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January 07, 2006

Tommie Shelby

Once upon a time, I killed Boohab. The reason? The birth of the Boondocks. I quit being a race man and persistent pain in the ass in cyberspace because I felt a little redundant. It's more accurate to say that rather like the dynamic of the fly in the buttermilk, once there are a sufficient number of flies, no individual needs to buzz so very loudly. And with that in mind, pursuant to my Conservative Conclusion, it is a great bit of fortune and synchonicity that I happened upon this review of Tommie Shelby by Orlando Patterson. Read the whole thing. He's right where I am, almost to the letter.

Shelby directs his most forceful criticisms at the two other main forms of black identity politics: black power and cultural particularism. He maintains that the black power call to collective action based on exclusive black organizations is now inappropriate because of the economic and regional heterogeneity of the black population. It is also, he says, politically counterproductive since it risks alienating badly needed progressive allies among the nonblack population.

Shelby's powerful critique of black cultural particularism incorporates and supersedes all previous discussions of the subject. He identifies eight basic tenets of this tradition: blacks have a distinctive culture; they should collectively and consciously reclaim that culture; they should take pride in conserving and reproducing it; unlike white culture, it provides a valuable foundation for their individual and communal identities; it is an emancipatory tool in resisting white hegemony, providing an alternate set of ideals to live by; it should be accorded public recognition by the state; blacks, as the main producers of this culture, should benefit from it in financial and other ways; and as "owners" of this culture, blacks should be the foremost authorities and interpreters of it.

We hear these arguments all the time, sometimes subtly, often crudely. Most non-blacks are either contemptuous of them or quietly dumbfounded. Many simply turn a blindly patronizing eye. Shelby takes the arguments seriously, and meticulously demolishes them all. He does not deny that there are distinctive forms of Afro-American culture. Far from it. His concern, rather, is with the ways black spokesmen think about this heritage and the chauvinistic claims commonly made about it, beginning with the questionable view that being black means one is, or ought to be, culturally black.

The laudable goal of promoting the finer aspects of black cultural productions, Shelby argues, in no way implies that every black person should root his identity in them or is under any obligation to cultivate them. And the fact that blacks have had to make a special effort to undo the centuries of denigration of black cultural creations in no way implies that a common cultural identity should undergird political solidarity. Further, just because blacks created some particular cultural form is not necessarily a good reason to value it, since there is a good deal in black culture, as in all cultures, that is without value. And he nicely extends previous criticisms that the tiresome proprietary claims made of black culture risk marginalizing both black culture and intellectuals.

My predictions are a bit harsh. I say, like with the bodies at the bottom of the Middle Passage, those who do not survive America will have no effect on its destiny and those that do will not have the patience, time, inclination nor power to properly represent or gain cosmic justice for them when all is said and done. So therefore, I'm taking Kujichagulia to its end, which is that you're on your own, brother. What's most important is that I say 'brother'. At some point in our distant histories, we went through the same things, but I cannot guarantee that for my descendants the understanding of those things will be anything more than theoretically sympathetic.

I am more likely to conclude that it will be the traditions of Christianity that will bind us together in the future, than any political program of uplift. Where Shelby defaults on matters of self-reliance for the poor masses, I say that's all you have, and the Spirit. Won't it be hilarious to see then, how the kind of crass commercial Christianity derided in caricatures of the Right that Progressives wind up prescribing for the least of ther bretheren? You can't black politic your way into the economic mainstream, but you may be able to use faith in God, since Progressives won't allow you to have faith in America itself.

I feel that I ought to buy his book even though as with Ellis Cose' 'Rage of a Privileged Class' I feel I already know the conclusions. But I may as well have it on hand as Shelby enters the pantheon. I wonder then what to do with Glenn Loury. Hmm.

Posted by mbowen at January 7, 2006 02:16 PM

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self reliance is all you have. very true. people get mad when you say that because they think it means that white people are not going to make up for what they did to us. they're not. we've got advantages here in the US. let's use them.

Posted by: Anita at January 7, 2006 02:29 PM