Barack Obama takes the oath of office for the second time as president on Monday, January 21 on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Once again, a black man becomes the most powerful human being on the planet. Black children will continue to see someone who looks like them in charge, and many in the older generation will smile brighter and step livelier, thanking the Creator for allowing them to behold the closest thing they’ll see to the Promised Land.We have touched on questions of black nihilism several times here on WARN. Taking a cue from Cornel West's sharp observations about how grinding poverty, the color line, consumerism, and other systems of inequality threaten(ed) to generate a sense of lovelessness and hopelessness among the black (and brown) poor, I applied that framework in order to contextualize the ghetto thuggery of Chief Keef, and the triumphant criminal youthocracy which he represents.
But there’s a generation in between – too young to remember the bloody Civil Rights battles of the 1960s, and too old to feel unadulterated hope. Some members of this African-American generation see Obama’s accomplishment through a veil of indifference. For them, feeling good about Obama is blocked by a Negroidal nihilism too high to get over; too low to get under.
Conversations about black nihilism must be approached with great care as one should not essentialize "blackness"; moreover, there are tens of millions of ways to be black in America. Overarching claims and descriptions rob us of our individuality, agency, and humanity.
In thinking about the concept of black nihilism, we must also ask the broader question: is black nihilism any different than American nihilism, born of a corporatist democracy which wages undeclared wars abroad, killing innocents by remote control, all in the name of fighting "terrorism," while the country's infrastructure and social safety net are systematically eviscerated?
Or is black nihilism fundamentally different from American nihilism, because as a people, African-Americans have been the truth tellers, exposed the contradictions of American democracy (quite literally in and on our flesh as those historically and uniquely deemed fit for the status of human chattel in this country) and then forced the nation to live up to its democratic creed?
After Obama's reelection I speculated about the imminent return of the complaint chorus on both the Left and the Right. They are already tuning up the band of disappointment.
In parallel, Eugene Holley Jr. offered up a nice complement to these questions of hope, dreaming, expectations--and yes, nihilism--relative to the Age of Obama in an essay which deserved more attention than it initially received several weeks ago. There he observed:
I’ve talked to some of these folks about how Obama’s election is the potent proof that white supremacy can now be written in lower-case. I’ve pointed out to them that while racism is not dead, it certainly is dead-on-arrival as the unmoving, unchanging, unwavering force that conscripts the black, brown and beige to the gray hells of second-class citizenship. But for some, it’s hard to see the possibilities that await us. They tilt their head, shrug their shoulders, or just give you that old standby: the “Negro, please” look, designed to banish you from the tribe for not knowing “what time it is.”
Afro-pessimism is rampant in the hood, but it also lives in academia...
Being human, people tend to go inward and internalize the degradation and lack of hope around them. That, of course, is not an exclusively black thing, as evidenced by the sad condition of Native Americans, Kurds, Roma and many other oppressed people on the planet.The last sentence is so damn potent.
While pessimism under unrelenting and brutal conditions is understandable, it ceases to be useful when we refuse to believe that better conditions are possible because believing it sets us up for disappointment. The presidency of Barack Obama becomes too much to process, and we shy away from the work of overhauling negative thinking. We shift into thinking that any kind of African-American advancement is a sham, a trick, a hustle; an unforgivable delusion unfit for those who keep it real.
Here is a provocative thought: is Cornel West (and other such Obama detractors) guilty, in an ironic fashion, of the same "black nihilism" he identified more than a decade ago in the book Black Popular Culture?