This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio “How to Think Philosophically About Black Identity,” with Tommie Shelby. Click here to listen to the episode.
Like many people of my generation, I grew up watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show that made Will Smith a household name. In it, Will plays an African-American teen whose mother sends him across the country to live with his rich relatives, because he got into, as the song goes, “one little fight.” The show advertises itself as a fish-out-of-water, rags-to-riches story, and in all fairness, it does spend a great deal of time focusing on these themes. But this is largely subterfuge. What the show really is, is a six-year exploration of what it means to be a black male.
Many of the show’s jokes involve Will teasing Carlton, his rich cousin, for not being black enough, culminating in the famous Carlton dance, the exuberant celebration of the music of uber-white Tom Jones. But the show also features Phil Banks, Carlton’s father, a former dashiki-wearing activist turned judge who defends his own authenticity as a black man working within the system.
Now, it is absolutely not my place to take sides on what it means to be black, but it is noteworthy that part of what made The Fresh Prince unique is that it took this very controversy and put it front and center for all of America, regardless of their race. Only two years earlier, in 1988, Some Black critics objected to Spike Lee’s School Daze doing something similar, calling attention to a cultural preference for lighter skin in historically Black fraternities and sororities. They claimed that Lee was wrong to air out the Black community’s dirty laundry for everyone else to see. Interestingly, the Fresh Prince and School Daze were a radical contrast to the Cosby Show, which saw itself as modeling and legitimizing middle-class Black America with little attention to economic and cultural variation.
There are at least two important premises underlying all of this. The first is that there is something that qualifies as authentically black, that there is a right and wrong way to be African-American. The second is that there is something called the Black Community that all Black people are a part of, and that whatever commonality it is that its members share, is unique to being Black.
These are not unprecedented questions. Philosophy has long concerned itself with personal and cultural identity, from notions of citizenship, to kinship criteria, to self-image, to moral obligation. Who we are and who we regard ourselves as being like us go a long way to define our experiences and expectations. As far back as the dawn of philosophy, people used the word “barbarian” to mean, literally, “non-Greek.” This allowed Greeks to treat others more cruelly than they did their ethnic fellows. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all shared similar dichotomies at one point or another, as did various tribes and Europeans. American law and its de facto consequences are also rife with differing treatment, especially of whites and blacks, even though the law strives to be color blind.
So, Will and Carlton were asking questions that had roots in Aristotle, Leviticus, and Papal law. Questions that have no clear settled answers, but nevertheless inspire many of us to act as if they are both resolved and certain. We analyze the preferences of black and white voters, we racially profile, and we live in largely segregated communities. One simply cannot understand the United States if one refuses to consider race as a relevant factor. The question before us then is, is any of this philosophically justifiable? Are there theoretical reasons to think of people as unified groups and if so, do the ways groups describe themselves have more authority than the ways groups describe others outside their circles. Our guest today’s first book, “We Who Are Dark,” is focused on just this, the philosophical foundations of black solidarity. He will help us navigate these complex and fraught questions.
But I have to add something important here. In the last two days, there have been two high-profile black deaths at the hands of police and what now appears to be a retaliatory ambush, killing five police officers. These are more needless deaths added to a string of others that have inspired Black Lives Matter activists and both Democratic primary candidates. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, not to mention Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey and others were killed because they were black. Or maybe I should say that many people, including myself, are convinced that they wouldn’t have been killed if they had been white.
In other words, these identity questions are not just conceptual explorations, they have immense real world repercussions and this means that, in a certain respect, the traditional philosophical approach is turned on its head. We are not asking questions because they are interesting, hoping that the world will adjust to our conclusions. Instead, we are asking questions because we have to, because the world demands it.