Starting back in the late 80s when I decided to allow my intellectual curiosity rule my life rather than settle into the square pegs of upscale, buppie, Talented Tenth modalities, I had already formed some reckoning of the class differences between African Americans. I was quite comfortable back in the day dealing with five classes. It was solidified by my recognition of Oliver & Shapiro and Massey & Denton.
I was fascinated with the 'geography is destiny' theory of American Apartheid, and I must say that it still holds significant sway on both the positive and negative side. You are where you live, goes the wit. And so since I had begun to consider myself a traveler of some experience in my early 30s, I considered at length where I would ultimately want to live and where, not coincidently were the best places for black Americans to live. According to my simple theories, convinced that there was not one 'black community', I split African America into five classes: projects, ghetto, hood, burb and hill. With data from the 2000 census, I started slicing and dicing the population and came up with my own ranking.
It had always been important to me to be able to say something credible about black Americans that I felt had not been said, or said loudly or properly enough. But I have not been disabused of that concern, and it is because I have recognized over many years of dabbling among the chatting classes, that nobody is disciplining the troops. So splitting matters even further, there are those who believe in race and those who don't. Among the believers there are politically correct and incorrect factions, afrocentrics, race traitors, multiculturalists and racial realists to name a few who are compelled to always color their moral pronouncements, if for not their own justifications than to explain to those they say must be properly schooled. And split mostly on the side of the believers are those who explain race in terms of culture. I say split to give some benefit of a doubt, but I've never heard of anyone who give credence to 'black culture' whose explanations don't center around the very same stereotypes as the most vulgar understanding of black race. IE, blacks run fast because ______. Insert 'cultural' explanation. Nobody cares a whit to explain the black cultural proclivities toward either side of the Bacon vs Shakespeare controversy, but there's always someone making apologies for Basketball. In other words, black cultural commentary rarely goes beyond the immediate concerns of race.
This is a sad state of affairs that I think owes a great deal to the pretenses of hiphop and the commercial success of the New Jacks, ever in opposition to the great orations of Bill Cosby on the one hand, and the prating of that unctuous class of post-modern academics and their vertiginous phrases. All of them going after the singular prize of 'the' black voice which must ever respond to the ironic and idiotic call: "What do you people want?" It comes as no surprise that nobody knows, because those involved in this cultural production like to keep matters open. Accordingly there is the eternal internal question "Who are we as a people?" and its corrolary "What should we be demanding, as a people?" That is the core existential dilemma, neatly wrapped around a DuBoisian duality, hidden inside a Woodsonian re-education , expressed quixotically in an MLK oration. The best answer, of course is to question the question. But that only works for perhaps the smallest fraction of all, those who put no stake in race whatsoever.
It is perhaps ironic that my energy spent in pursuit of being such a vessel of the proper black American cultural voice has so disabused me of having any stake in race. On the one hand, to believe in culture, or to believe in religion, or to believe in any such thing people have reduced their worldviews to over history should squeeze racial reasoning out. One can only conclude that, for all of this cultural babble, that the subject remains racial is the enduring testament to racism in America. Americans are always inventing neologisms for the same tired dynamic while claiming to be beyond race, while admiting that most everyone else is more racist than they. Even this essay falls into that category, technically if not spiritually speaking. But if one truly does find racial reasoning being squeezed out, (which I don't care to claim, having really nothing to try to prove there) one finds a curious lack of attention. In other words, the solution to race has always been to abandon it without any effort to remap it. Americans however, want the impossible which is to redefine race and then somehow claim a racial victory over racism. In the end some race is always on the hook.
There should always be some fraction of all of us Americans, by the mere fact of any understanding of race that we are bound to it. But for me, to look at class is the simplest solution. Naturally this position betrays my interpretation of the predations of racism. What I would loathe the most of racism would be its ability to eliminate all class distinction between myself and those I would be associated with by race. Or put simply that any class distinction I aspire to in the larger society would always be qualified by my race. Yet this is the same bucket I volunteered into and projected onto black America with my five layer cake of projects, ghetto, hood, burb and hill. I should say that there is a Talented Tenth prerogative buried in that which elevates in class among blacks that is not considered significant to class in the larger society, ie the distictions between black fraternities or black undergraduate schools. What difference does it make to be called King of the Jews in the eyes of crucifying Romans? It matters if you really care to be King of the Jews, and enforce that standing with Jews. So it matters what kind of black American you are if you intend to stand tall as one projecting such status over the rest, as I said - a Talented Tenth prerogative.
I can recall back in the days when Ron Brown was considered by all to be the most likely first black American President. I went to a conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation where he was the keynote. Around that time, circa 1992, the CBC itself was under attack as not worthy of receiving Congressional funding because of its special interest. Percy Sutton was in attendance among notables, as were personal friends of mine from LA's Black Women's Forum including the recently departed and greatly loved Lilian Mobley - the woman Maxine Waters could have been were she not... well..that's another story. All of those important people were important to black America in that special sense of their figuring in the poltiical calculations that were the vanguard of 'what we as a people should be demanding'. But in the end, the CBC was defunded and all of the politics of the 'digital divide' fell by the wayside. Nobody was disciplining the troops. There might have been true black strategies, but they never materialized.
I happen to believe that is a permanent pattern because sooner or later, black American individuate. The black shroud fails to cover the toes or the nose, and theories fall apart. Race loses its power to corral and define, despite so many hopes and ideas and theories and wishful thoughts. The prerogatives of American class take over. There are the Americans who get it, and those who don't.
Today is the end of Julyteenth, my attempt at sustaining some conversation about Cobb and race. There hasn't been a headline in The Root that resonated with me quite yet. The writers write and make sure they put 'black' in the headline - the black of self-selection, the black of the audience that becomes something just by being there. Black as the flash mob of something pronounced black, a black ad-hocracy, which becomes self-sustaining merely by repeating the existential questions and never coming up with a satisfying answer.
Anything is black enough. Anything.
So my conclusion is that it all gets diluted, all that blackness. What black people wanted, some black people got - and so satisfied ran out of questions to ask, leaving some ever-diminishing fraction behind.