Black Lives Matter, but the black in Black is not the darker skin complexion.
The debate over whether the b in black, presumably as a designation for people of African descent, should be capitalized seems to be coming to a premature consensus (see Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s take in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Seattle Times). This is unfortunate for many reasons.
That we are even talking about this issue is a direct consequence of the recent uprising against racialized police misconduct. However, the tribalism with which “Black” has been employed, indeed weaponized for populist mobilization, has been — dare I say it — less than graceful.
The first principle of any social justice movement is the ideal that oppressed people must speak against injustice everywhere, and there is a lot of it as shown in this chart. The data is of people killed by US police for the period 2015 to 2016 recorded in The Counted, a Web site maintained by the Guardian newspaper. Oppressed people must never allow themselves to be exploited by oppressor-made divisions. Even as Americans marched together over the last few weeks — if we take media accounts at face value — Black people took it for granted that nonblacks were there merely to provide moral support — as if nonblack communities are shielded from the epidemic of police misconduct.
Is there a way to speak against ALL police misconduct without diluting the essential message that it is disproportionately against “black” bodies?
This is not a new dilemma. However, the ahistorical, contrived and confused premature consensus on what the black in Black actually refer to has become a hindrance. I want to argue here that the black in Black is not primarily about the darker skin complexion, or its biological and sociocultural origins.
Why was it necessary to replace African-American (already capitalized to boot), as a designation for people of African descent, with a new retrogressive (pejorative?), ambiguous and factually inaccurate label? Such ambiguity allows the premature consensus to erroneously equate being part of the African diaspora with having shared cultures and experiences. Therefore, we are led to believe that, unlike Black people, people with light-colored skin, especially those of European descent, spring from many different cultures. As Frantz Fanon observed in “Black Skin, White Mask”, such ideas have at their core theories which represented the black man as an inchoate stage in the evolutionary journey toward modern (white) civilization (having barely escaped the bush).
The move from African-American to Black, I believe, reflected the realization — after giving Afrocentric ideas a chance — that Africa (and all it signifies) was incidental to the problems of Black people in America. Black, therefore, re-entered the lexicon as the logical contrary to white power. For Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), the slogan “black power” sought to end the continued subjugation to white society which had “no intention of giving up willingly or easily its position of priority and authority.” Black power reflected the desire to “exercise control over our lives, politically, economically and psychically.”
As Fanon states it, black is a designation not for knowing, or describing the world, but of transforming it.
In my view, the move from African-American to Black reflected the structural shift from a mostly domestic, or household, agrarian economy to an industrial urban society. In the previous order, socioeconomic and cultural life was centered on the family unit, especially on its ability to marry demographic change to resource output (via the tradition of bride price). Unfortunately, our anthropological understanding of the household, during and after slavery, is obscured by the many national political problems of the time. A good anthropological grounding of how the household is nested within the national political economy is essential for improving our understanding of gender and race relations.
It can be argued that Black people in America have, first and foremost, seen themselves as members of individual American multiracial households. The legacy of this household-centric worldview is clear in how strongly Blacks have held on to their surnames. Not merely the name itself, but the conventional way of spelling it.
Of course Blacks have not shown a similar veneration for given names, and the conventional way of spelling them, despite the racism toward black-sounding, or black-looking names. However, this difference in the veneration of names may be a reflection of patriarchy.
The premature consensus to capitalize the b in black, as a designation for people of African descent, has three main problems.
The top-down white-led premature consensus is the very antithesis of the desire of Black people to exercise control over their lives. This need to take control is driven in part by the desire to develop a relevant and dynamic lifestyle and culture that is equal to the challenge presented by a racist society. However, the premature consensus seeks to impose an inappropriate, stagnant, agrarian lifestyle and culture on an urban industrial people. The premature consensus is tribal, divisive and anti-truth. This anti-truthfulness is perpetuated by exalting a relativistic duplicity in the use of words and language. It is as if, from the start, by using a patent falsehood to label race (Black people are literally black), we are announcing our intention to exclude literal plain speaking from any subsequent discussion. By capitalizing black, Fanon’s tranformative intent has become a conservative stagnant and malignant push to preserve an invented construct connecting race to biology.
If we applied Fanon’s tranformative intent, or Kwame Ture’s Black power, we would not see any contradiction in including exemplary allied whites and Hispanics among the number of “Black lives” cut short by police misconduct. Since black people aren’t literally black, broadening what constitutes a Black life, in these circumstances, is a unilateral act by Black people. Such unilateralism is the essence of self control, the evidence of self control, and the organic outcome of exercising self control over our lives.
Therefore, the unilateral ability to define and redefine blackness as we please, in a dynamic and constructive manner, transforms the label into one of the most important tools for circumventing the white racist power structure.