Blackness with a Capital B? Or Can Everybody Be a Star?

BLM's essentialist challenge to liberal humanism

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BLACKNESS WITH A CAPITAL B? OR CAN EVERYBODY BE A STAR?

BLM's essentialist challenge to liberal humanism

John O’Hara

Part of the confusion regarding the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is the numerous, unwieldy meanings it evokes, ranging from a name for local chapters and a national organization with mission statements to a popular rallying cry supportive of African-Americans. But beneath the challenge of making a linguistic label stick to its object lies a deeper problem of definition, as the cultural understanding of the very term “black” is itself shifting from describing a racial/ethnic minority that has historically participated in and often led a broadly American struggle for emancipation to an essentialist subgroup now beginning to situate itself outside the historic framing of the pursuit of liberty and equality in the United States. This is a change, in other words, from “black” to “Black,” a capitalization that reflects a change in the view of the historic meaning of America and the relationship of its citizens to that history.

Blackness no longer sits comfortably, as it did as recently as the Obama era, within an 18th-century political framework where the freedom owed by right to all human beings could be universally attained by successive groups; instead, it is now being redefined as it moves into uncharted ideological territory.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, seamlessly appropriated the words of the Declaration of Independence, housed within walking distance at the National Archives.  In language readily comprehensible to all Americans, King attached the destiny of black Americans to their natural rights—largely denied them until then—as fellow citizens preparing to inhabit a future “promised land” as their national birthright.  Blending a Christian ethic with American nationalism, MLK found classical liberalism not only adequate but central to his emancipatory aspirations.[1] 

MLK addressed his dream to all people, white and black, not White and Black. These newly capitalized identities threaten to cast off the ideal of universal human emancipation to which he appealed, an ideal foundational to 18th-century liberalism, with the nation-state as its institutional legal guarantor. Eschewing appeal to the state as a reconciler of racial tribalisms in common citizenship, “Black” now appears to be undergoing redefinition, as seen in this passage from BLM’s website: 

#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.

Capitalizing the letters of a specific organizational entity is standard practice, of course. But to speak of the “violence inflicted” on capital B “Black communities” is to impute a universal condition of oppression to an essentialist group.  This gesture becomes at once trans-historical and abstract when attempting to ground human qualities, such as “imagination” or “joy” to a particular racial identity. What, precisely, is “Black” joy?  

Defining “Blackness” (capital B) as a socio-cultural if not avowedly biological racial essence creates a fundamental tension with the hybridized and hybridizing realities of multicultural racial identity in the United States. This new form of essentialist racialized politics floats free of the old, unifying understanding of citizenship within a nation-state. “Blackness” is more compatible with the subjective realm of identity politics than the civic realm of democratic politics.

The older conception of “black” belongs to what may be called the “classic” narrative of modernity (of which the United States is a primary driver), the working out of Enlightenment metaphysics (“We the People,” and so on), and the progressive overcoming of limits, whether based upon race, sex, class, or geography. When formerly enslaved people became American citizens, it suggested that national identity could ultimately subsume everything, including not only previous servitude, but ethnicity, class, and sex, thereby expanding citizenship beyond white male owners of property. In articulating this expansive vision and making it a reality, black Americans have played a key role, one shared by other hitherto underrepresented groups, such as women, white non-property owners, and a number of other minorities. By contrast, the present use of “Blackness” as an exclusively racialized identity renders it one that is not meaningfully framed by the dynamic political telos, or end, that is foundational to America.

As noted by political philosopher Susan Buck-Morss, during the 18th century, slavery was considered a root metaphorical evil in Western political theory, with freedom its opposite desirable value. The lucrative slave trade helped finance this sea change in socio-political understanding, leaving a legacy we have all inherited. This is the political habitation that frames the domicile where Michelle Obama famously woke up one morning, recognizing the legacy of slavery even as she lived out a remarkable post-MLK story in which slave-descendants became White House residents, leading the most powerful nation on earth.  

Modernization

In one sense, BLM ideologues follow a familiar pattern, characteristic of modern revolutions, where elites jettison traditional structures of authority in the name of a vanguard class, speaking and acting on behalf of “The People,” which Hannah Arendt traces, as a point of “mischief,” to the French Revolution:

Fraternity, which the French Revolution added to the liberty and equality which have always been categories of man's political sphere—that fraternity has its natural place among the repressed and persecuted, the exploited and humiliated, whom the eighteenth century called the unfortunates, les malheureux, and the nineteenth century the wretched, les misérables.

Those who perceive themselves to be outside the system, outside of history, are actually deeply implicated in relatively long-standing historical patterns, reinforcing how change not only occurs but recurs in the modern era.

While the story of American emancipation comes fairly early within the history of nation-states, as a top-down pattern of socio-political transformation, it is by no means unique. The mid-19th century Meiji reformers of Japan were warriors—samurai—who discarded their own Confucian class hierarchy in order to inaugurate a modern nation, establishing modern Japanese as a common language in the process. In 1917, Hu Shih, a Chinese literary figure, argued, while studying at Cornell University, for modern vernacular Chinese as a unifying tongue. He articulated his goals in “A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform”—a treatise composed entirely in classical, literary Chinese. And in an earlier, far-reaching example from Europe, a German monk trained in ancient languages translated the New Testament from Greek into vernacular German, essentially inventing modern German as a national language.  

All of these various developments initiated by elite figures illustrate how the modern categories of nation and “people” embody the Enlightenment spirit, as authority was wrested away from prior structures of governance in order to establish revolutionary state programs.  In the West, authority was wrested away from the Church and transferred to the state, complete with its own rituals, education program, and territory acquisition.

Not coincidentally, language reform has often been at the heart of modern revolutionary movements, in our own day supplanting class as a realm of power and identity. With the vulgar materialist analyses of orthodox Marxism long surpassed, academic Marxism has increasingly shifted its critique from class to language. Departing from Marxism’s historic concern for material conditions, the new ideology of racialism is reductively obsessed with the social conditioning effected by language. And in a supreme irony, the embrace of “woke” language conformity currently echoing in HR and academic programs reinforces the institutionalization of the values of Enlightenment humanism—what Hannah Arendt identified as an “effect of education.” 

Philosophically, this struggle, set in an ongoing raucous history, is normally understood as Hegelian, that is, dialectical. Inequalities are brought into an historical process in order to redeem them through a dynamic process of overcoming, bringing them into History. Marx famously adapted this dialectic to the violent history of class struggle, which was to culminate in a social utopia, like a phoenix rising. 

BLM theorists, such as Patrisse Khan-Cullors, cite Marx as inspiration (“We are trained Marxists”)—proffering her revolutionary bona fides as a protégé of Eric Mann of the Weather Underground—but Marx actually admired the United States, recognizing a revolutionary streak in its core history which resurfaces, for example, in the Civil War.

And while offensive to contemporary ears, 19th-century colonialism was considered progressive in its day, even by Hegel and Marx, as advanced, liberal societies possessed colonies as a matter of course. The complicit and complex relationship between inhumane territorial expansion and the ideological embrace of the colonized “Other” remains under-theorized, yet was a feature of what in contemporary terms becomes known as multiculturalism. The power relationships are asymmetrical, as the progressive values touted within one culture can lend support to oppression elsewhere.

Put in starkest terms, racial equality, like any social goal, needs to be contextualized to fully understand its comprehensive political effects; it’s not a stand-alone value.  As the first non-white power to defeat the West (in the Russo-Japan War of 1904–05), Japan in its colonialist phase embraced multiculturalism as an ideology of empire building in Asia, even appealing to key black American figures, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

In this sense, although BLM as a national organization references Marxism, Marx’s notion of equality actually reflects a classic modern sensibility, what may be described as an “equality of sameness”—a political ideal informed by Enlightenment notions, such as “We the People,” which itself derives its metaphysical audacity from Christianity. In other words, this working concept of equality assumes a universal humanism: we are equal because we share the same fundamentals of humanity, perhaps best summed up in the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

By comparison, BLM advances a more recent notion of equality perhaps best described as an “equality of difference,” accentuating the non-identity of human beings on the basis of a reductive notion of race that wavers between biological and socio-cultural essentialism.  Socio-cultural experiences are held to be incommensurate. The particularity of race, not universal humanity, is the undissolved residue that precipitates out of the solvent that is the political tradition of modern liberalism. Non-black (or non-“Black”) people can aspire, at best, to being “allies.”

Precisely because they do not see their struggle for Black causes to be within the horizon of emancipation defined by U.S. history, BLM’s more intentional riots in the summer of 2020 unsurprisingly targeted historical institutions and memorials.  Rather than understand the struggle for freedom as an ongoing endeavor consistent with the founding DNA of the United States—and, more generally, found within numerous societies that undergo political modernization—the new trajectory of Black identity situates itself racially rather than politically, and thus poses a challenge to liberal humanism and its traditions of democracy, natural rights, and equality under the law.

CODA: Sly and the Family Stone

It is against this backdrop of American modernity that one finds a context in which to appreciate anew the innovative music of Sly and the Family Stone, a multiracial band that explored the emancipation of black Americans beyond a particular, racialized meaning.  Like Martin Luther King, Jr., in the early ‘60s, Sly Stone in the late ‘60s—in their music and in, for example, their memorable performance at Woodstock—expressed both the anger and the joy of post-Civil Rights America, exploring black people’s socio-economic condition within a larger understanding of freedom that was, among other things, unmistakably American.  

Sly Stone’s music was self-consciously revolutionary in an American sense. The song titles of Sly and the Family Stone themselves suggest the subsuming of racial identity by a more universal promise: “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Everybody Is a Star”: 

Everybody is a star

I can feel it when you shine on me

I love you for who you are

Not the one you feel you need to be

Ever catch a falling star?

Ain’t no stopping ’til it’s in the ground

Everybody is a star

One big circle goin’ round and round

Contrasting this with BLM-style Black consciousness, it seems clear that the widen-the-circle conviction that “everybody is a star” no longer holds. If I’m correct that the BLM variant of “Black” now breaks from earlier American notions of liberty actualized through modern individualism, it may go a long way to explaining why BLM’s ideologues dissociate themselves so starkly from symbols of American history, with rioters attacking statues and monuments.

Such attacks are not merely a critique of historical hypocrisy; rather, BLM considers the idea of universal humanity anathema to their political goals. They’re operating on a different philosophical playing field—one whose goal is clearing the stage, not setting up shop on Main Street. Without a coalitional, democratic political orientation, BLM resembles a passenger in that tense car ride described in comedian Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones, where various activist groups share a common vehicle, perhaps, but not a common journey. This is Blackness with a capital B, looking for a place among the other “alphabet people”—LGBTQ plus B, not longer even a word but an initialism. 

The pain that registers in Rosa Stone’s voice in “Everybody Is a Star” lends emotional weight to her declarative lyrics, suggesting that she truly meant what she was singing. Inclusive and democratic in the best tradition of American popular art, those lyrics are something that everyone—black, white, brown, or otherwise—can relate to.

"Everybody is a Star" live

[1] This split between MLK’s notion and present notions of Blackness is strikingly illustrated by the criticism offered by Clarence Jones—former legal counsel, strategic advisor, and speech writer for MLK—of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum which elides, or even denigrates, the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s/60s: “It is morally indecent and deeply offensive to learn that this distorted narrative is being held up by the State of California as a model for teachers of Black studies.”


John O’Hara (a pseudonym) is a Humanities professor at a university on the West Coast.