The Postmodern Demands of Black History

Black History Month is a critical reminder of our own capacity for self-deception.

"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever…." –George Wallace


As a Gen X’er who came of age in the 1980s, as soon as I understood the meaning of slavery and apartheid, I was perplexed by the most difficult of questions. How could the segregationalists of the 1960s (and earlier) have been so terribly wrong about civil rights?

The common answer proferred by white America is that "they were raised that way." Yet, to my tween-age mind, this raised an even more disturbing problem. If our childhood culture can influence our values to such a degree, how can we ever be sure of our own morals? I agonized over the question: If I had been born under Jim Crow, would I have known that segregation is evil? Would I have been evil myself?

And that’s how I discovered, sometime around the birth of MTV, that I’m a true blue postmodernist. (Hooray for Foucault!)

As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I took a particular interest in Black Studies. My favorite "Black" writer remains Jean Toomer—author of the acclaimed literary work Cane (1923) and the so-called father of the Harlem Renaissance. For anyone who presumes to understand what Black Studies is all about, please read Toomer. For, here is a man who defied and defies categorization.

As Toomer himself wrote in his collection of aphorisms, Essentials (1931):

     I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large
           in the human world, preparing a new race.
     I am of no specific region. I am of earth.
     I am of no specific class. I am of the human class, preparing a new class.
     I am neither male nor female nor in-between.
           I am of sex, with male differentiations.
     I am of no field. I am of the field of being.

Do you think you know what Black History Month is all about? Think again!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Brian Doyle February 16, 2013 at 02:58 PM
I could have explained better: The question posed by Black History is "who are we?" Are we products of our culture and would we be "us" if we had been born in another age when values were different? This is the connection with Toomer, who's central question appears to be, who am I?
Carl King February 19, 2013 at 12:22 AM
Brian, Good post and great questions regarding race, humanity, and gender. The problem I sense in post-modernistic humanism is its desire to be something that has yet to enter the world. This is the same longing enunciated more clearly by Christianity and answered succinctly by scripture. Toomer has nothing on the Apostle Paul who acknowledges these longings and posits them in a future reality, made present through the cross. Black history was derailed by humanists who took the movement from the church and into classrooms devoid of the Reason for our existence and coexistence.
Brian Doyle February 19, 2013 at 04:48 AM
Thanks for your feedback, Carl. Most of my knowledge of Black history comes from the classroom--and I would agree that academia is often a poor substitute for peoples' real-life experience. On the other hand, the lessons I learned in the classroom (humanist or otherwise) made a profound impression on me. For example, to the point you're driving at, I'm reminded of Frederick Douglass' essay on "Slaveholding Religion and the Christianity of Christ" or MLK's famous "1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail." What both of these writings make painfully clear is there are people who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. There always have been. The problem is, it fairly easy to know when you're doing the former. The second part is a bit harder. For that, we need each other to keep us honest.


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