19 Jul 2008

Beyond Black Victimhood

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Charles Johnson, not the author of Little Green Footballs, but an English professor at the University of Washington, argues in the American Scholar, that the narrative of black victimhood may well have outlived its usefulness. Black Americans are today of diverse origins. Many, like Barack Obama, have no descent from American slaves at all. Segregation ended generations ago, and African Americans are well represented in all walks of American life.

This unique black American narrative, which emphasizes the experience of victimization, is quietly in the background of every conversation we have about black people, even when it is not fully articulated or expressed. It is our starting point, our agreed-upon premise, our most important presupposition for dialogues about black America. We teach it in our classes, and it is the foundation for both our scholarship and our popular entertainment as they relate to black Americans. Frequently it is the way we approach each other as individuals. …

In 1926, Du Bois delivered an address titled, “Criteria of Negro Art” at the Chicago Conference for the NAACP. His lecture, which was later published in The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, which Du Bois himself edited, took place during the most entrenched period of segregation, when the opportunities for black people were so painfully circumscribed. “What do we want?” he asked his audience. “What is the thing we are after?”

Listen to Du Bois 82 years ago:

    What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of American citizens. …

    If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful;—what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? …

This provocative passage is, in part, the foundation for my questioning the truth and usefulness of the traditional black American narrative of victimization. When compared with black lives at the dawn of the 21st century, and 40 years after the watershed events of the Civil Rights Movement, many of Du Bois’ remarks now sound ironic, for all the impossible things he spoke of in 1926 are realities today. We are “full-fledged Americans, with the rights of American citizens.” We do have “plenty of good hard work” and live in a society where “men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. …

To put this another way, we can say that 40 years after the epic battles for specific civil rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, after two monumental and historic legislative triumphs—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and after three decades of affirmative action that led to the creation of a true black middle class (and not the false one E. Franklin Frazier described in his classic 1957 study, Black Bourgeoisie), a people oppressed for so long have finally become, as writer Reginald McKnight once put it, “as polymorphous as the dance of Shiva.” Black Americans have been CEOs at AOL Time Warner, American Express, and Merrill Lynch; we have served as secretary of state and White House national security adviser. Well over 10,000 black Americans have been elected to offices around the country, and at this moment Senator Barack Obama holds us in suspense with the possibility that he may be selected as the Democratic Party’s first biracial, black American candidate for president. We have been mayors, police chiefs, best-selling authors, MacArthur fellows, Nobel laureates, Ivy League professors, billionaires, scientists, stockbrokers, engineers, theoretical physicists, toy makers, inventors, astronauts, chess grandmasters, dot-com millionaires, actors, Hollywood film directors, and talk show hosts (the most prominent among them being Oprah Winfrey, who recently signed a deal to acquire her own network); we are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists (as I am). And we are not culturally homogeneous. When I last looked, West Indians constituted 48 percent of the “black” population in Miami. In America’s major cities, 15 percent of the black American population is foreign born—Haitian, Jamaican, Senegalese, Nigerian, Cape Verdean, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somalian—a rich tapestry of brown-skinned people as culturally complex in their differences, backgrounds, and outlooks as those people lumped together under the all too convenient labels of “Asian” or “European.” Many of them are doing better—in school and business—than native-born black Americans. I think often of something said by Mary Andom, an Eritrean student at Western Washington University, and quoted in an article published in 2003 in The Seattle Times: “I don’t know about ‘chitlings’ or ‘grits.’ I don’t listen to soul music artists such as Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin….I grew up eating injera and listening to Tigrinya music….After school, I cook the traditional coffee, called boun, by hand for my mother. It is a tradition shared amongst mother and daughter.”

No matter which angle we use to view black people in America today, we find them to be a complex and multifaceted people who defy easy categorization. We challenge, culturally and politically, an old group narrative that fails at the beginning of this new century to capture even a fraction of our rich diversity and heterogeneity. My point is not that black Americans don’t have social and cultural problems in 2008. We have several nagging problems, among them poor schools and far too many black men in prison and too few in college. But these are problems based more on the inequities of class, and they appear in other groups as well. It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one’s life is thinghood, created even before one is born. …

Yet, despite being an antique, the old black American narrative of pervasive victimization persists, denying the overwhelming evidence of change since the time of my parents and grandparents, refusing to die as doggedly as the Ptolemaic vision before Copernicus or the notion of phlogiston in the 19th century, or the deductive reasoning of the medieval schoolmen. It has become ahistorical. For a time it served us well and powerfully, yes, reminding each generation of black Americans of the historic obligations and duties and dangers they inherited and faced, but the problem with any story or idea or interpretation is that it can soon fail to fit the facts and becomes an ideology, even kitsch.

Read the whole thing.

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Hat tip to the News Junkie.

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One Feedback on "Beyond Black Victimhood"

Scott D

When your objective is to get 95% of them to vote in lockstep with you, you can’t treat them as polymorphous.



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