Discover more from Stoic Observations
The Black Endgame
Then and Now
Dateline: December 2006
What is the black endgame? At what point does one reach zero marginal utility for blackness? At what point in American history will the need for black politics be obviated? When do African Americans drop the hyphenation?
Stoic Observations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
As some inveterate readers of Cobb know, I have written essays every 5 or so years going back to 1984 entitled 'The End of My Blackness'. And each time I surpass what I thought was black, I find a new reason to reinvest. That's just me, but it's clear that some folks, like Ward Connorly for gratuitous example, have stopped reinvesting. I think the answers to these questions will come all in individual packages - there is no one answer for the nation, but that blackness will fade slowly into distant memory like the sound of a dime going down into a pay phone. People will still talk about 'dropping a dime', but nobody will do that literal thing. People will still talk about 'black community' but it won't exist.
It's hard to imagine anyone saying that 'the black community' would cease to exist, but in many ways it already has. It just depends on which black community you're talking about. My aunt was born at home. Who is born at home? I haven't asked about it but there was probably a time in my grandparents' generation when it was just unthinkable for blackfolks to go to hospitals to have babies delivered by doctors. And I'm quite sure that there were many black midwives who handled the business of birthing babies just fine. I, for one, know zero about that culture. All I know about hot water and lots of towels I learned from old black and white TV shows and movies.
Sometimes I wonder what's up with Pops. He has no cable, he got his first cell phone this year and has a DVD player but no DVDs. He sends me newspaper clippings by mail. I know it's love, but it's slow love. Eight times out of ten I've already read the story and written about it or ignored it. So I wonder if he's trying to tell me not to make my life too convenient. I wonder if he's trying to maintain in me, the discipline of literacy that made him a scholar. Perhaps he's trying to preserve that old black community that was his. In his library are Negro Digest and Freedomways. In his library is Rosa Guy and a book about Orangeburg. He has binders and binders of typewritten documents. Somewhere in that pile in his office are stencils for his old mimeograph machine; the one I used to crank by hand and he'd pay me one cent per copy. They are old ways and they remind me of old days. Long gone, and now preserved only in memory and in this thing called blogging.
I once remarked that black is that which survives, that the Africans at the bottom of the Atlantic don't get to decide what's black. They failed to survive. And I said that in the context of a black family that is statistically non-existent, but that the broken homes will fail and those families of the righteous marriage will persist. Only the strong survive. Only the persistent will thrive. Whatever that is, at some point we will call it something other than what we call it today. After all, my aunt was born Negro and only became black after some transformation. But the transformation was voluntary and it was considered her new strength and so she buried her Negro soul and grew a new one.
Who laments the Negro Community? I don't even know if that's what they called it, and nobody, I imagine could place an exact date on its death, nor was it likely something precisely planned. Everyone knew that its days were numbered when Johnnie came marching home from France where the Alabama soldiers and Parisian girls could dance. People were exposed to a new world. People could not go on living the same way. People were ready for change, and somebody said, if this is what a Negro is, I want to be more. That colored girl had to look in her mother's eyes and tell her "Mama, I can't live like that."
People presume the Kwaku Network. People assume there's a plan - that blackfolks have a plan and that they're coordinating. Nothing like that is happening though, a few choice topics get bounced around and blackfolks decide what it means to them, and they guess what it means for other blackfolks. Commonly, there are common answers to common questions like, "Could Luther sing?" or "Does Bush speak for me?" or "Is Oprah still one of us?". There are uncommon questions with uncommon answers as well, and these are the ones that turn the big boat inches and degrees. Even when you touch someone slightly, you alter their path. While some folks have got their mind made up, others are still listening. It's not a plan, it's a ripple that sometimes becomes a wave.
The Black Endgame is an economic moment. Its a point in time at which a mystical flag tied to magical rope crosses over an arbitrary line in identity's tug of war. You could declare the tug of war to be over once the line is crossed, except that in this war, new people are born into the struggle and the tugging continues.
So we're watching blackness go back and forth over lines we imagine to be the end of blackness. How come we don't have but one TV show, Good Times? How come there's no McDonald's in our neighborhood? How come they don't play our music on the other radio stations? Can a black man be the Chief of Police? Those were questions at the end of blackness when I grew up. That's all done. And yet people reinvest. Well, OK forget what I said then, what I really meant was this kind of black person being Secretary of State. No what I really meant was a black Senator in a Southern state. No I meant somebody other than Jay Z as a media mogul. No, rap music winning Grammys isn't good enough, I really meant Oscars and Tonys.. no Pulitzer ..no Nobel.
Sometime after the fourth black President, somebody will ask why it's only 4 out of 60. That's not proportional. Or maybe by then the Endgame will have already occurred and people will stop asking such questions. I always recall that at the end of WW2 the big question was whether the average Negro was intelligent enough to drive a truck. People stopped asking such questions - they are Negro questions, beneath us all, long forgotten, like Negroes born at home in the Negro Community. Like sharecroppers from Louisiana wondering if they could survive in a big Northern state like Massachusetts where today the governor is black.
The thing is, you never know. You just watch the who's tugging, and you keep track of your own imaginary lines. Or maybe you lose track. Or maybe you stop counting. Or maybe you decide that the world is not enough. More likely however, the world keeps turning, and something new becomes what's happening.
Thirteen years ago some black businessmen from Harlem told the black people of Harlem to resist and refuse this new thing called the Internet. Refuse it unless a black company can get the rights to own the wires. And a few years later there became this thing called the Digital Divide, because it was said that black people had no computers and no stake in things digital. Today, black teenagers have all of that and then some in their pockets. I watch them download music and send voice messages and digital pictures at the mall. That's more than most people at MIT did thirteen years ago. Nicholas Negroponte bade us be digital in 1996. All of us are. How big is the black question of being digital? Very small indeed. Who cares about black wires?
The Black Endgame will sneak up on everyone because we'll be preoccupied with something else, but most of all because we will forget to care that much. People will always ask what does it mean to be black, just like people will always ask what does it mean to be an American? But it will be one of those boring questions for sophomores in high school that most folks will abstract into flatness - like the multicultural murals of the 80s grafittied over in the 90s.
I'd add one more note in passing. Debra Dickerson famously wrote a book called 'The End of Blackness', and these days has caught herself complaining that she's not getting any calls to be black during Black History Month. The flag inches over the line.
I'm beginning to think that it is reasonable to believe that the end of black politics will come when we have a black President, rather like the end of Irish Catholic politics. That's about as specific as I can get, and so on that, I'll end this ramble.
Dateline: November 2023
In my family, Sam and Nell live in Detroit. Both are professionals in their mid 50s. Their son, who served a hitch in the Army and graduated college with a STEM degree just got married. They have restored a few homes in Detroit and live in a reviving neighborhood on the edge of the patches of darkness generally associated with Motown. Hanging with them has taught me a couple new things about that thing we call blackness. In this, I am particularly impressed by something I call ‘mode switching’ with all due respect to code switching.
For those of you without up-to-date higher ed professors in your ambit, code switching is an elaboration on the Zelig / Forrest Gump ability for black Americans to blend in with subtlety to whatever odd cultural practices they encounter that is significantly different than their own home training. It’s accents. It’s clothing. It’s attitude. It’s both a survival skill and a flex. And speaking for myself, I’m less than impressed with folks who can’t do it, and especially those with home training that defaults to yokel “you know how we do”.
As I speak on the endgame, I have to bring up the context of The Element, which is a real phenomenon directly adjacent to that of The Struggle. Whereas The Struggle is all the politics and attitude involved with raising the race, The Element are those black Americans who make it difficult if not impossible for The Struggle to come to a reasonable conclusion. The old saying in the tech world is that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. The Element are those still using rotary phones and picking cotton. When Chris Rock is calling niggas niggas, when Jesse Jackson decides to walk on the other side of the street, when somebody somewhere shouts out ‘Worldstar!’ they are talking about The Element. The problem that obsesses American millions is that unlike batteries, The Element is always included. I wrote about that in a way most black academics know to be true but are loathe to say out loud in mixed company. (Because they are masters of code switching).
So what is this thing called mode switching? Well, like code switching, it’s complicated and hard to pin down, but I know it when I see it. It is, essentially, the way in which ‘we’ tolerate ourselves when a flavor of blackness is impenetrably thick and alien to our own home training. Imagine you find yourself in a black church where women in their 40s and 50s are jumping up and down, speaking tongues and generally in a frenzy and none of them is your aunt. What exactly are you going to say when you’re Catholic? You’re going to figure out a way to keep it to yourself, knowing that you are never going to behave that way, nor do you believe this sacrament of frantic emotional ecstasy brings anyone closer to God. You watch and tolerate, like doctors watching Scrubs, like cops watching SuperTroopers.
But why switch? Because you can? Because you must?
I think there’s some notion of essentialism going on. But think of it another way. If you find yourself in the company of people who can speak French and you can as well, don’t you drop the occasional bon mot? And why do you not amongst those you presume don’t even speak English well enough to be multilingual? Who would be more embarrassed? There’s a sense of not making other people feel uncomfortable and of course this is entirely charitable.
But there’s something else specific to the sort of cousins I have, not only Sam and Nell but others as well. Ours is a generation of strivers, and we have poked through glass ceilings previously considered impenetrable. Do we deserve our privilege? Are we desperately hanging on to it? Hard to say, and thus also hard to determine why we tolerate behavior from ‘our people’ outside of our homes that we would never allow inside our homes.
Here’s what I’m getting at. Those of us who mode switch do so out of a lack of clarity in our relationship to ‘the black community’. We are confused about our dedication to racial solidarity. I used to be like that because I decided to become a ‘black Republican’. Making such a public move allows people to ex-communicate you not only for political reasons but for blackified social reasons. Believe me I’ve been down all of those roads. I became the first person my new social enemies wanted to see shot by a racist white cop. What was I selling out to and why? This question perplexed these newly resolved foes. Mode switching to accommodate the black members of The Element is acceptable to such folks. Mode switching to accommodate white conservatives is unacceptable. And so I found some excuse making for the sketchy areas of Detroit by Sam and Nell. Most of the time it was the charitable understanding of a survivor, some moments it was pure pig lipstick.
At some point in our lives, generally by late 50s, you have a clearer understanding of yourself and your trajectory through what you’ve seen of black America. You will have a level of comfort with your own church, class, profession, politics and cultural tastes. For men like me, growing crusty and irascible in our ways is one of the finer benefits of this clarity and self-possession. I used to say “He may be an asshole, but he’s my kind of asshole.” In point of fact, however, I have even matured from that point. I have what Peter Limberg calls ‘Fuck You Happiness’. It’s a Zen kind of acceptance of the world, and a decision to embody the inner peace of your soul. Stoic discipline guides the way.
This is the mountaintop I wish Sam and Nell and all Americans to reach when it comes to black identity. It’s something others in my family, like Sarah and Kevin have. It’s the kind of ability to be 100% yourself with a self that is not angry at the world and with no need to racially align or differentiate. No need to make excuses and no need to sugarcoat. No need for performative demonstrations of cultural or political or ethnic solidarity. It includes the ability to turn off the radio and actually talk with somebody. It includes the ability to disengage from the condescension industry that produces mediocrities featuring people ‘that look like you’. Hmm. Even as I think about it, I’ve never seen one with people that code switch let alone mode switch or discuss the complexities of that.
Truth be told, I have a bit of Mandalorian bigotry in me. I thought I knew The Way. I have a very specific selection of choices I’ve made with regard to what kind of black man I wanted to be and I don’t apologize for those, nor do I mythologize them. It’s not The Way, it’s a way. It was my way. I’m at peace with my path, recognizing in my peers and closest long-time friends how I might have been more like them. I also have a cousin who reminds me I’m only swimming in his shadow and he’s completely and totally selfless and cool about it. He has the kind of restraint one would expect of those with national security clearances. So I too am learning.
Beyond this mountaintop of non-racial self-possession is the ability to sniff out the bullshit of racial reasoning. I think it also facilitates one’s ability to sublimate Mandalorian pride and recognize when others are taking those kinds of shortcuts to certainty.
Blackness isn’t bad. It never was. But its dynamism is limited and it’s all kind of stale. It’s like, I don’t know, Vietnamese rice farming. It’s a staple - something requiring discipline with real benchmarks for success and failure, but the world isn’t a rice farm and the rice farming metaphors only go so far. The muscle and mind you have grown from that organic process will atrophy if you never venture far from that home field. I’m not saying everywhere else is better, but you do have to get out and see for yourself.