Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Confronting African-American Pessimism and "Negroidal Nihilism" in the Age of Obama

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
The last sentence is so damn potent.

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?


Sunkissed said...

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who grew up in same projects I did in NYC. He told me a story of how he and some other old friends of ours were jumped by bloods gang members one day. My friends had put up a good fight, I mean one of them was a black belt, but more people kept jumping in against them until they became overwhelmed. That's when they decided to make a retreat and split up in the neighborhood. One of my friends, being chased by several gang members, saw a squad car full of police and flaged them down to help him. But, the police shooed him away, telling him to take his problems elsewhere. And that right there is the heart of black nihilism.

The sense of helplessness, hopelessness and whatever other lessness that creates that "if you don't give a **** I don't give a ****" mentality comes from thousands of instances like this. Blacks as victims don't get nearly as much attention by those sworn to protect them as Blacks as criminals do. Which creates a take it in my own hands kind of mentality in everybody. It's hard to care when you feel like nobody cares about you.
I remember one day after this gang fight incident a local thug who just shot someone dead ran into my black belt friends building. The police were on his tail and would have eventually caught up with him had he not decided to jump from his girlfriends 14th floor window. He died on impact. However when my Bruce Leeroy homie walked out the lobby at the time of the chase the police cuffed him and threw him in a squad car along with another friend of ours. The whole thing was on the evening news, including the cops cuffing my friends and them being called suspects on TV. They were eventually released, and so was their capacity to care.

chauncey devega said...

some great sharing there.

"They were eventually released, and so was their capacity to care."

This should be a slogan. I was talking to a cop the other day at the local tap and he was trying to explain to me that the young thugs he arrests do not think like "normal people" and that we are incapable of reaching them at a certain point. The calculation of cost/benefit/consequences is so "local" and distorted that he has stopped even trying to care or reach out to the young brothers caught up in the game.

I kept asking questions trying to get a handle on local hood cornerboy thug logic. He patiently communicated how you can't even get inside their heads because their view of the world is not ours. Thus, lock them up, and save the rest of us.

CNu said...

Savor the essence of why the writing is on the wall for the ni ni...,

Brykume said...

Sadly, these actions result in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, and that cycle of nihilism feeds into itself.

I can understand the mentality.. there will forever be new kids on the street who need lessons. It seems as if they've forsaken the kids they have helped in the past. I'm certain that a positive difference has been made on some impressionable minds by the just, or simply emphatic, actions of those with authority.

chauncey devega said...

This is a structural issue and a cultural one as you smartly point out. But what of black elites who are also possessed of nihilism and pessimism too?

MacMama said...

Yes, Yes, Yes He Most Definitely Is.

chauncey devega said...

succinct! and pithy.

Paul Sunstone said...

What would help the most to remedy or reverse Black nihilism?

chauncey devega said...


1. We have a potent blues sensibility like others who have been knocked around so the armor is pretty think and capable of balancing smiles and cries.

2. I reason if the black american story was one of slavery and then jim and jane crow for another 90 or so years, then perhaps a few centuries of unmitigated and unrestrained progress and freedom will do the trick?

3. What do we do about American nihilism?

Paul Sunstone said...

Thanks, Chauncey.

American Nihilism? I suspect much of America -- especially White, middle-class America -- is woefully unprepared for the pounding that's coming, that is to some extent already here. In part I think that might be because they have lost the values of citizenship, replaced them with the values of consumerism. And in part I think they are still hoping against reality for the elites or the system to rescue them, among other things. I think they will jump when things get much worse, but I don't know which way. Still, movements like Occupy, for all it's weaknesses, give me hope.

By the way, your blog post, and the comments on it, are among the most thought provoking reads I've come across on any blog in a long while.

chauncey devega said...

my, you make me blush. what do you think about the puzzle more generally?

what happens when a society does not even realize what it has lost?

for example, when i talk to students about citizenship and privacy and how they have lost so much there is a frightening surrender to authoritarianism to the point where most either see nothing wrong with what has happened with the corporate military state or defend it.

i kid you not: most of them care about facebook more than the idea that they could be spied on with impunity and locked away without trial or killed.

Paul Sunstone said...

First off, that ignorance and indifference scares me, but I have seen it myself -- not in students, but in well-educated middle aged adults. I think it's a nihilism masked by a kind of optimism, by a unholy belief that things can't be so bad that they demand commitment, sacrifice, and action.

But even more frightening to me is their surrender to authoritarianism. The one thing I fear most, really fear, is that when the pounding comes, that's how the majority is going to go. They are going to look at their declining fortunes, and then seek out an authoritarian leader who promises to save their butts, and tells them who to scapegoat. I don't see that as inevitable, but I do see it as all too possible.

Lately, I've been thinking the way to reach these people, the way to get them on our side, is first through economics. Show them what's happening to their wealth, their incomes, and why it's happening. Then branch out from there.

But that's just what I think, and I could be very wrong. I know so little about it. Too little. What do you think we should do?