Jonathan Mathias Lassiter, PhD
Read Part One.
In Part 1 of this essay, I emphasized the need to internalize #BlackLivesMatter. This need is both specific and universal. The internalization of the fact that Black lives matter must occur within Black people1and all people if humanity is to survive. The internalization of #BlackLivesMatter requires an appreciation and internalization of Blackness. In this essay, I put forth a definition of Blackness and detail how to effectively internalize it and thus actualize Black lives mattering.
Blackness is an integrative state of being that firmly aligns the spiritual with the physical realm. Linda James Meyers, a psychologist in the radical school of thought of Black Psychology, articulated that an optimal Afrocentric belief system emphasizes holistic-spiritual/unity, communalism, and proper consciousness (Meyers, 1988). Along these lines, Blackness is an embrace of wholeness, universal and local kinship, and active movement toward a higher understanding of self and the world. Blackness is not egocentric but harmonious. People who internalize Blackness are in tune with their spirit and understand that their existence and potential is not finite. They understand their purpose and, thus, who they are. They understand that part of who they are is connected to every other living being. They are not suspicious of others because they know that giving love to others is a nurturing of themselves. There is no zero-sum mentality. People who internalize Blackness are able to integrate themselves into a whole greater than their parts.
Blackness wrests against systems of oppression (i.e. white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy) that seek to sever the spiritual, communal, and physical ties that people innately possess. Oppressive systems tie one’s key life values (i.e. self-worth, peace, happiness) solely to materialism (Karenga, 1995). Materialism focuses on not only earthly possessions but also fosters a neglect of one’s spirit that connects humans with a consciousness beyond their current state of existence. Such ideologies convince its converts to define life narrowly to encompass only the physical (i.e. what can be seen or measured) and to believe that a “good” life can only be achieved through possession of things and people. Blackness frees one from the confines of owned or owner through its emphasis on communalism instead of commerce.
Oppression and materialism thrive because of miseducation. Black people have been miseducated to believe that 1) we have no innate worth, and 2) worth can only be gained through status and respectability. This mentality has led to many Black people endorsing “pull-up-your bootstraps” or “new Black” ideologies and alternatively fatalism. Preoccupation with propriety pits those deemed respectable against those deemed unrespectable (e.g. same-gender loving, gender nonconforming, poor, formally incarcerated people) and vice versa. It has separated them from meaningful and affirming relationships with each other. We must unlearn these ideas and move towards unity and relating to each other across differences. We must approach each other with a proper consciousness that perceives each other as connected spirits in physical embodiments. Blackness demands this from us.
Moving toward an internalization of Blackness and thus an actualization of #BlackLivesMatter requires that we:
1) Resist myths of inferiority and superiority
2) Engage in reflexivity to understand ourselves and the reality of our diverse and intersecting experiences
3) Accept ourselves as we are: multifaceted, fallible, gifted, and beautiful
4) Privilege our personhood without oppressing others.
The first process is a rejection of inferiority and superiority myths. Black people have been assaulted not only physically but also mentally. A popular stereotype aligned with inferiority myths is that Black people are innately criminal. While such a myth may sound ludicrous, it is widely believed by most people in western societies. However, it is hard to recognize its existence and act upon because it is mostly implicit, activated outside of conscious awareness, and contributes to remarkably quick cognitive processing biases. For example, researchers have found that non-Black people automatically misidentify hand tools as guns when shown pictures of Black faces (Payne, 2001, 2006) and that Black people with stereotypically Black facial features are more likely to be sentenced to death (Eberhardt, Davies, Purdie-Vaughns, & Johnson, 2006). The consequences of such inferiority myths can be seen in contemporary lynchings by cops who descend on Black people whom they perceive as “menacing” and “life threatening” and kill them although these people possess no weapons or have broken no laws (e.g. Eric Garner). Inferiority myths are deadly.
Superiority myths are also detrimental. When Black people believe superiority myths about themselves, elitism and disconnection are engendered. An example can be found in a myth held by some Black nationalists and religious groups that a sociopathic, genius Black scientist named Yacub and his followers invented white people through a 600 year scientific process of breeding out all the Black genetic traits from people on the island of Pelan (Deutsch, 2000). These white people, or devils-as the myth designates them-were considered to be natural born liars and murders (Deutsch, 2000), who eventually took over the world and enslaved Black people through “tricknology” (Curtis, 2006, p. 11). This myth, credited to Wallace Fard Muhammad (Allen, 2000), recasts supremacy myths with Black people at the top and white people at the bottom. Black people in this myth are considered the original people and only natural embodiment of humanity while white people are imagined as test-tube experiments of sociopathic Black geniuses. Such recasting may provide some Black people with a sense of esteem but ultimately it amounts to the adaptation of oppressive narratives instead of fostering liberation. Adherence to such Black supremacy myths perpetuates a system of domination rather than promote a world beyond oppression. In this way, adoption of superiority myths amount to a rejection of Blackness and still places Black people within the confines of whiteness.
Blackness is integrative but we must be aware of and critically consider our various intrapersonal components before we can integrate them. Awareness of ourselves requires that we engage in reflexivity to understand our diverse and intersecting experiences. Reflexivity is the process of “questioning our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others” (Bolton, 2010, p. 13). Reflexivity is difficult to engage in because it requires that we confront our pain and give up illusions of power. Systems of oppression connect self-worth to attainment of power over ourselves and others, even to our own detriment. Reflexivity demands that we look closely and embrace the parts of us that have been defined as faggoty, niggerish, etc. It requires that we question the assertion of our pathology, the very terms used to describe us as pathological, and the people and institutions that perpetuate such notions. These people may be non-Black people and they may also be our mothers and pastors. Reflexivity requires that we interrogate the status quo definitions that keep us, as Black people, trying to prove our worth to ourselves and others. We must embrace the fact that some of us are same-gender loving. We same-gender loving Blacks must embrace the fact that some of us inhabit (dis)abled bodies. All of us must embrace that struggling with issues of self-worth does not make us worthless. Reflexivity will help us more fully integrate all such things into ourselves and accept them in others. This integration will allow us to move more freely and begin to explore ways of existing outside systems of oppression that chain our worth to being as close as possible to white, powerful, rich, and heterosexual men.
Acceptance fostered through reflexivity will allow us to call ourselves into existence as human beings that are multifaceted, fallible, gifted, and beautiful. The act of calling ourselves into existence is critical. African-centered psychologists have elaborated:
The central characteristic of what a person does and the central problematic of African identity in the West is the same – the distinction between who we think we are and who we really are. We need a way of conceptualizing identity that is consonant with the cosmic reality in which identities were framed. No one can call a person into existence that did not bring that person into existence. If others who did not generate the person, names that person, that person will not be named in a way that sets her/him free; others name us to imprison us in the power and the construct of the symbol – meme – the name. (Piper-Mandy & Rowe, 2010, p. 14).
Part of acceptance is letting go of the things that keep us stagnant. If a definition of us does not serve us, we must be willing to let it go, regardless of its origin (e.g. relatives, teachers, community members). Black people and Blackness have been attacked globally as criminal, flawed, and inferior. Many of us have internalized these pathological definitions and let them influence us consciously and subconsciously. We either try to disprove them by “going against the norm” or adhere to them out of fatalistic impulses. Regardless, our being is negotiated in the context of definitions meant to imprison us. We must learn to accept these definitions for what they are: the projections of others. They are the characteristics that others see when they look at us that stem from their view of themselves. Others’ definitions of us are seldom rooted in a comprehensive understanding of us. That is our work. Through reflexivity, we can develop a comprehensive understanding of ourselves-as described above-and accept our complexity. We also must learn that while Blackness is universal, it is also specific. No two people will embody and express Blackness in identical ways. That is expected. The acceptance of pathological definitions of Blackness as simply unrealistic projections does not negate the fact that as humans we are fallible. We do not always accomplish our highest human potential in each moment. We must learn to accept our personal shortcomings while still remaining grounded in our truth and never forgetting our beauty.
The beauty of Blackness is its embodiment of spirit-body integration. When we embody and express Blackness, we are at our most human. Humanity would benefit from privileging Blackness. The privileging of the integrative nature of Blackness is essential for all people regardless of skin color or recent ancestry. As stated before, Blackness focuses on wholeness, community, and proper consciousness (i.e. clear thinking forged out of love and not fear). Living life in a paradigm of Blackness is living a life of more connectedness with others, consciousness of self, and communion with spirit. Such an existence should be privileged rather than one based on fear, paranoia, emptiness, loneliness, and ignorance. It is even more important for those of us who are of recent African descent and culturally characterized as Black to privilege Blackness. Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s (1987, p. 88) Beloved points out the critical nature of loving and privileging ourselves. She stated:
Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it,you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed…What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give leavins instead. No they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.
This lack of love for Blackness necessitates that Black people not only love Blackness but put it first. The effect of anti-Blackness is that Blackness is relegated to the bottom rungs of global society in every domain. As discussed earlier, inferiority myths are internalized by Black people as well. In order to fully internalize #BlackLivesMatter, we must privilege ourselves. Anti-Black and white supremacist ideologies put Blackness last but it must be first in our lives.
Internalizing #BlackLivesMatter is a complex but essential task; it is the internalization of Blackness. The #BlackLivesMatter movement must advance across the globe. The physical, civic, and socioeconomic threats to Black lives will continue to negatively impact Black people’s survival if Black lives are not valued. The parallel process of internalizing Blackness at the psychological level must also be seriously undertaken if the threats of anti-Blackness and white supremacy are ever to be overcome in our own psyches. There remains work to do.
Allen, E. (2000). Identity and Destiny: The Formative Views of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. In Haddad & Esposito (Eds.). Muslims on the Americanization Path?, pp. 163-214. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Bolton, G. (2010). Reflective practice: Writing & professional development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Curtis, E. (2006). Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Deutsch, N. (2000). The proximate other: The nation of Islam and Judaism. In Chiereau & Deutsch (Eds.). Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, pp. 91-117. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Eberhardt, J., Davies, P., Purdie-Vaughns, V., & Johnson, S. (2006). Looking deathworthy: Perceived stereotypicality of Black defendents predicts capital-sentencing outcomes. Psychological Science, 17(5), 383-386.
Karenga, M. (1995). Black psychology. In K. Monteiro (Ed.). Ethnicity and Psychology: African-, Asian-, Latino-, and Native-American Psychologies-Revised Printing, pp. 21-39. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. Retrieved from http://www.radford.edu/jaspelme/minority-groups/past_courses/Karenga_Black_Psychology.pdf
Meyers, L. (1988). Understanding an Afrocentric world view: Introduction to an optimal psychology. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York, New York: Knopf.
Payne, B. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 81, 181-192. doi: 10.I037//0O22-35184.108.40.206
Payne, B. (2006). Weapon bias: Split-second decisions and unintended stereotyping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 287-291. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00454.x
Piper-Mandy, & Rowe, (2010). Educating African-centered psychologists: Toward a comprehensive paradigm. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 3 (8), 5-23.
Black people are conceptualized in this essay as people of recent African descent or who are treated as socially or culturally Black in their environments. This designation is thought to be applicable regardless of one’s personal identification as Black, African, Caribbean Black, Black Latino, or any other self-definition of Blackness. People who are judged to be Black and treated as Black in their societies are subject to the global discrimination and pathologizing of Black people and thus are shaped by their Blackness in real and perceived ways.