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December 17, 2004

Black as a 'Thing to Be'

Negrorage is a new blog out there which is fairly long on thought. Tagging along for the ride on the Black vs Nigger question we find ourselves deep into the existentials. I assert a thing or two, raising the stakes:

This is good stuff. But it's interesting how post-modern and abstracted it is, not that it's anyone's fault. We all suffer a bit of that. But I'm going to say two words that should kind of put all of this in perspective, and if you meditate on them long enough then they should be evocative enough to fill a stadium of proper associations. "Mahalia Jackson".

Sometimes I wonder how many black youth get all of their sense of blackness from reading the memories and fictions of black authors. As 'real' as 'Beloved' the novel is, it remains something created from the imagination of Toni Morrison. The fact of the matter is that I would prefer that such verisimilitudes become the blackground. They form a set of useful fictions. But evidently we are in a cycle in which Americans would prefer that every decade has a distinct meaning, and every generation has its own different mission. Brokaw is not far off when he asserts that his generation does not have a mission relatively speaking.

But the author has nailed a concept that I think is pretty sharp, which is looking at blackness as a 'thing-to-be'. It makes the distinction between an identity under the influence of cross-currents and redefinitions, and a placeholder for a future sense of being. It is this distinction, with an emphasis on the second part, which is really interesting to me. It relates very well to the state of ungrownupness I sense in a lot of these discussions, especially the latest one concerning the cinematic depiction of some fantastic creation of one Ursula Le Guin, named 'Ged'.

How do we get so far away from Mahalia Jackson that we need to complain about the shade of Ged? My answer is that we cannot unless we have completely dissed our parents. The very concept that America or anyplace has an endless supply of identity buckets for its youth to assume is very post-modern, weird and an enemy of the Old School. This longing for a proper black thing-to-be, this need for becoming is a little more twisted than the standard 'be-when-I-grow-up' and yet it's the same problem. There's not enough of something to anchor one in a set of circumstances that lock identity. We cannot accept the conditions (not me, we) of our nativity, so we become vulnerable to the fictions of those who would help us 'know ourselves' or be 'true to ourselves'.

So where is the black Popeye who says 'I yam what I yam'? All over. Not asking nor answering questions, I imagine.

It's true that in America we have too much space to negotiate our identity. We are not essentially anything. We are identity-mobile to the extreme. But I think we should nail that down and *add* to our basic selves some skills and abilities, rather than remake ourselves. The only glitch is that millions of Americans start off so twisted that they don't have a valuable enough self (to themselves) that they see it possible to augment that self towards nobility. They feel that they have an un-self-actualizable self. I accept that. I call such people peasants, and as far as I'm concerned that's what they are. A lot of African American fall into that peasant bucket, and those are the ones whom are especially suceptible to 50 page books: Afrocentrism, Message to the Blackman, The Isis Papers, et al. You can debate their value but the very fact that they exist at all is testimony to this craving desire to have a black thing-to-be.

Is it real, this hunger, this existential cesspool of confusion, this legacy of slavery, this native alienation? Yeah. Real enough. But it's not unique. There are peasants all over the world, and their difficulties with modernism are the same. I expect to find a great deal of it in China, which means as I have heard, that the emergent new money there is more addicted to bling than Puffy.

I suspect that people everywhere who will inevitably be empowered by new technologies will also inevitably deal with the pain of modernism and the need to become something other than what their parents expected them to be. It will be part of their struggle as individuals and as a people. If you get a chance, rent the video 'Brother' with Omar Epps. Watch what happens in the expressions of the young gangstas as they ineptly inherit power and wealth. They jump uncomfortably into the roles given to them by the man to whom they owe their lives. And they are trapped. But they were only vulnerable because they felt the need to become. It's the problem of peasants all over as they encounter the deadly liberation of the modern world.

Sometimes it's better to stay down in the piney woods and sing Precious Lord.

Posted by mbowen at December 17, 2004 05:38 PM

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