Monday, February 19, 2007

Black : Suffering :: _____ : _____

The astonishing degree of human suffering in the black world is such that it is almost an identity itself – black is to suffering, as day is to sun. Often you can recognize black identity by the presence of suffering as you recognize day by the presence of the sun. Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, Brazil, France, England, Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit – in nearly every theatre of human living where there is a concentration of black people, there is a concentration of suffering. Black people do not have a monopoly on suffering; there is more than enough to go around. The painful challenge for black people is that suffering is becoming part of our identity. In many circles, the authenticity of one’s blackness is measured against the degree to which one has suffered. Suffering can be redemptive and add depth to human character, there is no shortage of sonnets, hymns and poems to demonstrate that visceral connection. Indeed, Christ’s love itself is strengthened by His redemptive suffering under Pontius Pilate. Nevertheless, suffering ought not be the cornerstone of a racial identity.

The sufferer’s identity is a trap. It leads to the condition where the absence of suffering is seen as a loss of identity. There is ample evidence of the sufferer’s identity in the United States. The slogan, “keepin’ it real” and its implications are symptomatic of the sufferers trap. It creates the problem where black people who succeed without undue hardship are questioned about the legitimacy of their identity simply because of their relative comfort. This is an experience that suburban middle class black youth, for example, can easily recognize. Their blackness is questioned as a result of their comfort which is a product of the accomplishments of their parents. Neither their comfort, nor the accomplishments of their parents ought have anything to do with their connection to and affinity with the broader black community. An identity oriented in such a way places far too much value on suffering and devalues the coefficient on humanity and success. The end result is that in order to collectively maintain our identity, we must continue to be grounded by some amount of suffering. The circular and counterproductive logic in that is clear. Notwithstanding the spiritual and human virtues of suffering, this is a flawed basis for identity.

The sordid and ongoing relationship between Africa and her Diaspora and Europe and hers is such that race is still important. The argument that class has usurped race as the primary social division in the world overlooks the staggering correlation between race and class in every country in the world where black people live. There is undoubtedly merit in the economic underpinnings of globalization that stratify the world according to skills. That does not diminish the significance of race, on the contrary it highlights the global correlation between lower skills and darker skin color. As such, considering a black identity is still relevant. The universality of black suffering forces one to consider an alternative black identity.

An alternative and more positive identity could have transformative power. It could shift the central pillar of black identity from resistance to affirmation. African Diasporic studies invariably use the brutality of slavery and its attendant suffering as the common link between black people around the world. The beautiful cultural manifestations of song, food, spirit and family are usually recognizable among black people regardless of where they are. That is typically because of the common strategies that emerged to resist European oppression of one form or another. Despite the profound beauty of many aspects of that common identity, it is still rooted in resistance and tends to glorify not only suffering but, hardknocks. Is it possible to transform an identity of resistance to an identity of affirmation? Is it possible to do so when the conditions facing black people everywhere are so dire? Is it possible to move from an identity rooted in resistance despite there still being an endless array of forces to resist? Is it possible for an alternative identity to be pinned to our humanity as opposed to our suffering?

An identity based on affirmation does not neglect that suffering is part of our legacy. Forgetting our pain would be a mistake. Rather, it acknowledges that suffering is merely a component of a more broadly defined and evolving identity. With an affirmative identity there are no bonus points for being from our global “hoods” – Tivoli Gardens in Jamaica, Albouystown in Guyana, Hillbrow in Johannesburg or Bushwick in Brooklyn. Equally, there are no demerits for being from the comforts of Rendezvous in Barbados, Cap Estates in St. Lucia, Baldwin Hills in L.A. or Brooklyn Heights in New York. In an affirmative identity, black : suffering :: living : suffering, suffering is merely a part of the experience, not its definition.

kamau

2 comments:

luvlife0702 said...

Not clear what you mean by an identity based on affirmation but in my world, suffering is highly overrated so i agree that to base ethnic identity on its experience seems a little too Christian for me.

Do you mean i simply declare my blackness and that would be enough? Cuz that to me is all that should be required. There should be no test of 'downness' or 'realness' or even "How black am i?" because noone is qualified to be standing in judgement.

IK said...

Kamau,
I love your blog and always appreciate your thinking. It's interesting that you bring up suffering because I just caught a minute of Sonia Sanchez talking on pbs last week (all hail Black History Month, ha), advocating the very position you're breaking down: suffering as the cornerstone of Black identity.

An identity of affirmation, as an alternative to this, is very appealing. It has a positive sound to it. It feels like it takes things in a "better" direction. But it, too, raises tricky questions, primary among them: Affirmation of what, exactly? Does anything have to or get to be renounced? And who decides? I love the idea, and I'd love it to work. I just have to make sure I know how to use it, how to do it.

I look forward to more from you.