I’ve lived long enough and have had the conversation with enough of my Black family, friends, acquaintances, and associates to know that whenever there is a particularly heinous crime–murder, rape, robbery, assault–to know that each of us gets that uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomach and says to ourselves (either silently or aloud), “I sure hope they’re not Black!”
Now I have some close White friends with whom I can discuss most anything and they have asked me, “Why do you feel responsibility for somebody you don’t even know? You know YOU didn’t do it and probably no one connected to you did it. What difference does it make what color they are?” I will confess, I don’t have a good answer. All I can say is that it just does.
The paradox of this collective feeling is that while dominant culture tells us that we are too linked to our “group” and that we should be more individually focused, this same culture almost always asks us what “the group” thinks about something…”What do Black people think about OJ?” “How do Black people feel about President Obama?” “Why are Black people so hard on Clarence Thomas?” They rarely ask me about me…they want to know about…we!
Indeed, there are times when dominant groups respond collectively–during the Olympic games (to the chant of, “USA, USA”), during the World Cup, and clearly during times of national tragedy–but those collective identities are fluid and temporary. It reminds me of the young people on my campus and their raucous behavior at football games. They are rowdy, often drunk, and shouting obscenities but other young White people do not feel responsibility for their behavior.
But, I can remember my late parents talking about how they and their Black friends and neighbors crowded around a radio to hear Joe Louis’ prize fights. Somehow Louis’ victory was seen as a collective victory for the Black community. Similarly, soon after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson as the first Black player to make it to the major leagues, everybody in my family and neighborhood became Dodger fans. None of us knew Jackie Robinson we just knew he was one of us.
I suppose it is our collective suffering and pain that links us. We often don’t have the luxury of individual identities. We get mistaken for each other and become a part of some indistinguishable mob. It reminds me of the incident where Samuel L. Jackson was congratulated for his “Super Bowl” commercial by a Los Angeles entertainment reporter. Turns out that Jackson did not have a commercial, it was Laurence Fishburne who had the commercial. The man whose job it is focus on the entertainment world could not distinguished between two very well known entertainers. We’re always a part of the “we,” never the individual “me.”
There is some value to the solidarity we feel as a people. We rejoice in our cultural and historical pride. However, like people everywhere we want to be recognized for our individual identities and accomplishments. But, as long as race remains a primary marker for human categories I have to maintain some sense of “us-ness” regarding Black people. It’s never just me…it’s always we! What do you think? Leave your comments at:
Black & Smart!