Culture: February 2007 Archives

I've been reading Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. After an excellent Ralph Ellison quote about how much mainstream American culture is influenced and produced by black people, Shelby raises an interesting question about a common enough attitude among many black Americans. Enough people think that anyone who is black, merely from being black, has a positive duty to embrace black culture as one's own culture. Part of Shelby's critique lies in questioning whether someone, by being black, automatically ought to embrace black culture. But along the way, in the context of Ellison's point, he raises a difficulty about what even counts as black culture:

Moreover, there are aspects of black culture that whites have played a constructive role in maintaining and developing -- such as musical forms and literary traditions. Do their efforts make the culture any less black? Or are we operating, absurdly, with a reverse "one-drop rule" of culture -- with a criterion that holds that a cultural trait is black if and only if blacks alone had a hand in its creation?

This point is very close some of what John McWhorter simply calls separatism, although Shelby probably disagrees with McWhorter on some of that larger phenomenon. But Shelby and McWhorter are coming from very different places politically. McWhorter, while no Republican (he donated $3000 to John Kerry's campaign for the presidency), tends to have more conservative views on race than most blacks in the public light (although I myself consider him fairly moderate compared to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or libertarian economist Thomas Sowell). Shelby, on the other hand, is a Marxist, and his views on political policies that will help black people are very left-wing in the American political scene. His aim in this book is to appeal more to a much broader political base, so it's unsurprising to find some arguments that moderates and even some conservatives might go for, but this isn't some pragmatic argument on the basis of premises he doesn't accept. He thinks the position he's critiquing is truly absurd, and his reasons aren't that far from McWhorter's.

What struck me most about his statement, however, was not its appeal to more moderate and conservative views but its rhetorical move comparing this tendency among some blacks to the racist one-drop rule that classifies people as black merely for having one black ancestor several generations back. Blackness is like an infection of impurity, according to the one-drop rule, and it can't be removed no matter how you dilute it. According to the reverse one-drop rule for culture, it's (cultural) whiteness that's an impurity infecting black culture. Even aside from the issues of mainstream culture vs. black culture (see my separatism post linked to above), there's something disturbing about seeing white cultural elements as impurities, even if whiteness as a concept stems from evil ideology. That doesn't mean cultural traits white people happen to have should always be bad and can never be adopted by black people willingly and as good things.

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