…the right to be an individual.
My blackness is more than slavery.
My blackness is a 400 year battle for human rights:
The right to family
The right to property
The right to education
The right to citizenship
The right to self defense
The right to vote
The right to housing
The right to health
The right to freedom
The right to live
One particularly crucial “right” that has eluded us sits at the heart of racial injustices like Daniel Pantaleo, Steve King and any number of white supremacist mass murderers past and present. It is the right to be understood as an individual. Black people in America have never been seen as individuals. This country would never tolerate or make excuses for a black Donald Trump…let alone elect him President.
Like the physical embodiment of the “dark continent”, we are seen primarily as windows into a mysterious “other” at the expense of our unique and individual lives. If my own experience is any example, many of us are regularly expected to speak on behalf of or represent or offer perspective on our entire race. More importantly, blacks in the US have been discouraged from seeing ourselves as individuals as well. In 1619, we were “created” into this vat of the global colonial stew as a collective, hereditarily enslaved commodity and we still struggle to shake off those shackles. As our humanity continues to be debated in the public sphere, we remain primarily visible to the conscience of the country as a collection of devastating group statistics:
- Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of incarceration during their lifetime 
- The black college graduation rate is 42% 
- Blacks in Boston have a median net worth of $8 
- Blacks account for 43% of new HIV cases 
- Black women are up to four times more vulnerable to maternal mortality 
Individualism was held as a top ideal among the framers of the Constitution and it is still lifted as an ideal among Constitutional originalists. “Live Free or Die”, “Don’t Tread on Me”, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”…these are sentiments that all go back to a core belief in the primacy of the individual that was essential to the white individuals who built a nation with the blood of enslaved groups of blacks. Compare those sentiments with black civil rights rallying cries: “We Shall Overcome”, “The Poor People’s Campaign”, “Black Power”, “Black Lives Matter”…blacks in the United States have continued to fight from the perspective of the collective. 400 years on, we must question how well this strategy is working, if it is working at all.
But it should be no surprise that we American blacks seek constantly to “lift all boats.” For 400 years, we have been the target of oppression by highly empowered individuals over our collective bodies. One individual overseer or slave master with a gun and a whip had the power to inflict lethal force, rape or mutilation on many of our bodies, repeatedly and at will. A single allegation by one white female could create mass hysteria and rounding up of groups of black men during the height of lynching and more recently as with the Central Park 5. Today, the modern policing and murder of unarmed blacks and the consistent exoneration of white officers is a brutal reminder of that legacy. The black and white story of the United States has often been the story of individual white power over the collective non-white masses. Our only safety has been in numbers.
But until blacks in America figure out how to meet whites and other groups where they are…on the level of the individual: seen, heard, respected, whole and inherently powerful…we will not overcome. Until we are able to look at ourselves with total security in our individual humanity, not justified by capitalism, or material possession (for we are in many ways still seen as a collective possession…think the Democratic party’s assumptions about black voters) we will continue to be in a position of asking a white society for permission to simply be.
We must know and tell our own histories yet resist being dragged down by them. We must lift up our community leaders without envy, irrational idolatry or expectation that they will inevitably be torn down by society or violence. We must seek education that allows our intellectual and creative gifts to shine without the need for validation by the capitalist system that was literally built on our backs. We must find and own our blackness within ourselves and our communities. Only once black folks know (and believe) our internal individual freedom, will the collective black community truly embrace freedom and share it among all of us as equals in a free world.
My blackness is free.
My blackness is fierce.
My blackness is me.