Understanding “Blackness”: A Black History Month challenge

Alfred DeFreece, assistant professor of sociology

“Blackness” is a difficult, maybe impossible, thing to define, and yet the word and its related terms (“the Black community,” “the Black experience”) are used fairly often. I think we need a deeper discussion of all of it.

Now, maybe Black History Month doesn’t seem like the best time to question or debate what “Blackness” means. We—people who think celebrating Black Americans and their contributions is a positive thing—should perhaps just be satisfied that many choose to recognize this time of remembrance.

But there is controversy, relevant to a discussion of Blackness, around whether such a celebration should even exist. Some suggest Black History Month ghettoizes Black contributions by separating them out as distinct from American history; others suggest that given our nation’s inattention to history of any kind, any opportunity to shed additional light upon our shared history, especially upon people who are traditionally ignored, is a good thing. In this context, references to Blackness are often met with a concern that individuality is being snubbed in the name of some imposed sameness, or a largely imagined and even divisive “groupness.” As in, we’re all the same and experience the world in the same ways. Obviously, that is not the case.

So for this Black History Month, I would like to once and for all settle this discussion of what Blackness is and what this means for the Black community.

Unfortunately, I cannot. It’s too complicated, too big of an idea to fit in one blog post or even one book. What I can give is the gift that keeps on giving: a view of the complexities involved in thinking about what Blackness is, and some direction for how we might discuss this question as a society.

First, the founding of our rather young nation was inextricably tied to the creation of notions of whiteness and, with it, blackness. Our polity, our economy and our educational institutions were all formed with the intention to control when and how people of different races interacted. They were organized always with reference to the existence of racial groups. This is historical fact. We have always known ourselves this way: divided by race.

Second, institutions are slow to change. That’s good and bad. The same gradual change that ensures that our democracy doesn’t quickly turn into something that lacks all democratic principles also serves to keep firmly in place the anti-democratic elements that have been around since the beginning. Change happens. But it happens slowly, especially for those who have long lacked the power to make change.

“Our polity, our economy and our educational institutions were all formed with the intention to control when and how people of different races interacted.”

Finally, many of us are pretty well served by our institutions as they are. Some rather visible changes have been fought for and achieved. Some rather less visible obstacles remain. (Voting rights are a supreme example; a move from a representational democracy to direct democracy is another.)

Because Blackness has a history, because it is a human creation (i.e. created by humans through our institutions), and because it is embedded in all of our institutions, we can study it scientifically and we can discuss it beyond mere opinion. We can even study our own opinions, but this is hard. It requires that we step outside of our everyday experiences and take them as an object of study. And this in turn requires that we think doing so is worthwhile.

Everything we do is part of racialization, a term that simply names a process where social “things” (individuals, groups, places, activities) take on some meaning in relation to race. And so we are always part of continuing old meanings even as we take the opportunity to form new ones. Individuality happens, but within and because of this process. None of us are above or outside of this truth.

So, your mission (which you face daily by virtue of being a part of U.S. society, whether you choose to accept it or not) is to ask, “How did I participate in the process of racialization today?” What institutions did I participate in, and how did I engage, reproduce or challenge how that institution organizes through race (uses race-related meanings in carrying out its daily business) and is organized by race (assigns different roles, statuses, etc. along racial lines)? Did I (not) vote on Election Day? How does our electoral process position people of different races? And what racial meanings motivate the various actors in our electoral process?

“And so we are always part of continuing old meanings even as we take the opportunity to form new ones. Individuality happens, but within and because of this process. None of us are above or outside of this truth.”

The same questions can be asked of our perhaps mundane, yet fundamental, interactions with media of all kinds. What are you (not) watching, reading, retweeting, Snapchatting? How do the institutions (businesses, government regulators, financiers, media conglomerates) that supply those services help reproduce and challenge racial representations and meanings? And how does your use of those services do the same?

Ninety-nine percent of our public and popular discourse (e.g. the discourse we like, that entertains, that we spend most of our time participating in and/or being shaped by) does not deal with these realities. So here is my gift to you—black, white, other, human—a call to demand more of our public and popular discourse and how we relate to it. The tools to do so are all around us, wherever we dare to turn with an eye toward empathy, unity, and justice (things even non-Black people like).

Happy Black History Month!

Alfred DeFreece, assistant professor of sociology, is faculty advisor to the Black Student Union and an affiliated faculty member with Roosevelt’s St. Clair Drake Center for African and African American Studies. DeFreece, who started at Roosevelt in 2010, teaches classes such as “Race and Ethnic Relations” and “Youth in a Culture of Violence.”

Comments

  1. Marcellis says

    It seems to me that we are in fact the same and experience the world in the same ways. There are certain universal laws that all things follow, such as gravity or even birth and death. What we choose to do with this human experience is nothing more than an expression of our ability to create and destroy. We must remember that we as a species are relatively young and as we grow, so does our awareness; so does the need to examine the universe, which includes human beings. We are examining each other with sharper eyes than ever before, but we must ask ourselves, “With who’s eyes do I see? What do I know? What have I expereinced with my own senses?” These questions, the most brave and worthy of us, will seek answers to.

    Racial institutions are indeed a human creation, but that is just it; it is a single human creation in an infinite ocean of possible human creations. I have to believe that we can do better than an institution that transforms human beings into slaves, and supresses our most basic desires. I have to believe that better institutions, if we so choose to have them, exist today in the minds of our own.

    The only challenge we face is remembering that each of us has the power to create and destroy. If we can remember this, then I would like to see any human being tell another human being, “You can’t do that.”

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