Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Ties that Bind: What Exactly Holds Black Folk Together as a Community?

“Still, one cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen. There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, or one by the other, or from one to the other. Community is at least the clinamen of the “individual.” -- Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

This one may run a little long. Please stick with me as I attempt to work my way through a question that I have not been able to answer with any degree of certainty. And it keeps nagging me, pulling at me, gnawing at my conscious.

Let me put the question to you as it was put to me. A few weeks ago I joined a good friend and a fellow community activist on his blog radio show, and he led off the show by asking me a question: “Does the African American community still exist?”

And then recently someone asked me to pen a few notes on community for a program, and as I set out to get my thoughts together, I ran a few ideas by my wife.

My wife is one of the smartest persons I know. And this fact constitutes a blessing and a curse. On this evening she decided to engage in a bit of Socratic questioning, and as usual, I found myself backed into a corner out of which I had to free myself. Allow me, please, to give you a glimpse at my dilemma.

I know that theoretically any community organizes itself around a common cause, a common goal that binds its members to each other. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy defines this as element as the clinamen. But as such, the community is always working toward its undoing; once that cause, that goal has been achieved, then the need for community dissipates.

Now, I can locate the cause that bound the early African American community together. Made up of persons from disparate regions and tribes of African and speaking many different languages and dialects, these early members of the African American community organized themselves around the cause of gaining freedom. And this is important; the meaning of freedom in this instance is plain. Freedom meant freedom from chattel slavery.

However, in the years following emancipation, community members had to pull together once more, again in the cause of freedom. But in this instance, the meaning of freedom is not so clear.

Freedom, of course, meant freedom from discrimination, from oppressive conditions and entrance into mainstream society not as second class citizens but as equals; however, nothing existed to provide an adequate measuring device of this achievement. No finish line was established.

Thus, following the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, many members of the community took advantage of the new opportunities available, and many found their way outside the boundaries set for them.

Now the African American community cannot be defined by space; African Americans are spread out throughout the nation and throughout the world. In addition, race is too insignificant to continue to bind us together. And also, and most importantly, the degree of freedom achieved, the actual progress made depends for the most part on the political stance of the person who is asked.

So , let me ask you again: “Does the African American community still exist?” And if so, what is the cause—the clinamen—binding us one to the other?

The implications are clear. If we are yet a community, I am having hard time identifying those issues, beside those dealing specifically with race, that are unique to African Americans. However, in the same instance, if we have achieved the desired end, and we can finally declare the death of the African American community, then why do the negative indicators continue to dis-proportionately affect African Americans?

In other words, where are we now? Where are we going? And are we going together or as scattered individual atoms?


The Black Bot said...

I agree with you. Most black people "individual atoms" because we don't have a common goal to fight for anymore. I think black people fought to be assimilated completely. We achieved this, and that's what we still strive to do. Black people don't really value our heritage as much anymore because it won't get them anywhere really. People recognize that the whiter you our the higher you are in the social ladder, so it is counterproductive to be try to establish a black community now that we "have it made."

md20737 said...

The illusion of equality has black people believing we dont need other black people. In addition the self hate we have is unmatched. Self hate combined with envy, & jealousy is a lethal combination. I believe their is a black community but it wont be found in the media, it exists only in the hearts and minds of those that want to be a part of it.

Keith said...

As a white man, I can't really answer this. I know that with white ethnic groups, such as Italians, Irish, etc., that many of them sought to be like every other American. They once had close knit communities where they worked and lived together. They were there for each other because they had common goals to fight for. Then many of them were able to assimilate into the larger American culture and did that. Many gave up a lot of their own heritage because they didn't want to be seen as being "too ethnic" or "too holding onto the old ways." I think it especially happens as the generations go on.

ProfGeo said...

@Max: I prefer your wording in the title, "What Exactly Holds Black Folk Together as a Community?" because it doesn't limit it to one factor or one force. We tend to want the answer wrapped up with a bow. Later, you ask: “'Does the African American community still exist?' And if so, what is the cause—the clinamen—binding us one to the other?”

I'm glad to learn a new term (clinamen) but wonder if for African Americans it can be described in the singular (the cause that binds).

@Keith: Funny you should use that example. Today I thumbed through a copy of a magazine published out of DC called Primo with motto "For and About Italian Americans." In addition to articles about things and people Italian, it had six full pages of heritage/cultural festivals taking place across the US. I think there can be competing urges to assimilate on the one hand and maintain culture of origin on the other.

Charles J said...

The lure of the "American Dream" is funny to me. As Black people we can NEVER fully assimilate into mainstream culture simply because of our skin tone. Unlike Italians, Germans, English, Scots etc etc. We can't change our last name or move into upper class status and think that we are ok. Don't believe me ask Henry Louis Gates.

What holds us together? I think it is still our race, our since of pride and the love for our families.

Our clinamen is still racism, this is not an excuse for us to do worse, but a reason for us to fight harder to work pass it.

Last but not lease Black people--the American way of life let me rephrase the United States way of life is very individualist. We have taken this individualism into our souls and disbanded leaving our community vulnerable to so much hurt.


Keith said...

Hey ProfGeo. That is quite fascinating. I read a book a couple of years ago about Italian-Americans. It dealt with the history of the people as they came to America. It talked about how many wanted to assimilate into the greater American culture while others did want to hold on to their roots. As many moved away from their communities into the suburbs, they had become pretty much indistinguishable from everybody else. There was a movement among some to revive those traditions. They wanted to keep them alive before they were lost.

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