The New Notion of Black Individuality

The notion that mammoth distinctions exist among black people is probably a point of confusion for many people. Black individuality is a relatively new notion, and at odds with traditional and popular thought related to the history of black Americans in this nation. The term itself grates dissonantly with long-held held beliefs about the nature and priorities of black people. Until very recently, all of us—even black persons—had become accustomed to the perception of black Americans as one relatively invariant group. That is, a mass of black humanity: downtrodden and leveled by the experience of slavery, but moving collectively ever forward in a quest for full equality and freedom.

Collectivism vs Individualism in African American Culture

That very perception of collectivity of thought and deed is inconsistent with any notion of mammoth distinctions. Although confusing, this inconsistency is actually a good thing. It identifies a monumental step forward in the recognition of multiple and disparate characterizations, ideologies, and futures for black Americans. This inconsistency also represents a cultural shift in American thinking. Such shifts are always followed by confusion.

For many urgent years, singleness of purpose and mentality characterized the breadth and depth of black Americans. At least that's what we put out there and what a keen media eagerly reported. Black Americans were, collectively, in a battle for survival. And that fact was reiterated every day in our schools, on television, and in intergroup relations. So any confusion today in reaction to the notion of mammoth distinctions is not unwarranted. It is neither a reflection of racial insensitivity by the reader nor suggestive of lack of exposure to black Americans. Black persons themselves, when presented with the same inconsistency, are truly just as confused as any other group of people.

This sense of confusion is fueled further by the significant historical commonalities that black Americans share. Our common genesis (i.e., slavery) in this nation, our common battles (i.e., emancipation, civil rights) for freedom, and our common transitions from rural to urban and from holler to 'hood are overwhelmingly suggestive of congruence between black Americans, not distinctions—especially not mammoth ones. But they do exist. And they are very important distinctions.

Common Experiences, Unique Responses

In very real and very fundamental ways, there are incredible differences. However, it has been our experiences with slavery and its aftermath that causes all Earth's inhabitants (especially black people) to endorse commonality and congruence. But, ironically, it has been these same experiences (or, more precisely, our reactions to them) that account for the most fundamental and enduring differences among us.

Let's look, for example, at expectations for quality of life among black persons. Monumental differences in our vistas for life have long forged a "them" and "us" dichotomy for black Americans. Some of us (in reaction to difficult eras) have always seen the potential of the future and busied ourselves getting prepared. Others of us (in reaction to those same eras) have always seen only the futility of the past and readied ourselves for the next party, the next "high;' or the next excuse-making opportunity. So even within the cramped house of black America, the expressive distinctions separating "them" from "us" scream out loudly over the weak murmurs of racial unanimity. We're just not listening.

The False Dichotomies of Racial Politics

Of course distinctions exist—just as they exist among white, brown, and yellow people. Where we black Americans have been confused is how the lines are drawn. We've let political times or our own emotional immaturity mislead us into enacting false dichotomies. For example, our variance has never been a matter of brothers and sisters versus Uncle Toms and sellouts. Nor has it been a matter of the revolution minded versus the black conservatives. Although such dichotomies have been widely publicized and endorsed, they do not represent an accurate portrayal of our differences. These labels are inaccurate and useless because in reality we've all been down with The Struggle: brothers, sisters, so-called Uncle Toms and conservative, revolutionists, and bootlickers - All of us!

No one could deny that persons from each of these groups have been intent on moving ahead. You might disagree with their methods or philosophies, but more than likely all, in their own ways, have been trying to make life better for themselves, or at least for their children. All have been advancing forward and trying to reap the full benefits of the American system. No, political and social differences have never adequately defined our more meaningful distinctions. Such demarcations have never been accurate.

Simply put, our variance is and has always been between those who choose to move forward (black advancers) and those who choose to wait for deliverance (black delayers).

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Dr. James Davison, Jr. is an African-American licensed psychologist and university professor. He conducts a private practice in Seattle, Washington, and has appeared on several nationally-aired programs including The Phil Donahue Show, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and C-SPAN. Dr. Davison hails from Philadelphia, and is the author of several books - Prisoners Of Our Past and Sweet Release - related to individuality and personal freedom for African-Americans.