A Letter to Warren on the Contours of Racial Identity
from Dr. Joyce E. King
This note is for when you come back from quotidian tasks—mine are just starting for the day. My mom was in the hospital one day and a night. So I'm not thorough in my response. The sources you cite are on my to-do list.
I'm not down for proto-“19th century Black nationalism” either. But neither do I think the "leap" to internationalism-cosmopolitanism-multicultural alliances is sufficient to undo the damage (done to us all) that the particular form of US racism has caused (and is now perpetuated in newly globalized forms).
I am pure and simply pro-Black; pro the survival of Black people as a people. So I think I'm on a pathway toward your "cosmopolitan" practice if we can also take care of some other problems along the way that would help us all to be more "human" partners in such a project freed from the nihilation of blackness (Sylvia Wynter's term). Or "all uh we no save."
It was reported that the Belafonte gathering of global youth that took place in Oakland , CA (where Black youth are also killing each other in unprecedented numbers) excluded “ghetto youth" from OAKLAND. (See Marvin X commentary.) I know a number of Black educators in Oakland and no one has mentioned this meeting or the opportunity for their students to be involved. I am curious to find out how the "progressive" Black folks on the Left could leave out the grass roots Oakland community—if that is indeed what happened. See the articles and listen to Belafonte.
Sometimes Left political commitments and strategies are unintentionally adverse to a Black agenda; sometimes leftist thinking takes people to a "universalist position" that does not bother about healing deep anti-blackness (anti-Africanity) hidden in the inner Self and in this society. (Sometimes people make personal choices like "interracial" marriage out of this commitment to "race-free" thinking/being without any awareness of how such matters may be influenced by hegemony: ideas of beauty related to color and “flowing hair,” for example.)
Marvin X (strong Black nationalist) speculates in his article that perhaps Oakland’s youth were not seen to be "ready" for Belafonte's Gathering for Justice. Listen to Belafonte’s comments: he stresses that "this is not a Black thing". . .(loud cheers from the multi-cultural audience.) See Marvin X's column on the pod cast website (thanks to Rudy Lewis's website). It seems that these poorest (sub-lumpen-altern) black youth might have been an "embarrassment" for the proto-progressives—not ready to be told "this is not a black thing." (Still too savage, violent and raw perhaps?) Of course, I understand the meaning: This is a multicultural alliance—that others are also implicated and affected by the problems of the day and we need to reach across boundaries to do the work.
Still, what would it take for Black males in Toronto, Oakland, Johannesburg and other parts of Africa (Liberia , Rwanda , Congo , Sudan ) and the Caribbean (or Brazil) to stop killing each other?
This IS a black thing at the same time that it is not just a black thing. As Angela Davis has said: “It’s complicated.” (See her interview with the The Guardian.)
I submit that the position of Belafonte et al who organized the youth gathering in Oakland—which is vitally important—is not the same as what Skip Gates represents in his Op Ed piece in the NY Times (“Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth”)—when he asserts that we no longer have a “black community” because of “class divisions” (the wealth gap). But the lack of strategically affirming blackness plays out in both. Gates is squarely in the camp of academics like Orlando Patterson (Harvard), who has also been trotted out with plenty of headlines. Patterson's position has a Caribbean ("we immigrants are more civilized than American blacks") undertone. (I like the fact that Sylvia Wynter, also from Jamaica, has not fallen into that way of thinking.)
Skip Gate's story is interesting. He is claiming that his "research" shows that ancestral property ownership right after slavery ended (e.g., intergenerational social class advantage) is the explanatory factor for "successful" Black folks like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg today.
I would say that it is very likely a color (race) question as much as a class matter: people who were able to get property (and skilled craft work) then were often the children and grandchildren of white men and our enslaved/often raped black mothers. In New Orleans this is more pronounced with the "gens de couleur"—"free people of color". (Thus, Plessy was about defending the rights of this group of relatively privileged mixed-race "colored folks" who did not consider themselves Black at all.) Such "mixed" people then had opportunities due to color that included white sponsorship for education or other opportunities.
(That's certainly the story in my family—my grandfather looked like a white man—his mother was "jet" black. He was able to get all kinds of opportunities that have been passed on to me and my children. On my grandmother’s side their father had a “white brother on the other side of town” who would help them when times were particularly hard.)
(Clarence Thomas represents another kind of "sponsored mobility.")
I just read a piece of research in the American Educational Research Journal about the Black man who founded a post-slavery school that became one of the historically Black colleges here in GA. His grandfather was the white "slave master." His father was able to become a skilled carpenter. The son, who founded this school, was educated by Christian missionaries and he thoroughly imbibed the racist ideology that Africans were fortunate to be able to BENEFIT from slavery. In his long career as an educator here in GA he defended segregation and allied himself with the most racist white politicians. That legacy of anti-Africanity remains in the mentality of many Black folks today.
Even some of us in the “academy”—professors who intellectually embrace African history—internalize this notion that American black folks are "better off" for having been taken out of the “dark continent” and we would, therefore, be even better off if we could more successfully emulate "white" middle-class values. . . See also: T. V. O'Brien, "Perils of Accommodation: The Case of Joseph W. Holley," AERJ, 44(4), 2007: 806-852.
St. Clair Drake whom I studied with and admired very much was clear about his "class first" position, but he also affirmed blackness and Africa. (See his Black Folks Here and There volumes and a his classic analysis of Black religion, particularly his discussion of Frederick Douglass and the “gris-gris” bag that he received from an old African.) Perhaps that was the influence of his Garveyite father (smile).
My point is that there is also the "African" connection in all of this (rooted in justifications for slavery/colonial domination) that I am working out of.
Let's keep talking.
When you read my "Blues epistemology" chapter, you will see that I am citing indigenous peoples like the Native Hawaiians, the Maori of New Zealand (Linda T. Smith, Decolonizing Methodology and Native Americans; Sande Grande, Red Pedagogy) who are unapologetically embracing their own cultural sovereignty. That is the only basis I see for true cosmopolitanism, real democracy and human freedom. But getting there requires a practice of being that has been denied to most of us.