Brooklyn-based veteran, small business and political campaign strategist, former editor, and practicing journalist for over 30 years.
21st Century Black "Nobodiness"
I state for the record that I'm not one of the people who continue to take a markedly pessimistic view of Black progress in the first decade of the 21st century. But I do admit that as a race we've not entered the fabled and illusive Promised Land. And in this new Republican Era, Black devaluation and self-hatred has reached new and dizzying heights in the midst of admittedly bold and determined socio-economic strides. Yet, today, here in America, in the so-called "land of opportunity," Black people still need to be reminded that they are worthy and that their lives are important and do have meaning.
It's indeed a strange but illustrative paradox that in the midst of Black celebrity and entertainment culture that's spawned billionaires like Oprah Winfrey and millionaires Jay Z, Beyonce' et al., that Black people are still "nobody" in America. Black poverty, especially child poverty, is now a crippling epidemic side by side with the growth and distracting social escapism contrived, created, packaged and targeted to a demographic addicted to "the stars" or another edition of some "idol" or the other. But this momentary high, a glazed over impossible daydream for many, comes to a screeching halt the very next day when the rent is due and Black poverty's ugly, snarling face lights up.
Today, Black folks still need to be constantly reminded that they built this nation with their blood, sweat, and tears as a shield against a negative psychic battering that remains unrelenting and constant. Blacks, especially young impressionable ones, face this incessant daily drumbeat of opinion forever identifying them as a problem, a pesky and irritating issue, or simply as something fundamentally less. They're nobodies in the grand scheme of things.
What Is Black "Nobodiness?"
It was Dr. Martin Luther King who called this phenomenon "a sense of nobodiness." A sense of standing anonymous before the bar of history. Of having come from nowhere into a life bound for nothing, is how King put it. Such an indictment is oftentimes derided and criticized by today's "well-to-do Blacks," especially those that mainstream, white American society embraces for their sporting abilities, Hollywood screen success, and business acumen. That's until they become too "uppity" and are mercilessly beaten down by the same society that hitherto acted and behaved towards them as if America had suddenly become color blind.
Note here the lessons of O.J. Simpson, Bill Cosby, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, and before them, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis and others. This sense of nobodiness sometimes comes as a surprise to the Black community raised on the virtues of white people and the promoted inherent inferiority of Blacks as "sinful, cursed by God, 3/5th of a man, beastlike, and lacking intelligence."
In short, Black people are nobodies. Indeed, the most liberal of whites that hypocritically tout the "goodness of all God's people" ends abruptly and lasts only until you hear them start praising these "Black examples" and wolf-smiling whites for "transcending" race. In other words, the yardstick that the white community measures those successful Blacks and the price of acceptance into white society that they pay is that they become—or, at least, are perceived as—not really "Black." You hear it all the time. While most Blacks are nobody, live in the ghettos, and need "low-income housing" (a demeaning, white dog-whistle for Black, poor and criminally inclined), successful Blacks are, well, different—they are not seen as "being Black." Hence their behavior and their stupid and ignorant boastfulness about "being the only Black person living in a white neighborhood." They see this as a badge of success for having left "the hood" and now accepted by white folks.
It therefore is not hard to see why "Black nobodiness'" persists. Or that Black children and their elders look into mirrors every day and see no one special standing there. Sure, one can argue and conclude whether this represents true enmity toward Blacks or simply the inevitable fallout of being a minority population in a so-called pluralistic society. To me that conclusion is dead wrong because we can all argue the cause and not understand its effect. It's about white fear and Black children and a community knowing that it's worthy, have value and a strong and rich history.
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Systemic Forces Generate and Maintain Black "Nobodiness"
Institutionalized processes that enforce, entrench, and perpetuate Black nobodiness serve to continue to denigrate Black people. In the 21st century, it's white fear that drives this move to reinforce and strengthen Black nobodiness. It's the fear of losing white privilege. As Black writer Toni Morrison wrote in an essay, "there are 'people of color' everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening." She goes on to say that "white people's conviction of their natural superiority is being lost."
The fact is that enforcing "Black nobodiness" started during slavery, endured and was re-defined in the Jim Crow Era, and has morphed into another demon that drives, discriminative housing, disproportionate incarceration, and wages and other benefits skewered towards white empowerment and Black disenfranchisement. Take so-called public housing projects for example. These housing projects across the nation that herd Black and Brown peoples into ghettoized modern reservations enforce rules that corner Black and Brown people into housing that is built to purposefully disenfranchise them.
Black (and Brown) children of the hood or low-income homes are born literally beneath a cloud of doom. Consider the facts: They are raised in poverty, pushed up against violence, and held down by crime, the world brands them with an enduring mark of inferiority. This type of emotional scarring almost never heals. No matter how you cut it, slice it or dice it, low-income housing is always a thinly veiled attempt to house as many poor people as cheaply as possible. To separate them from the "others." Want proof? Visit New York City.
This system not only keeps Blacks in perpetual poverty, hopelessness, and despair but also reinforces that sense of "nobodiness." It's a nobodiness built on and enforced by the fact that white people have rights that Blacks are bound to respect, recognize, and abide by. Black people, the nobodys, also have rights. But white people are not bound to recognize them or respect them. It is this inherent belief that "Black lives are worthless, don't matter, and are expendable" that allows a white cop with such a mindset to shoot and kill a black child playing with his relative in a playground. And go unpunished—over and over again.
It's the white, mainstream media that demonizes Black people shot and killed illegally for having smoked pot or was arrested for a petty crime like jumping a subway turnstile. This demonization is all part of the techniques to instill and justify Black nobodiness. As nobody before the law a white cop can kill a Black man running away from him and be somehow justified. It allows white cops to kill with impunity and claim, "they feared for their lives." Evoking this old, antebellum stereotype of Black people, especially Black men, as dangerous that needed to be "put down" because, after all, they have no worth and are just nobody.
We [Black people] were never meant to survive."
— Audre Lorde
It was the great Audre Lorde, writer, feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist who poignantly noted, "we [Black people] were never meant to survive." But survived we did. Black people have had to fight internalized racism and self-hate in our own communities. Our Black kids are routinely told, "they (whites) are smarter than us." That's a weary, knee-jerk giving up position, and its difficult to stomach, I'll give you that. This thinking, the constant fawning, genuflecting and praising of whiteness and "white men" is about the traumatic effects of a marginalized people, especially those in Black and Brown bodies. They feel powerless in a system that was built without Black people in mind. But to that I say unequivocally: it is important that we create and promote visible examples of smartness and Black beauty within Black marginalized communities so younger people know that they should NOT be defined by the violence that surrounds them.
My hope is that in this century, Black children will be taught that they did not come from nowhere, nor are they predestined for nothing. Rather, that theirs is a lineage and heritage as old as human history and, more to the point, a lineage that contributed and influenced global thought and development, long before white people coopted and stole that legacy.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.