Countries Have Borders: Deal With It

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Oh my dear -- Where is that country?

--Madame Olenska, 

One reason why I insist on pointing out the rather mundane point that black people are human beings, is that it's shockingly easy to forget. Whenever I'm looking at specific problem or issue that's being presented as "black" the first thing I look for is context across space and time. I am, as I've said, utterly against simplistic analogies. But it helps to understand the extent to which black people are responding to their condition as participants in a particular history, and the extent to which they are responding to the curse of sentience, reason and opposable thumbs.

My friend Jelani Cobb nailed it in his parable of the "only people who..."

Some years back I made a resolution to ignore the second half of any sentence that began with the words "We are the only people who..." Almost always the next clause featured some shortcoming of the race and after years spent drenched in the backwaters of Afrocentrism (the patchouli era), I'd had my fill of black specificity. 

"We are the only people," came to be an advance warning that I was talking to someone who probably didn't know much about any people other than (a small segment of) black ones. More subtly, an expression of the speaker's fixation on the values of a wider world they both rejected and envied.

I thought about the parable of the "only people who..." while reading Randall Kennedy's review of Toure's book Who's Afraid Of Post-Blackness:

In Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press), Touré assails "self-appointed identity cops" who write "Authenticity Violations as if they were working for Internal Affairs making sure everyone does Blackness in the right way." His aim is to "destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness," maintaining that "if there's a right way then there must be a wrong way, and that [that] kind of thinking cuts us off from exploring the full potential of Black humanity." 

Touré claims that he wants African Americans to have the freedom to be black in whatever ways they choose and that he aspires "to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of 'authentic' Blackness." "Post-Blackness" is the label Touré deploys to describe the sensibility he champions, a "modern individualist Blackness" that enthusiastically endorses novelty and diversity, fluidity and experimentation. "Post-Blackness," he insists, "is not a box, it's an unbox. It opens the door to everything. It's open-ended and open-sourced and endlessly customizable. It's whatever you want it to be." "Post-Blackness" means, he says, that "we are [like President Barack Obama] rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness."

This strikes me as too cute by half. I don't know what an "unbox" really is. The implication is that there is no context, that black people are the Only People with "self-appointed identity cops," that Freedom Fries didn't happen, that the French are open to all comers, and that white kids leaving various hill countries for college aren't told to not forget where they came from. 

Put differently, as discomfiting as this may sound, all communities have boundaries--and not only do they have them, they are necessarily defined by them. As Kennedy notes:

What Touré and his allies seek to escape are fundamental aspects of any community: boundaries and discipline. Every community -- be it a family, firm or nation-state -- necessarily has boundaries that distinguish members from nonmembers. That boundary is a constituent element of the community's existence. 

It's true that the boundaries of the collective create problems for the individual--problems that should be confronted and wrestled with. But this a human problem, and the implication that black people are in exclusive or chronic possession of that problem strikes me as wrong-headed. 


On the contrary, there is a strong argument that African-Americans are one of the most inclusive ethnic groups in the country. Our leadership has been historically cosmopolitan, featuring deep roots in the Caribbean (Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey) and in the white community (Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Walter White.) I can't think of another ethnic group with a longer history of practicing both Christianity and Islam. You may not see more diverse gathering of phenotypes grouped under one race, then you will see at a black family reunion. This is not because black people are virtuous, it's because white racism in this country was pervasive and strict. And faced with that stricture black people did what humans tend to do--they invented themselves. Again.

People are big on wondering how black people's self-image will benefit from Barack Obama. Less noted is how Barack Obama has benefited from the self-image of black people. It's really hard to argue that in a country of witch trials, red scares, and birtherism, black people--in particular--need lectures on acceptance. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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