabilities that I, or someone in my family, someone I love, can be killed ‘by mistake.’

I know this existed way before, but I sense it has gone to another level.

In Africa, the statistics are not good there either. There is a lack of hospitals, of medicines, of ambulances, traffic lights, and of doctors. Your body can randomly get wounded. I often want to live there anyway. In the places I know and love in West Africa, there is a kind of dignity of daily life. I like that.  There are many problems (class, caste, etc), but there is less targeting, less random wounding of the spirit.

These conditions of violence and chance are perhaps the detritus and the product of the colonial fantasy.

Random death by car accident or random death by police accident? Or random death by some other black person who is even more frustrated than you (another black person) are. This is the precarity of global black life.

Overcoming difficult challenges: the lesson of the herder’s stick

Blog March 27

It was a warm, dry afternoon in the savannah lands of West Africa in the mid-1970s. Young people were gathered just next to an outdoor market of a village not far from the main road, and they greeted each other with animation. There was a feeling of anticipation. A boy of about sixteen picked up a round pocket mirror incased in red plastic. He trembled with excitement and nervousness. With one foot slightly in front of the other, he prepared for the onslaught of blows with a wooden herding stick that he was about to endure.  These would be delivered from someone in his community; an age mate who would himself get his turn later that day. The boy stared intently into the mirror, almost as if he were in the process of hypnotizing himself. In spite of appearances, this was not an occasion of punishment.  This was the “saro” (from Saro or Sawro, in Fulfuulde, meaning herding stick).

The attending crowd, made up mostly of Fulani teenagers, were excited. People milled around, and a line of Fulani girls danced and sang a song about courage and fortitude. Both young men and women were dressed in their best, with kohl around their eyes.  They laughed and bustled around as they sought to get closer to the action. You could hear the loud but muffled sound of feet stamping on the sandy ground. The smell of the popular Sahelian aromatic oil, Bint-as-Sudan, floated through the air. At the first stroke, the boy winced at the impact while the stick went thump across his shoulders.  Everyone in his community was proud of this boy as he withstood the pain and remained focused on the small mirror.

Suddenly people started running. The saro ceremony broke up and folk scattered. Government agents had come to break up the ceremony, which had recently been prohibited by the government. Though the Fulani insisted on calling this a game, and though it played an important role in the life-cycle of Fulani young men, the government was concerned because some experienced grave wounds and debilitating outcomes. Guards from the Emir’s palace had arrived on the scene in their bright patch-work robes of red and sage green, belts tied at their waists and their red turbans wound securely around their heads. They brandished small whips and shouted at the crowd to disperse. Some people were slowly but deliberately moving to the edges of the crowd.  I was there, too, and backed up several feet to the space by the adjacent road, getting away from the crowd.

What is the meaning of saro? It seemed cruel and violent. Yet, the youth – young herders known as waynaabe – were angry that the Emir’s guards had spoiled their chance to show their bravery and self-control. This was supposed to have been their day to shine! It was a day dedicated to pulaaku – a person’s abilities of discipline, grace, and apparent nonchalance under pressure. The ceremony was performed in a demonstration of extraordinary focus. That is the lesson of the saro.

Most of us would not want to be subjected to those hard blows that often broke the skin and drew blood. Why did the Fulani – or Fulbe as they call themselves – call saro a game? It was literally a game of hard knocks! But it was also an African game of great pedagogic value.

Life is also a game of hard knocks. When we overcome difficult challenges, there is often no one there to cheer us on and to wonder at our self-control, discipline, or feigned nonchalance. There are no Emir’s guards to stop the pain and save us from our difficult moment. What we can learn from the saro is the value of focus under pressure. The ability to look at ourselves, believe in our worth, and face difficulty. It the lesson of bringing one’s internal strength into focus in the face of painful but transcending moments.

phtotograph by Wendy Wilson

Pan Africanism is happening in front of our eyes, but not like what we thought

The question of African American (meaning here the historic core black American community from here on called “black Americans”) lack of understanding of Africans and inability to connect with African immigrants today is most often couched in language describing problems of ignorance and the failure of Pan Africanism. I would suggest that it is not just politics, or a failure of the Pan Africanist idea.  Social conditions and technology have changed and challenged what Pan Africanism was addressing, but the reasons the idea of Pan Africanism evolved are not gone.

One issue in the United States (and Europe) is the still ubiquitous contempt shown black people in everyday life, even as we have public discussions about colonialism, white privilege and white supremacy. We should expect that as things evolve, it will not be an even transformation.

Something else affecting black immigrant/black American communication in the U.S. is immigrants’ lack of understanding of class in the black American community. Otherwise, it is sometimes the convenient immigrant forgetfulness of how some poor urban youth in African or Caribbean cities are also problematic.  In other cases, some black immigrants lump all black Americans together, and are ignorant of all the sacrifices black Americans have made that make it possible for black immigrants to thrive here.  Sometimes there is a generational understanding gap between the children of African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their parents’ generation. My experiences have shown me that children of these communities, while retaining their parents’ ethnic identification, also identify as African American and are thoroughly immersed in African American culture.  

Outside of their own communities, black Americans are not, it seems to me, terribly well understood. They are not well understood at home in their own country, and outside of the U.S. many people are ignorant of black history. Here in the U.S., there may be segments of the non-black population that understand African Americans, or segments of more newly arrived black communities that understand some things about being black in America, but much remains to be understood about the black experience outside of the community. With the increasing numbers of black immigrants coming into the United States every year, and the lack of communication and even empathy between ‘every day African Americans’ and black immigrants, the understanding and recognition of each group’s unique historical identity increasingly needs to be addressed. In many ways, this lack of empathy and understanding of immigrants towards black Americans, mirrors the earlier similar lack of emapthy from Irish, Asian, and Italian American immigrants. To be fair, the Jewish community stands out in exception to this rule. In the early and mid-twentieth century it was clear that Jews recognized the social quagmire that African Americans were fighting. Significantly, progressive Jewish people recognized that many African Americans were fighting for change and for their very survival, and some in that community actively supported this struggle long before many other white Americans publicly recognized or  took action towards improving the lot of black Americans. This may or may not be the case now, but historically this was so.

Few black Americans know much about African history, and few black immigrants, especially African immigrants, know much about black American history. This should not be surprising, since amongst both groups people are busy working and trying to make ends meet, and to rise up in American society. But things are changing as recent events demonstrate why communication among different groups in the black community is important.  Mariame Kaba, the social justice activist,  is an example of how things may evolve.  (see mariamekaba.com)  Exchanges among youth here in the United States, and between black American tourists, students and scholars who travel to West Africa and the people they meet in Africa, are increasing.  The variety of narratives one can find on different websites may also be a very good thing; I think of the Grapevine series on YouTube as an example. In many ways another sort of Pan Africanism is happening in front of our eyes anyway, outside of books or speeches. The internet has facilitated a new kind of learning and communication that has never before existed between the African continent and its Atlantic diasporas. That’s exciting. This process is not in the end just a political one; it is a cultural and social exploration of distant common histories and potential common futures. It’s interesting, dynamic and creative.

Foundations of our Blackness: The Historical Itinerary of Cultural Practice

“To do something and to understand the historical origins of that something, or its larger context, are not the same.”

The black people who arrived to the Anglo-American, Spanish and French colonies from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth are generally referred to as the ‘Old African Diaspora’ in the scholarly literature. In its formative period, the United States had Africans, and thousands of them. It is something that truly, if we are honest, is hard to capture – this idea that the blacks who were here in the antebellum period were in a state of ongoing transformation, moving between the poles of ‘salt water negro’ (new arrivals from the Atlantic crossing) and ‘creole,’ – African and American.  Not African Americans. This was not a three-week, or even a decade-long transition, though it is still not  well understood by the general public that all the Africans did not come at once. Not one group arrived 400 years ago, but many groups, continuously arriving, for two centuries at least. Some Africans were here earlier than others, some arrived later, most arriving between 1760 and 1810.  That is a bit more recent than ‘400 years ago.’ Although this information is accepted as historical fact in some circles in the United States, it is still hard for people to grasp the cultural ramifications of this drawn out process of intermittent injections of diverse African cultures into American society and the United States landscape.

As a society (by this I mean all Americans, particularly those of three and more generations in the United States) we have blocked out much of the social history of the nineteenth century.  We discuss diversity as though the brown people, the Asians, and the blacks only recently came into view. We have conveniently forgotten that many Chinese families have been here for almost two centuries, that Spanish speakers and Native Americans were always with us, and that the very foundational cultural life of the United States is intricately tied to the presence of African slaves and their descendants.   We also pretend that those non-white groups remained among themselves, or that they had no cultural impact on the larger society, in spite of the intimacy implied by the kind of work that was relegated to their communities.  Many cultural practices that have their origins in the intersection of these different cultural enclaves have become so embedded in American culture that they are no longer recognized as anything but “American.” Further, the racialist agendas of the nineteenth century would not allow any recognition of cultural activities or preferences that came from, or were influenced by, “the blacks,” except perhaps in minstrel and eventually vaudeville shows. Even among black Americans, it is only with difficulty that people can look at their families or themselves and think that this action, or that preference, is here because of African antecedents.  Such was the strength of the social sanctions against Africa and Africans in America’s nineteenth century.  The inability or discomfort to name practices according to where they came from has to do with how we were subjected to cultural pressures from Europeans. It is evidence of an ongoing performance of colonial power, as has so eloquently been discussed by the BLM author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor .

For black Americans, over the 19th century, there were increasingly rare occasions to remark that a way of walking, a way of telling a story, or even beliefs in ‘haints,’[i] — anything not reducible to material evidence (like hair)  –were inherited from an African ancestor.  Henry Louis Gates’ recent PBS documentary on the black church chronicles this beautifully. It is only through music, whose beginnings were in the sacred, the celebratory and the spiritual, that we are in agreement that ‘something’ came from Africa. The drums, we agree, came from Africa.  The use of the fiddle, violin, and the voice in African registers and melodies are less well known as having a strong West African genealogy. Yet, as all anthropologists know, to do something and to understand the historical origins of that something, or its larger context, are not the same. African Americans and other Americans may indeed have cultural proclivities that have their origins in African practices, but they do not understand or often care about where such practices come from. This does not change the historical itinerary of cultural practice, though, but rather only our current understanding of what we do.


[i] Spirits, from “haunt”

Unbelievable Dancers

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.

A fragile citizenship?

As I have stated elsewhere, “the political and socio-cultural challenges that are perennial to the African American community of the United States require us to seek new ways to explain the current isolation (social and political) of poor African American communities, and the seeming fragile nature of citizenship that continues to endure for African Americans generally… not the legal nature of citizenship, although that too is brought into question by recent actions regarding voting rights, but rather the lived cultural experience of citizenship as it is idealized in a northern, post-industrial democracy.”[i]  In looking at current discourse of African immigrants and black Americans about each other, and public and private conversations about black Americans in West Africa, I see as an ongoing discussion that has been in play for more than a century. I wonder how questions of honor, dignity, shame, and aspiration are engaged or not engaged, and I think these issues have not outlived their usefulness as themes to which we must pay attention. These questions are of primordial importance to the survival of the African American community today.             If one lives long enough one sees social and political changes never anticipated earlier in life. The events of January 6, 2021 are a case in point. This is personal maturity and also a national experience: the realization that things do “pass away” and what you assumed as a permanent part of the social landscape can be lost, swept away with time, and disappear. My purpose is to provoke conversation and dialogue, and to share ideas about the cost of just one imaginary of the black experience. We should disrupt complacency regarding how blacks are viewed by outsiders and even how we view ourselves.  Of course, it is important that people of African descent negotiate and manage their relationship to whites, but it seems to me we can anticipate the ebbs and flows of relationships among ourselves (various communities of African descent) as well. We could, for example, look at the relationships between (core) black  Americans and black immigrant families (African, AFro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino) and then use this discussion as a window through which to look at alternative futures. By looking at points of tension and grace between black Americans and other communities we may uncover something about the historic relationship of the black community to other American ethnic groups.  Such an exercise may help us explore aspects of black history and ethos that contribute to black isolation in contemporary America, and how resilience has been re-created each generation, even while the ‘core’ community continues to be a ‘melting pot’ of diverse peoples of color.


[i] Wilson-Fall, “African Americans, Identity and Cultural Meaning: the Poetics of Being Black?” in Interrogating Gaze: Resistance, Transformation, and Decolonizing Praxis, ed. Jemadari Camara, forthcoming, Dakar: Amalion Press, 2021.

Black Diversities

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. 

Why it matters

Black in the African Diaspora – Is that redundant?

It may seem like this title is a redundancy, but I want to signify the volatile nature of the term ‘black,’ which has many meanings and is situational. Mostly, I think about how the term ‘black’ signifies, in the United States, anyone with any African ancestor. But that’s not its only meaning. I might mean ‘black’ as in the name of an ethnic group ie “I am black,” or “I am “Black American” and not, for example, an African or Caribbean immigrant. But then, globally, there is the concept of ‘black people’ bringing us back again to the global signifier of African descent.

African American

This is another term whose meaning expands and retracts. Right now, African Americans might be any ‘black’ people who are American citizens. It might be a term for ‘Black Americans’ (as above), who I think of as part of the ‘historical core black community.’ Meanwhile, the population of African Americans (as a global term for blacks in America) is expanding and diversifying. Some find this unacceptable, or resist the idea that new ‘black folk’ can come to America and benefit from all the hard work and suffering of the historic core black community. This blog will address some of the conflicts and serendipitous aspects of the encounter of historical black Americans with black “Others,” especially African immigrants. I’ll also be writing about black Americans in Africa.

Political considerations

Hey – this is real. What are the policy implications of a diverse black population? Is it good or bad? What are some unintentional negatives that are occurring with this population transformation? Do we/should we blame somebody for inequities resulting from this change, and if so, who? What I do know is that social change is constant and right now, fast. Whatever black Americans (historical) have been trying to tell the world about being black in America is now known (and finally, believed) everywhere, especially since this last summer and the deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and others. The cat is definitely out of the bag.