Who needs it?
Who needs it?
Michael DC Bowen
The most difficult part about race to get around is that people tend to assume that their race owns a culture. This is complicated by the fact that anyone with a culture worth talking about should know that there are multiple ways of expressing that culture. That doesn’t change the conceit that people believe they know their culture up and down and other people simply don’t get it. The consequence is that not only do they think they are doing their culture right, but that others inside and outside of that particular culture are not. They are speaking with the wrong accent, they’re wearing the wrong shoes, they are making the wrong assumptions.
The counterintuitive conclusion to my assessment is that it’s not really about privilege that people make noises about what a proper culture does and who rightfully owns it. It is about suffering.
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. —George Orwell, 1940
So our culture wars in America are surprisingly not about who possesses the superior culture, but who is suffering because they feel strongly that their particular culture is being done wrong.
In which: I will first use myself as an example of this kind of bigotry and describe my way out from which I generalize to your way out.
The Six Existential Racial Abstentions
I am way, way out of love with hiphop. I think today’s hiphop is basically shit as is all the culture that goes with it. On the other hand, I am a jazz aficionado, bordering on jazz snobbery. I hate the idea that hiphop artists make all the money they do and thus suck all of the oxygen out of the mainstream media. I hate that jazz is crowded out of the marketplace. I suffer because of this, and it is a righteous suffering. There was no better time for me to express this suffering than [30 years ago] when DJ Premier, who had genuine chops continued fronting for Guru. Even Guru’s name and his band’s name Gangstarr was a pair of insufferable insults to jazz.
Today, when I think about my black audience here at the Observatory, I don’t sweat the technique. It doesn’t really stick in my craw that there are hiphop adjacent ‘stackers with bigger audiences. It doesn’t really hurt my feelings that there are proper anti-racists who far outdraw me. I’m drawn to one thing ascribed to black culture and repelled by another. I don’t care how this sets me up because I’m not playing blackness games either with people who call themselves black or acknowledge and accept their racialization as black (or brown or white or yellow or red).
This is because it’s important to make the distinction between political wars, the Culture War and any race war. So the first intelligent step is to distinguish politics, race and culture. There are other ways via class, philosophy, or religious discipline. Here’s how I do it without ideology. If you could genuinely repeat the following six confessions, I think we’d be on the identical non-racialist philosophical track. What would we call ourselves? Perhaps Omni-Americans? Universal rationalists? Cosmic philosophers? Meh. I’ll settle for the Kantian imperative of my intent.
I’m going to die alone.
If I write every thing I think and I never stop talking, I will ultimately conform to the desires of my audience. That would draw me away from my original principles which are the source that drives the creativity of my writing and talking. I have the duel edged blessing and curse of never have made nearly enough money from my writing to distract me from my day job, both of which are quite frankly, insufferably arcane. Therefore as the individual and sample size of one, I know I’m going to die alone. I’m pretty much ready for this. I will die alone in the sense that it’s always too late to save Miles Davis from himself, or Richard Dreyfus from his alien sunburn and Close Encounter, or you from yourself. I will not execute a Senegalese Suicide. I’ll just keep writing into the ether until my fingers don’t work.
There’s not enough time for me to complete my life. I will die in medias res, as I will leave myself so open ended as not to be able to completely or consistently finish. As may we all viz the social implications of Gödel.
I’m fulfilled by the culture I select.
When it comes to black culture, this seems counterintuitive, but not if you take the racial aspect out of ‘pride’. You might recall that James Brown’s song ‘Say It Loud’ was a massive hit that was even echoed from the pulpit. The message was easier to swallow than one might think, but everybody didn’t. Check the lyrics yourself. They are all about self-determination. If this is the point of modifying your position in society by declaring what you don’t need from others, it must be because you are satisfied with who you are. I have that satisfaction. Many of my co-racialized peers do not. You may recall that Chaka Khan said “I’m every woman. It’s all in me.” I say that I’m every black man I ever wanted or needed to be. Well, except for the multi-millionaire, but I can live with that.
I think this sense of satisfaction is missing in protest. Remember I suggested the racists are those who make demands of other races for the sake of their own race. That’s race politics. That is not cultural satisfaction. When it comes to black liberation, it was the demonstrated ability to code switch that showed the existence of black pride. You can wear a dashiki at home or in public, or never.
I married the woman who made a perfect picnic. Every summer I grill and sauce the chicken. She whips up the beans, potato salad and fried corn. I don’t miss what we don’t cook and I get complete and total satisfaction.
Once again to Baldwin:
Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.
I die alone, naked but for a smile.
I Don’t Second Guess Black People
This was a lesson established in me by reading the notable book Drylongso by John Gwaltney. It made it perfectly easy for me to see that blackfolks of all stripes knew exactly who they were and what it was they want. No black leadership was necessary - leadership in the sense of leading black people. What black leadership did was took the common decency of an articulate individual and shared that common sense with outsiders looking in. All it took was enough curiosity to read that book. No more ‘black people should’. I say black Americans are doing exactly what it is they want to do.
It is a simple coherent step to recognize black diversity for what it is. Just assume black politics is rewarding for those who participate. They are certainly free to change their minds.
I Don’t Presume to Own Black Culture
My race, such as it is given to me, only provides me with a mythical ability to understand the ways and means of ‘all my people’. I don’t actually possess that ability any more than we all do. What does it take to quote James Baldwin or Marvin Gaye? What does it take to cry over the fate of Beloved’s Sethe or Roots’ Kunta? Ordinary human sentiment, I say. That which erodes that sentiment is not a racial essentialism but a psychological defect. Black culture is therefore not mine to define or own. I can just offer fair critique and stoic observations and, as I previously said, I can enjoy the hell out of those parts I decide to love. So can anyone else who bothers to genuinely look and care. In the words of the great poet. All Feets Can Dance.
I am indeed part of a generation, and as you can imagine, I fell in love in a fuzzy adolescent montage with the girl next door to something by the O’Jays. I purposefully put on that Prince track because it was that night. I first slow danced with my fiancee to Clifford Brown with Strings and had a Stevie Wonder song sung at our wedding. All of those things are fixed for me, never to be undone. I will die alone with that, and I don’t have to listen to either Beyonce or Mahalia Jackson. What’s done is done. I don’t need to control what comes next or emote about what came before. This is where I agree with the ‘lived experience’ crew. Either way, it doesn’t control or define anything other than my blackness, to the degree that it is my black self. My self. Not ‘my people’.
Nothing should be more obvious than the fact that African Americans have fought many ways for generations not to be owned. So who presumes to own us now? We only own ourselves individually, period. Those of us who neglect to take pride in self-ownership are likely to be pwned.
I Don’t Give Advice to the Race
In light of my abdication of the rights and privileges of the Talented Tenth, and my re-appropriation of them from an open source point of view, I don’t presume to be talking to whitefolks and blackfolks from some anointed position. I’m not trying to be a black leader in any archetypal mold. I don’t like the very idea of ‘race relations’, in the very same way that I couldn’t long stand to be a union employee. I don’t like the idea of somebody negotiating on my behalf. So I sure as hell am not going to take it upon myself to start preaching from that bloody pulpit. I learned that lesson the hard way just trying to be a ‘black Republican’, and then a ‘black Conservative’ and then a ‘black geopolitical neoconservative’ and then just as a member of ‘the broad American Right’. I kept hitting ideological chokepoints. I’m still able to muster a bit of outrage at the logical slipperiness of all sorts of partisanship. I prefer the scientific method and friendship. So no. I do not carry messages to any race. I just write in English.
I Am Not Afraid to Diverge
Once upon a time last year I played a game called ‘Black Card Revoked’ with my family. I can’t remember who won the game, but I do remember that a lot of the questions were ‘According to Mama.’ I am not afraid of losing my blackness or turning in my ‘black card’. Old School Cobb readers will recall that I wrote essays on ‘The End of My Blackness’ about seven times in my life. It turns out that blackness is so infinitely mutable there’s always another previously unknown facet to invest in. That is if you want to. It may ultimately be fruitless to defy the racial monolith, but it’s OK to be a Little Prince on a little asteroid somewhere in the solar system with your own unique perspective.
What’s funny is that a Jewish friend of mine and I have conceived of a crazy idea of handing each other our ‘minority identity’ cards, and allowing us to crack 1970s style ethnic jokes at each other’s expense. Film at 11.
The Odd and Personal Whys & Wherefores
So what does it all add up to? It adds up to being self-contained and self-deterministic. So what of black suffering? Isn’t that the stuff of appropriation? Isn’t that you doing a Google search for dead black bodies to pontificate over? Aren’t we peasants a bit more pedestrian than that? Wasn’t it that more like that time you got suspended from school and you didn’t even start the fight? Wasn’t it that time that you were humiliated by her parents as they rushed her into the backseat of their Volvo and sped away to the lily white suburbs? Wasn’t it time that cop dared you to walk away while he searched for an arrest warrant and his dog snarled at you? Wasn’t it that rejection letter? What is so special about black suffering and humiliation that we dare call it oppression and demand social recognition and recompense? Yeah. I don’t answer for you; you answer for you.
What’s odd in this is that I know you know I’m black. I call myself a black American all of the time, or at least I refer to black Americans as that. What’s odd is that I don’t need to be a black American lesson to write a black American lesson. It’s a human lesson no matter what, and it is slightly particular in a way that is somewhat indicative of my personal cosmopolitain outlook. But it’s also done from my largely Gen X, old school, black bourgie, Genius Class perspective, because we’re the sorts of people who think we get it all and have every right to speak on what America is. Freaky, that. Me being freakily self-conscious here. BUT, since I have slipped out the back door of American politics into Stoic peace and calm in the past five years there’s that callback flavor. So look at all of the points and see them in the Stoic mirror:
I’m going to die alone.
I will find fulfillment in culture.
I don’t second guess people.
I don’t presume to own culture.
I don’t give advice.
I am not afraid to diverge.
What is special then about anything black? The same thing that is special about anything or anyone - it is the specificity of the writer and that point of view. Black is whatever we call black. Civilization is where you put it. Any time one uses one’s own imagination you’re specific enough to be named. All I’m saying is that’s not racial. You don’t get to slice and dice cultures & religions & politics & classes and aggregate them up to a race that’s meaningful. Race is never specific enough. That is the failure of racism, of all racial ideologies and racial theories. It doesn’t fit. Yet for perverse incentives in crooked markets, we find racialization profitable. Most of us recognize that it is morally dubious. I believe it is unsustainable. That is why I am on the verge of being a non-racial absolutist.
In my margin of doubt are the permanent tools specifically generated by the African American freedom struggle that have proven themselves universal which have yet to be adopted by other humans. But I’m also saying those tools were collaboratively crafted. After all, we did not have a race war, we had a civil war.
Also in my margin of doubt are things like jazz whose scholarship I am unfit to reify. Is jazz racially black? I think it matters a little bit, rather in the same way the history of the African Methodist Episcopal church matters to Christianity. It doesn’t seem to me that the salvation of Christianity need be racialized, nor the genius of jazz be partitioned by race. Nor hiphop for that matter.
Yet the compelling grace of Christianity is born on the suffering of the Christ. Certainly the compelling power of the Blues from which Jazz was born was predicated on its meditation on true human suffering and humiliation. I can only guess that the refinement of those arts, and the sophistication of the Church is through the disciplined creative invention of humans passing those values along. Inspiration is a mysterious process. Our muses but invisible, ineffable spirits. What do I know about matters of the soul? I cannot accept that they are racial. I leave the proof to others. And there is my smidgen of doubt, my hat tipped to the unending scientific process. Nevertheless for the sake of liberty, all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights. We suspend disbelief for our mutual benefit.
But I’ll always ‘be’ black. That’s because all of you humans are visual and you judge what you see before you judge what you think. You can’t expect me to open my mouth to prove you right or wrong. I’m not going to dodge or evade or make any extra efforts for the racial paths in your mind. At least it won’t seem that way to me because I was born like this and racial gaze is already priced out of my consciousness. I can’t tell you how I did it, but you can presume that it’s done. I’m immune. I’m Kobe’s Distance away from the racial. Nothing short of burning me on a cross inside a circle jerk of hereditary peers can mark my death the way so many fear for the dignity of my life.
I’m not suffering.
Michael DC Bowen is a co-founder of Free Black Thought, a Stoic writer, author of the award-winning blog Cobb, and data engineer. He has been published in Newsweek, was a regular NPR contributor, host at Cafe Utne, and founder of the Conservative Brotherhood and Rights Universal. His online writing projects on political, cultural and philosophical subjects reach back over 23 years. His latest project, is Stoic Observations, where a previous version of this essay was posted. His previous post at the Journal of Free Black Thought is a review of John McWhorter’s 2021 book, Woke Racism. Michael lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.