Teachable Racial Moment: Why Do Black Folks Stick Together?

Years ago, in graduate school, I was one of only three African Americans in my Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. That was in the fall; in the spring, one of us dropped out. And then there were two.

I remember sitting in my graduate poetry workshops surrounded by folks who didn’t look like me.  Whenever the issue of “race”—meaning Black people—came up, my White peers would turn to me and ask my opinion. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t know. But what always sort of blew my mind is that my peers assumed that I could speak for all Black folks. When I, like, couldn’t.  But I would try anyway because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.

This is a common story among most Black folks who have integrated–let’s face it– mostly White spaces in educational, professional, and now with legalized interracial marriage, familial institutions.  But honestly, it doesn’t get any easier for any of us  to speak for the African American “race.”

Most folks in America who are of African descent came to this country as a result of the Middle Passage, the horrific, transatlantic journey withstood by Africans who were kidnapped into slavery. There are, of course, some Black folks on this country who are not descended from slaves, what might be called African-African Americans, folks who emigrated from the continent of Africa after slavery was outlawed in the USA, but those folks are in a very small minority in Black America.

And so, the common heritage that most Black folks in this country share leads to what is called “linked fate” among African Americans, a term explored in Michael C. Dawson’s book, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics. Linked fate means that, for many African Americans, what happens to a Black individual is felt by many in the “racial” group, whether that event is joyous or tragic.

This does not mean that others individuals who aren’t Black can’t feel joy or sorrow at these events, but it does mean that Black folks feel particular emotions, as if the event impacted our own families. Linked fate means that I consider forty million people to be literal brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks becoming the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize was joyous. Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first Black Supreme Court Justice was joyous Barack Obama’s winning the Presidency (and hopefully you don’t need a link for that)? The heavens opened up and angels sang an aria, it was just that wonderful, okay?

And by the same token, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi was especially horrible for Black people, as was Martin Luther King, Junior’s assassination. And most recently, last month’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy in Florida, has rubbed against Black linked fate, and reopened many traumatic wounds that really never healed.

Again, that does not mean that other people cannot be upset about tragedies that just happen—or don’t just happen—to involve Black people.  There were many  White Americans who wore hoodies this past week to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, but just as many who admitted that pictures of their wearing hoodies does not rub against the same unfortunate racial stereotypes as pictures of Black males in similar garb.

Many White readers of my blog notice I use the terms “we” and “us” and “my community” when referring to African Americans. Those terms are also used by White supremacists, too, and I think that, frankly, it confuses White folks that I’m supposed to be about love and humanity and White supremacists are, like, not. Well, strangely enough, some of the same American history that was caused by White supremacy—a hate-filled, racist impulse–led to Black linked fate—a survival instinct. When you oppress people together, they try to withstand that oppression together.

But a funny thing happened on the (metaphysical) road to the City of Linked Fate. Some Black folks actually don’t feel linked up with other Black people. They are completely unconnected or at least partially. I am one of those partially unlinked folks who still loves the Black community. For example, while I voted for President Obama—and will do so again in November, believe that—I don’t always agree with him. And I don’t feel as if I must surrender my Black Passport just because Obama gets on my nerves sometimes and I decide to say so publicly.

Also, unlike many Black folks, I do not like commercial Hip Hop and I don’t think it’s a profound African American cultural production. (Independent Hip Hop is different, in my opinion.) I think it’s crappy, repetitive, and uninspired, I’m extremely bored by it, and I don’t like the messages of woman-hatred and LBGTQ-hatred that it propagates. And frankly, I think it attempts to take the healthiness out of Black sexual expression (of whatever kind) as well.

Those are just a couple of the ways I’m not linked to a supposedly monolithic Black community, and if you go back and read some of my other posts from the last two and a half years, you’ll find other breaks in the chain, too. I’m a complicated Sister, liberal sometimes and conservative other times.

Sidebar: And there are many Black folks who are complicated in their own ways, too. But despite that, we are Stone-Cold American Citizens and we have shown our loyalty to this country repeatedly, beginning with Crispus Attucks’ documented sacrifice. He was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre in 1770, which just had its two hundred and thirty-ninth anniversary this March.

But what I am not is “a good Black friend,” one of those anonymous, unnamed  sources that some politically conservative White folks are fond of trotting out these days when they want to say something mean or heartless or rude about Black folks and they want to get some back-up for it. Any time that I read or hear a comment that starts with “my Black friend says” or “I have a Black friend who disagrees with you,” I know my feelings are about to be hurt or that I am about to be angered.

Whether or not I’m partially unlinked, I’ve got my own back-up, because I know there are going to be at least ten folks who agree with me in someone’s Black community. But I’m guessing that there are at least ten conservative White folks agreeing with another conservative White commenter, too, whatever side he or she takes.  So why the need for the anonymous “Black friend”?

Why not simply say, “This is how I feel, and plenty White people feel the same way”? It can’t be any worse than claiming the same one Black “friend” all the time. Seriously, Sugar, please bribe some more colored people to talk to you so you can actually fill a room once in a while, okay? I know it gets lonely sometimes.

And while you’re at it, why not go back and read some American history  going all the way back to 1619? (And that’s just on my African side; you really don’t want me to go all the way back with my Cherokee folk.) Why not understand that there’s a reason I have back-up in the first place?

When someone pushes other somebodies around—steals their bodies, rapes them, dumps them in the bottom of the ocean, sells them, sells their children, and oh, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—that’s a series of traumatic events that creates back-up. These kinds of events connected Black people. They joined them together and their descendants together.

That’s why my family reunion is so big. We call it Juneteenth, don’t you know.

But now, if I ever get my forty acres that General Sherman promised, I might actually give up my very last remnants of linked fate and become somebody’s named “good Black friend” instead of just an anonymous one. But give me my land first. Then we’ll work the rest on out.

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Black Folks’ Invention Number 1001: Memorial Day

Black Union Soldiers

Y’all know we Black folks love us some Memorial Day.  Back in the day, I had a friend—well, okay, me—who used to take off the Thursday before Memorial Day and party all weekend until Tuesday morning before I had to go back to work, and I really wasn’t commemorating anything. It embarrasses me, but I have to be honest: it was all about a party.

And though I’m a vegetarian now, I still get a little sad that not eating anything that had parents means I had to give up, like, actual meat. Which meant I couldn’t eat barbecue. But who knew that before I gave up eating dead things, I was partaking in African American history, gnawing all on those rib bones and trying not to get grease on my cute holiday outfit?

It turns out we Black folks invented the actual holiday of Memorial Day, and not just the holiday barbecue.

Today an Op-Ed about Memorial Day came out in The New York Times, written by David W. Blight, a professor at Yale University. Citing archival materials (and y’all know I love me some primary historical documents!) Dr. Blight dates the very first Memorial Day back to the actions of freed slaves in the year 1865.

Here’s an excerpt:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

To read the rest of the article, click on this link. (But first, put the pig meat down because you don’t want to get sauce on your keyboard.)

And after you do that, think about talking to one of the old folks in your family who served in the military. Ask him (or her) to tell you the story before the story dies when he (or she) does.  These stories are important and shouldn’t be lost, but so frequently, by the time we remember to ask the elders certain questions, it’s too late.

I really regret never asking my father about his time as an army lieutenant during World War II, but a few years ago, I was talking to my mother’s brother Thed about his tour in Vietnam and I gotta tell you, I don’t think I heard my Uncle Thed get so animated ever in my whole life as he did telling that story. (Uncle Thed is one laid back, super-cool brother.)

In many communities of color, the service (despite all its issues) was the one place African American men could ascend to success and have some dignity at the same time. I’m anti-war, but I am not anti-Soldier, anti-Sailor or anti-Marine. I have too many Black men in my family who served and in a dignified way, including my father, my uncle Thed who retired as a Chief Petty Officer from the Navy, and my father’s great-grandfather Charles Flippin who was a Private on the Union side during the Civil War.

So Happy Memorial Day, Y’all. We deserve those ribs, don’t you think?