I think the #BlackLivesMatter was a brilliant response to the seeming futility of being Black in America. It has now become so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that it has made the cover of Time Magazine. In many ways the phrase reminds me of those ubiquitous I AM A MAN posters that were so prevalent at civil rights marches in the 1960s or James Brown’s rallying cry “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” While phrases and tag lines do not make a movement, they certainly crystallize public thinking on the very issues at stake. And what is at stake in America of the 21st century, and what has been at stake since the enslavement of Africans in the corporate trans-Atlantic slave trade, is the humanity of Black people. And let’s be clear, the rejoinder #AllLivesMatter misses the point; because all lives in America clearly don’t matter when you survey the daily damage inflicted upon those categorized as African-American or Black, or self-identified as such.
What I think matters most is when Blacks decide we matter. It sounds like such an easy proposition - determining your worth and value and then demanding to be treated accordingly in a society that devalues your skin color. It is not, given the centuries layers of oppression and pain inflicted upon the descendants of enslaved Africans. In the annals of history, the United States holds a particularly infamous distinction for the degree it has artificially created racial classifications for the purpose of developing a caste system that manipulates social and economic status to enhance white skin privilege. From the very founding of this nation Black lives have not mattered, and worse, African-Americans have struggled to convince ourselves that our lives matter and behave accordingly. No doubt, part of our challenge can be attributed to the tsunami of lies, deceptions and manipulation that has poisoned the well from which we drink. If you drink poison long enough and become immune, it simply becomes water. And we have been drinking tainted water for centuries.
Who are we? We can only answer that question ourselves and we better start crafting the answer quickly because our very existence depends on it. That might sound alarmist but there is enough hard and circumstantial evidence to suggest that the very cultural identity and citizenship classified as African-American is fading fast as our presence is diminished. The aligned forces of institutional racism and systemic oppression requires us to come to some consensus on a core set of principles surrounding our identity in the context of human rights in the United States.
The question of who we are is much deeper than how we look, e.g. skin color and hair texture, and how we choose to identify ourselves – Black, African, or African-American. We must determine what it is that defines who we are in this country and then embrace a forward-thinking worldview in which we are in control of our destiny.
Let me suggest a few qualities that define us.
Intelligence: We are a uniquely intelligent people that have transcended bondage and have rose to excellence in every field of endeavor we have either been granted access or we have torn down barriers to entry. Any people that can arrive in chains, its culture destroyed and not able to communicate in the language of the oppressor, and overcomes centuries of oppression, is intelligent beyond description.
Courage and Strength: As described above, only a people with outsize courage could withstand the onslaught Blacks have endured in America. When I suggest strength I am referring to emotional strength. Given what Blacks have witnessed in America, there is no question that we possess an inner strength that has allowed us to bear burdens that defies what most would consider any human being capable of bearing.
Compassion: Despite the hard edges that society uses to create imagery of African-Americans, we possess a compassion that allows us to see past our own pain and empathize with the suffering of others. We quickly come to the defense of the wronged because the wounds of our own injuries are so fresh that we truly can look at others and ‘feel their pain.’
Creativity: It is why we are so often imitated and our cultural brand has been copied, transformed into a commodity and exported globally. The uniqueness of Black expression is so powerful that our imprint overwhelms indigenous identities in all corners of the globe.
There are so many more qualities that reflect who we really are and these positive attributes do not in any way divorce us from the reality of some of the negative aspects of Black life in America. However, if there is ever to truly be an honest consideration of our existence, there is ample proof that the underside of who we are is the consequence of the underside of what this nation has represented. Too often we feel the need to deflect from conversations around Black poverty, criminality, joblessness and academic underachievement when we should force the nation to confront the damage it has inflicted upon generations of African-Americans. Rather than get sucked into the personal responsibility narrative, a device that even President Obama overuses, we need to aggressively demand national responsibility.
Ultimately, we do have to decide that we matter. It is a self-loving proposition that no one else can appropriate for our use. We must own it and embrace it. In many ways we must define our existence and love ourselves, as the R & B group Cameo suggested, in the ‘Skin I’m In.’
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.