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Earlier this year, in the blissful times of close human interaction, I had a conversation with my roommate (who is also black, for context) sparked by a copy of one of Professor Cornel R. West’s '74 books on my desk. They mentioned how some of their family had strongly negative opinions of the professor at least partly because of what they believe were his unfair criticisms of former President Barack Obama.
The ensuing conversation is one that we have continued to have on many occasions and with many different people. Yes, sure, the conversation was always partly about whether Obama was a good president — for black and other people — and whether the criticisms of him were valid or not. But an underlying tension in these conversations is one that has been front and center in social dialogue recently: whether or not black people have an obligation to wholly support other black people and their endeavors simply because they are black.
We constantly put pressure on ourselves, as black people, to support other black people. I know we have all felt this pressure — and likely perpetuated it too — and there are certainly boundless good reasons for it. Most prominent of which is that so much wrong has been done to black people that we feel we must band together and support each other because if we do not, no one else will.
The desire to label someone or something as definitively good or bad is seemingly universal. But it manifests itself uniquely among black people because all too often the slightest bit of — even apparent — "bad," in whatever sense is applicable, in black people is enough to condemn us as entirely bad. Stop-and-frisk data alone is proof enough of that — let alone the entire United States justice system. Thus, collectively working to protect each other from those realities is an actionable, effective solution. When our behaviors are placed in this context it sounds like — and is — a reasonable and beautiful thing. One that we should all buy in to.
But there is no such thing as a principle that won’t run into a contradiction — no matter how well-intentioned. Taking anything to its fundamentals inevitably leads to foolishness at best. And more and more often I am seeing leanings toward a form of black support fundamentalism.
This fundamentalism is manifested by us either entirely accepting people among ourselves to keep them from being seen as "bad" or entirely distancing ourselves entirely from a person to prevent us from getting judged as "bad" by contact.
Whether it be condemning those who would criticize Obama on accounts of tarnishing parts of the legacy of the first black president; or young South Africans who would distance themselves from Nelson Mandela’s legacy now because he didn’t do what was necessary to secure black peoples’ economic (and thus, other) freedom. I hear things along these lines and I — internally — giggle. Why do things have to be so binary?
The average human brain has 86 billion neurons … and you’re telling me that we can’t bring ourselves to have a nuanced view of anything or anyone with a little melanin in them?
I completely understand that it is much harder for us to have a collectively nuanced view on anything. But when has harder ever meant impossible? You’re telling me we can’t both be inspired by what Mandela contributed towards the creation of a free South Africa, and also acknowledge that he didn’t do all that was possible or necessary? That we can’t admire the leaps and bounds of progress made by Obama both in just getting elected and what he did in office, as well as respect the fact that center-left politics — no matter where it originates — can never do the most possible for all vulnerable peoples in the U.S. and beyond?
We shouldn’t have to settle for such simplistic views of anyone.
So many historical moments or figures we know have been washed by public perception to have been either great and infallible or evil and insane. And revising those perceptions is always painful and difficult, whether it be Cecil Rhodes in South Africa or the founding fathers in America. The way we can prevent the need for painful revisions of our perfect and simple histories is to write them with a nuanced perspective in real-time.
Since we have the power to be the arbiters of history going forward, let’s just do things right from the start. It’s much easier to write things accurately now than change them later.
Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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