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Who's Afraid of Being Post-Black in Black America?

Some black public figures are promoting a conflicted agenda.
 
 
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We have reached a curious intersection in black American history. There was a time when we took pride in community and reveled in the unique bond that we forged, together, as survivors of the transatlantic holocaust known as the slave-trade. We cheered for each success, each ceiling-shattering achievement, because it meant we were one step closer, in the words of the late Dr. Carter G. Woodson, to “justifying our right to exist” in a nation systematically and systemically designed for our failure.

My, how times have changed.

Instead of “Say it loud; I’m black and I’m proud,” we now have many black Americans singing the media-friendly version: “Say it loud; I’m black, but not really.” Ironically, some of these black Americans, while exorcising their personal demons of racism, have simultaneously assumed ownership of the black narrative. In the same way that many black folks throw around the word “nigga” with defiance and bravado, so too have others appropriated an insult and crafted it into a badge of honor. They are public figures who appear to possess a gnawing need to speak on behalf of other black Americans, to prove their “right to exist” within the community, while pushing the argument that black is an undefined entity that exists without boundaries or absolute definition.

If at its root this wasn’t a glaringly obvious need for acceptance by the dominant culture -- “Look at us, we’re just like you” -- it might be a valid argument to consider as we attempt to reach an actualized human race. As it stands, however, it is a hypocritical objective that clearly manifests when a pivotal cultural event happens and these same black Americans climb down from color-blind pedestals to speak on behalf of black people everywhere.

This was evidenced in sharp relief when Toure, host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, and author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, an ode to the dissolution of a delineated black community, decided to call out Romney’s campaign language toward his opponent as “the niggerization of Obama” on air.

The language in question hails from the same otherness school of thought as Mike Huckabee’s Mau Mau statements and every single Muslim, atheist, birther controversy that has been continuously regurgitated since the 44th president took office. Mittens Romney decided to throw stereotypical gutter-balls at Obama with the following statements: “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.”

Interestingly enough, Toure, whose usual stance is that there is no one way to be black, immediately took offense, because words like anger and hatred are inextricably bound to the “angry black man” narrative: “You notice he says anger twice. He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. … I know it’s a heavy thing to say, I don’t say it lightly, but this is niggerization. You are not one of us. You are like the scary black man we’ve been trained to fear.”

While Toure’s point is valid, one has to wonder why he felt the need to make it at all. In light of his post-black philosophy, might this have provided a fine opportunity to further help shed the stigma that “angry” and “hate” patents are not held exclusively by black people in the United States? Why not defend black men against generic stereotypes rather than giving them even more air time and validation?

Instead, to show indignation (and get ratings), Toure decided to be the black voice on an all-white panel. Perhaps he thought he was being bold and irreverent, but in fact, his token angry-black-man comment resulted in his own “niggerization.”

And this isn’t the first time.

In an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan that screamed of American elitism, Toure told Morgan that he couldn’t possibly understand the collective pain black Americans feel when another unarmed, black boy is gunned down. He goes on to speak about the stereotypes that haunt black men and the prisons that have become home for far too many, and becomes animated about racist slurs such as “coon” that maim the collective psyches of American black people.

This does not sound like a man who believes that there are no collective borders of blackness, but rather a man who seeks permission not to dwell within them and still be considered a full member. On the one hand, he wants us to banish the notion of “authentic” blackness; on the other, he feels comfortable speaking from an “authentically” black perspective.

Professor Michael Eric Dyson, who is also a vocal spokesperson for the black community, writes in his foreword to Toure’s Post-Blackness: "We've got to do away with the notion that there's something that all black folk have to believe in order to be black. We've got to give ourselves permission to divide into subgroups, or out-groups, organized around what we like and dislike, and none of us is less or more black for doing so."

“The undeniable need to fight oppression," Dyson continues, "can't overshadow the freedom to live and think blackness just as we please." "Post-blackness," he insists, "has little patience for racial patriotism, racial fundamentalism and racial policing."

On the surface, it sounds good, but that “post-black” doctrine diminished when Dyson spoke recently with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly about the controversial statements made by Bill Cosby on out-of-wedlock children, gangsta rap and profanity. When O’Reilly suggested that Cosby had a valid critique, Dyson’s reply is full of “racial policing”:

“…So the question is, why is Mr. Cosby being viewed as kind of a moral hero to black America when, first of all, he knows better than to suggest that most black Americans don’t embrace those values? And number two, even among the poor themselves, the deep, inherent conservatism, morally speaking, of those black communities, even when they’re politically progressive, is often under-announced. Number three, here’s the interesting part: Mr. Cosby for most of his career has disavowed the necessity for being explicit about race. … All of a sudden, after forty years of an extraordinary career, Mr. Cosby has now remonstrated against poor people without having a great deal of [balance]. Every great black leader we know, from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, Jr., down to Jesse Jackson, has always said: ‘Get on your game, stop blaming anybody but yourself.'"

If that’s not “racial policing,” a more accurate term has yet to be invented, and unfortunately, this is not a rare paradox. From the NAACP to the state of hip-hop, when issues that fundamentally affect the black community are forefront in the media, you can count on both Toure and Dyson to be front and center, speaking with authority on what it is to be a "black man" in America -- which by Toure's non-definition, exists in a constant state of fluidity that gives no one man the right to be a spokesperson.

In referencing “post-blackness,” Toure reveals that he has not only allowed someone else to define current-blackness, but found it a cultural noose from which we must all be freed. In his utopia, blackness is whatever one says it is. Although it might make more sense to say that one is not constrained by blackness, rather than suggesting the existence of some phantom race in the valley beyond.

From Michael Steele’s quest to assert himself as the lone black man in the midst of a Republican Party to President Barack Obama’s willingness to challenge black men on absent fatherhood and sagging pants, without once openly addressing concerns that he does not stand up enough for the black community, the fervor with which some of our public speakers run away from blackness proves that there are in fact black cultural boundaries.

The cognitive dissonance must be deafening – a relentless need to validate one’s self and prove loyalty to a community, while simultaneously denying its existence and stretching the boundaries into infinite possibilities of Americanism. It is the fight to shed a European-derived black stigma and wrap ourselves in a cloak of patriotism that can only be fully realized upon craftily creating a black us and a black them; yet placing oneself in the position to speak for both us and them. By doing so, it allows “post-black” advocates wiggle room to deny that one cannot be disloyal to blackness -- because, really there is no such thing – yet capitalize off its very existence.

From Negro and black, to Afro American and African American, to finally the currently accepted black American, the quest for assimilation is supposed to be complete. We, as a people, are small in the face of our American-ness, at least when we’re behaving and excelling. If it’s something negative, we’re quick to be reminded of just how different we are still perceived.

The truth is, we can no more deny our collective culture than we can deny the manifestations of it that we see everyday. To take a wrecking ball to the black American experience and claim it a mirage does a grave disservice to us all, both as black people and as Americans.

We do exist both collectively and individually. We know this and our so-called spokespersons know it as well. To assert otherwise is to suggest that the emperor does, in fact, have clothes. And we all know how that story ended.

Kirsten West Savali is a journalist and cultural critic.