UNN.com Throwback Week — Dealing With The Specter of Ontological Blackness

In honor of the UNN.com Throwback Week, I will be republishing older posts that I consider to be some of my classics.  Today’s post was originally published January 12, 2010. JLL

In the past week, the country has been treated to backroom comments made by high profile politicians as quoted in a tell-all book Game Change expected to hit bookshelves January 12, 2010.  What has made the top of the list was Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) comment about the then Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and him being “light-skinned” and having no “Negro dialect…unless he wanted to have one.”  Next on the list was a comment, or paraphrase made by former President Bill Clinton concerning Obama’s candidacy to the effect that “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”

What has ensued has been a PR nightmare for Harry Reid, and has resulted in a borderline media circus surrounding specifically Reid’s comments.  But, black talk shows were taking issue not just with Reid’s comments but also what Clinton had to say.  Some black callers were excusing Reid for his comments, while holding Bill Clinton’s feet to the fire.  Many still recalled Clinton’s comments about Obama’s campaign being “the biggest fairy tale” shortly after the Iowa caucuses and also his comment about Jesse Jackson having won South Carolina–which clearly has a much larger black populace than Iowa.  I even had one brother on Twitter today invoke the memory of BET’s former sellout president Bob Johnson make the gaffe that he did in an anti-Obama fashion.

Just tonight I heard Michael Eric Dyson to Lani Guinier weigh in on the issues for the major networks.  And personally I sided with Dyson alleging that Obama and this milquetoast approach to race is not healthy for the country.  Others have said that Obama need not worry about race, he has other things to concentrate on concerning domestic and foreign affairs.  There’s even the liberal contingent that’s probably still yelling that Obama isn’t the president of Blaaaaack America, but all of America (does this include Central America and South America?)  And of course GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s uninformed self got on Fox News on Sunday and just made a complete fool of himself as if that was even more possible.  And Steele and some others both GOP’ers and some blacks are taking the point of view that this is a double standard concerning Reid’s comments.  That is to say that if someone like Reid’s opposite Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made similar comments that the liberals and Democrats alike would be calling for his head and asking for his resignation as has Steele.

And some are even comparing this statement to former and then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) comment that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency when he campaigned on the Segregationist ticket in 1948.

I won’t even dignify that comparison with a response.  Or the fact that Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Ut), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) or Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) about bent over backwards to defend Lott.

What I argued was that Reid’s comments versus the plethora of comments made by GOP’ers and self-professed conservatives are contextual comments.  For me, context is simply that, relative.  Saying there’s a double standard admits objectivity; that there is some universal standard by which we’re judging all comments.  Reid’s comments are fine by me because, aside from the fact that I agree with him, they were said in the context of Reid having participated in a lot policies that I feel are advantageous to my own political beliefs.  Not to mention, if Reid really didn’t want Obama to run back around the times these comments were made, he certainly wouldn’t have made these comments.  However, when someone like Trent Lott makes such comments, one looks at the context of which he said them, what audience for example, and the fact that Lott has a history of not exactly being a friend to more egalitarian causes.

And when I take a step back and look at even my analysis, I see it’s flaws.

Of course, I’m like the supercomputers in the blockbuster movies like in “I, Robot” or the all being knowledge of the alien in the form of Keanu Reeves in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and I believe that my logic is flawless, but what kept echoing in my mind all day as I watched and listened to the media fallout was the notion of ontological blackness.

Generally what most blacks were arguing about was what constituted “being black.”  Even ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) made a comment about being “blacker than Obama” and he went on to give reasons why.  And Blagojevich was yet and still attempting to define what blacks, I think have even failed to define for themselves–what is blackness?  Often times we give various performative features of what it means to be black.  One can ask James Baldwin about blackness when it comes to language as he so artfully argued in “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then I Tell Me What Is?” and essay he published.  Others have made the argument down through the years that blackness is defined by how one walks, how one talks, how one dresses and even how one thinks.

All of that sounded good, but as we do move into post-modernity and yes as we continue the slow and at times painful progression to a post-racial society, “blackness” as we know it will come under scrutiny.  And enter the idea of ontological blackness and it’s transmutable powers.

Ontological blackness is really just a five dollar phrasing to say what does it mean to be black.  Ontology being the study of being.  So according to Victor Anderson in his book Beyond Ontological Blackness, blacks in this country have developed a counter-discourse to racism that has morphed itself, if you will, into what can be categorized as ontological blackness.  In short, without parsing his book and his argument, when the average black person approaches the subject of race, we approach it as racial apologists.  That is to say, we make our arguments to justify our actions–or inactions in certain cases.  So to take these various comments made by various politicians, all of the discourse I’ve heard from blacks has been quite apologetic.  In the midst of giving their opinion, they’ve qualify their opinions with a counter-discourse to racism.  In fact Anderson goes on to say that blacks have assumed a reactionary identity–that is to say, our blackness is dependent upon white superiority.

Well, Anderson wrote this in 1997 and that was even something I argued about the dominant subordinate culture millieu in a post last year.  But it bears mentioning.  Blacks, in my opinion, often times react emotionally and react without a proper filter.  That is to say, we don’t always think before we speak or feel; we fail to process what has happened and think about various other points of view when we make statements.  For instance, black folks were mad as a hatter when Sen.  Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was running around acting entitled to getting the Democratic nomination.  Well, yeah, she was wrong for acting entitled, but dammit, she put in hard work and she had done what she was supposed to do and Obama did come up in the 4th turn on the last lap and snuck up on the inside and nudged her out at the last minute.

I would have been mad too.

But black folks immediately racialized the situation prematurely.  We racialized the “fairy tale” comment and we told ourselves that if Obama hadn’t been black that Bill wouldn’t have said that, and we convinced ourselves that we were right.  We had no evidence in favor of our feelings, and in fairness no evidence otherwise either, but, we were RIGHT! And our feelings mattered! And that’s all there was to it!

Professor Anthony Pinn, in a book review on Anderson’s book I found online, echoes some of the same issues I’ve raised in class that usually I can’t get no help on when I raise them.  Blacks, by in large are stuck in the civil rights mindset of approaching social, economic and various political issues.  Aside from that approach always being reactionary, this approach assumes the perpetuity of whites being the oppressor.  Especially after the whole Jeremiah Wright debacle and the mentioning of Black Liberation Theology, I started thinking again and realized that I too, as Anderson and Pinn both recognized prior to my awakening moment, had a fundamental problem with Black Liberation Theology.  Pinn put it this way:

Black[s]…speak in opposition to ontological whiteness when they are actually dependent upon whiteness to legitimize their agenda. Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, ontological blackness’s strong ties to suffering and survival result in blackness being dependent on these issues, and as a result social transformation brings into question what it means to be Black. Liberative outcomes ultimately force an identity crisis, a crisis of legitimation and utility

…By keeping ontological blackness alive, theologians maintain their raison d’etre and the vitality of their enterprise. Within the work of these theologians one ever finds the traces of the Black aesthetic which pushes for a dwarfed understanding of Black life and a sacrifice of individuality for the sake of an illusional unified Black “faith.” Implicit in all of this is a crisis of faith, a fear to address both the glory and guts of Black existence–nihilistic tendencies that unless held in tension with claims of transcendence have the potential to overwhelm, to suffocate.

And I think, in my humble opinion, that’s where we are now: we’re in severe identity crisis mode.  Even though Pinn was referring to Anderson’s shift toward the discussion in the black religious context, I think that not only is it true of black clergy, but also true of the everyday thought process of the average Negro.

Yes, racism is alive and needs to be dealt with; yes there are a myriad of civil rights issues when it comes to race that need to be addressed, but for some of us, we need to knock the racial chip off of our shoulder. We sit up in our barbershops and beautyshops and we yell at our TV’s as we watch CNN and MSNBC and we volley the same flawed thinking at media and political pundits who can’t hear us and ultimately we do nothing–our thinking is still the same.

Perhaps me and Anderson diverge ever so slightly in how we need to move past the limiting flaws of “ontological blackness” but, in my own words, blacks need to wake up and realize that it’s 2010 already and Martin Luther King is dead and aint coming back!  The problem with the argument that I make, and probably what Anderson makes as well, is that ontological blackness does not see the day when humanity does not judge one by the “colord of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  I know it’s a lazy move to pull such an overused quote from King’s speech, but is that not what we’re moving toward?  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just a black people thing.  White folks buy into the notion of ontological blackness as well–why else do you think Obama is “light-skinned” and has no “Negro dialect” which translates into non-threatening Negro to white Americans.

Just ask how Al Sharpton did when he ran for the presidency.  Most would simply say “he was too black” and never give a clear definition of it.  Al Sharpton just be too black.

Yup. Ontological blackness at its finest.

Once blacks decide to move from the mindset of us vs. them, much the same way that whites have as well, then maybe we’ll see a shift.  You see right now, the collective black mindset is borderline on revenge mode: the oppressed want to be the oppressors.  Once we move from revenge mode to reparation and reconciliation mode, then perhaps we’ll be able to move into a post-racial society.

But it starts somewhere.

It’s an inconvenient truth.

It sounds corny, but it’s true, one day, someone is going to have to say enough is enough and attempt the actual reconciliation.  I’m not sure which side is it going to be however.  I will say that things are looking up however.  Now blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians go to school together.  Unlike our parents and most certainly our grandparents, blacks actually have white friends and whites actually have black friends.  Small stuff like that as we move forward in this country all lend to a better day.  A day when people like Harry Reid won’t make gaffe’s like he did.  Or a day when Obama won’t have to downplay every racial incident just to maintain the country’s status quo.

I make these statements as someone who is intentionally black.  Perhaps by making that statement I’ve nullified everything in which I’ve said against the general notions of ontological blackness, but at the end of the day, sadly even, despite the facts that speak against ontological blackness, reality in this country still states that my skin color matters more than the content of my character.

We’ve got to do better.

The nightmare ends when you decide to wake up.

Thoughts, concerns, rebuttals…leave them in the comment box.  Was I on point, or was this just a waste of time and I need to go somewhere and saddown and shuddup?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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