I was browsing Booker Rising and found McWhorter on blackness vis a vis Barack Obama. I know that Spence had commented on this aspect of blackness related to comments by Debra Dickerson. Whew. That's a lot of names to drop. As an Old School pontificator, I've tried to rescue the idea of blackness from its baser associations of subversive political separatism, the vulgarities of hiphop and the great unwashed of Cosby's slackers which I often call the Forty Percent. I'm not interested in rehashing all that but reconsidering exactly which mental shelf to put it on as it tends to bore me silly. I suddenly remember the idea of blackness as a caste.
At SCAA, it was Eugene Holman who said the following in 1993:
The biological criteria used to determine whether a person is 'black' or 'white' are the consequences of the genes responsible for determining skin color, hair texture, relatively superficial characteristics which may or may not co-occur. In any case, our biological heritage is determined by so many factors that the amount of genetically determined variation we find within the groups traditionally defined as 'races' is much greater than the amount found between them.
The social criteria are quite different.'Whiteness' is ususally understood as 'absence of discernible blackness'. This means that the offspring of a 'pure white' and 'pure black' are going to be 'black', and if they have offspring with 'pure whites' their offspring will also be 'black', even though their genetic heritage is three-quarters 'white'. In terms of genetic heritage, many of the individuals classified as 'black' are actually 'white'.
This means that studies such as 'Testing, Testing - Literacy and the NEAP' posted here a few days ago by Mr. Hu are actually interpreting the different scholastic performances of discrete social groups arbitrarily defined on the basis of a continuum of genes. Given that America society has tended to 'award' people with the type of genes found at one end of the continuum, the situation reflected in the study becomes self perpetuating in the same way as in caste-based societies.
Holman was one of the brightest and clear-headed contributors to SCAA during it's prime. And we took the many implications of his tree-trunks statements to every leaf it seems. But I was struck powerfully by his use of the term 'caste' as something too powerful and permanent to absorb and believe. So I still remember it to this day.
At the time I was convinced that an intellectual revolution was afoot. I said (as I did in those days in lower case)
i will agree with this to the extent that it is so defined by the dominant majority and operates that way for the sake of much analysis, however, as blackness is redefined by black American intellectuals it takes on a different tint. as i say this, i recognize that the project of such insurgent intellectuals is not (as it was in years past) 'blackness' per se. nonetheless, the organic quality of these intellectuals and the cultural forms and modifications of pedagogical styles employed by them are often directly of that black 'caste'.
as i look at the work of intellectuals such as bell hooks, cornel west, ishmael reed, angela davis, e. michael thelwell, toni morrison, george c. wolfe, wynton marsalis and greg tate, i cannot imagine them doing so without a black audience. and i know all of their work to be transformative. how then could they claim a black caste background and audience as a fixed thing? 'combinating together different records for the mega-mix' as they do with organic and bourgeois forms, they cannot call it simply black, rather i would think they consider it complexly black.
black caste seems overly monolithic. from an observational standpoint, it makes sense to see it that way, but in terms of desribing it's inner dynamics it falls way short. depending on how well is distributed the production of folks such as these, that who self-identify as black may ultimately extend past caste, class and racial definitions. in a multicultural, or virtually cultural and postmodern world will black be black?
i think this question is of vital importance to the 'post-soul' generation of african americans. not only do we resist racial pigeonholing in transformative ways, we celebrate our transformation *as blacks*. is that circular? i think not.
Today, 13 years later, I see little done by insurgent intellectuals which has guided any significant aesthetic of black cultural production and given the masses of blackfolks any tools by which they might extricate themselves from the caste of oppression. In fact I see left intellectuals as perpetuating tropes of oppression as a rallying point for black politics. In the area of cultural production nothing has changed in the main. Hiphop is no better today than it was 13 years ago. If there's any consolation, people have less hope in it now than then. Outside of the existentials, there is nothing but hiphop that's new and moving cultural blackness. Thus I emphasize the Old School, as in what we were before all these left intellectual movements captured the imaginations of the Talented Tenth. Recovering Booker T remains my aim, when I aim at all at things black.
But check out what Holman says here:
Certainly the opportunities open to black Americans in the 1990s are much greater than they were in the 1960s, so the struggle went on and achieved results despite the fact that some of us opted out.
What I'm thinking about now, though, is that my experience has convinced me that black Americans tend to be so inward looking, preoccupied with their own experience within the context of American and African history, that they neglect the European element which is an important part of cultural and genetic makeup. An investigation of many of our family histories would reveal that besides our ties to western Africa and, often, native America, most of us also have genetic ties to the English, Irish, Scotch, and Dutch slavemasters who owned our ancestors. We usually repress these connections from our self-image, but that does not negate their existence. The way in which 'black' and 'white' are usually defined also tends to focus our attention away from this issue.
I think that everyone would gain if these connections were given the importance they deserve, and one aspect of investigating them requires a committed interest in European languages and cultures.
But the other thing I found and then lost was a comment that somebody felt that the very construction of the term African American was a purposeful evasion of that which we inherited from Europe. That's fairly heavy and really the first criticism of the term that makes me doubt its usefulness. I still don't use it in any context besides pure demographics, but I cannot deny that connotation which kicks a leg out of the notion of 'native alienation'.
So my preliminary conclusion is that there is a kind of static and weak pool of ideas about black identity that cycle around into caste. This caste is not inescapable but neither political nor cultural means within the popular mainstream are sufficient to break it's grip. In this way, the permanence of racism is established by a personal inability or unwillingness to give up racial caste. It's something whites or blacks could do equally and unilaterally but choose not to. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't racist reasons but to state that they are weak. Holman's life absent the black/white racial frictions of America, as are the lives of other expatriate blackfolks are proof enough, but there is more. Fundamentally, one must give the lie to the one-drop theory and acknowledge ones own roots which for all of us is European in some way, at the very least in the English language.