Editorial Staff

A Short Talk About the “Black” Experience (Hint: There Isn’t Just One)

Here at Beyond Black and White we (meaning, pretty much everyone who comments here) agrees with the general statement that “black women should look beyond just color and pay attention to morals, values, goals, and a shared vision of the future, when it comes to finding a mate. Nothing wrong with finding black men (or any other group of men) to be particularly attractive and having a preference for that type of man; the key is to not get hung up on looks.” If one can look past skin color to find deeper similarities with another person, one should also be able to look at skin color and know that it can’t tell you all there is to know about someone. Sharing the same skin doesn’t mean that the two of you are “two peas in a pod.”

And so it is with black people in general.

There are varying shades of skin tones among black people just as there are varied life experiences among blacks. There are 47 countries in Africa with each nation having a multitude of ethnic groups; dozens of island nations in the Caribbean; and, dozens of countries in South America. All of these nations have people of some degree of African ancestry, yet these nations have different national languages, cultures, history’s, and their own set of racial problems. Yet when everyone comes to the United States of America, if they’ve got dark skin then they get lumped into the catchall category of “black.”

In a way, it can be understood how Americans see all people with varying degrees of African ancestry as being black because, for the majority of American history there has been only type of black person–a person whose ancestors were brought to these shores as slaves; a person who has some degree of white and Native American blood–and because in 1910 Tennessee instituted the ignominious “one-drop” rule which said one drop of black blood made you black. The rest of America took Tennessee’s lead–at lead colloquially, if not legally–and decided that one drop of black blood made you black, the only kind of black American that existed.

Then immigration laws changed. And then more and more blacks began to intermarry with non-blacks. Class differences between blacks grew. Finally, the Census Bureau began to acknowledge that there were many people within the nation who did not see themselves as belonging to just one race, but several. Eugene Washington, author, pundit,and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post has written “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” to make sense of the changes occurring in black America over the past 50 years. Washington says that it is no longer possible to credulously claim that there is only one black America–there are now at least 4 of them.

A review from Publishers Weekly, via Amazon, sums up “Disintegration”:

“…the African-American population has splintered into four distinct and increasingly disconnected entities: a small elite with enormous influence, a mainstream middle-class majority, a newly emergent group of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and an abandoned minority “with less hope of escaping poverty than at any time since Reconstruction’s end.” Drawing on census records, polling data, sociological studies, and his own experiences growing up in a segregated South Carolina college town during the 1950s, Robinson explores 140 years of black history in America, focusing on how the civil rights movement, desegregation, and affirmative action contributed to the fragmentation. Of particular interest is the discussion of how immigrants from Africa, the “best-educated group coming to live in the United States,” are changing what being black means. Robinson notes that despite the enormous strides African-Americans have made in the past 40 years, the problems of poor blacks remain more intractable than ever…”

Robinson’s book makes short thrift of the argument that the cat can be put back into the bag, the argument which says that black America “are all black” and that making any distinctions among them is just perpetuating the an attitude of divisiveness–and “us” versus “them” mentality amongst black people. But there are already varied groups of black people massing under the banner of blackness, and discussing, pointing out, and acknowledging those distinctions doesn’t change the reality that such distinctions actually exist. And not only do such distinctions exist, but they have real import when it comes to how black people relate to each other and to non-black people.

For those of you that already have, or expect to have children, who will only be part-black, it should be understood that it is unlikely that your children will see themselves as being black in the same way that you see yourself as being black.

Some time ago, I listened to a round table featuring Ralph Richard Banks, author of “Is Marriage Is For White People?” Guests in the audience were invited to ask the speakers questions and one black in the audience had a poignant question for Mr. Banks. As I recall, the black man asked, in a non-confrontational or disgruntled way, but showing genuine concern, how could a black man be raised to be a real black man by a non-black father. Banks didn’t skip a beat; he replied to the effect that a white man could raise a black boy to be a man just as well as a black man could, that we have to stop thinking that our children will be just like us–they won’t be–and that our children cannot be expected to have all of the same life experiences, viewpoints, and ways of relating to the world that we had.

And Mr. Banks was right–our children are not us. A corollary to the idea that our children are not us is the reality that the present and future generations will have more than one experience of being black in America. No one experience and history is less valid than any other, but each experience is different and does not deserve to be invalidated and ignored by such statements as “black is black is black.”

Class matters. Immigration status matters. Cultural capital matters. If we pay attention to the details that matter, and the particular problems of a particular group, then we can come up with solutions that address those problems and we can go a long way towards making lasting change that will matter to everyone.

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