O 'Black Community,' where art thou?

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I'm still kicking myself for missing what must have been a fascinating program at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture last week.

Broadcast live on nationally syndicated talk radio host Bev Smith's show, "The Disappearing Black Community and How We Get It Back" attracted 350 people on a Friday evening to a discussion by a distinguished panel of black activists, journalists and scholars. (Locally, it was on WGBN 1150 AM.)

The seven-person panel, which included comedian/activist Dick Gregory and syndicated columnist George Curry, featured the kind of analysis and rhetoric guaranteed to shake an audience out of its lethargy.

Fortunately, it's the first of four discussions on the topic. And this newspaper and The New Pittsburgh Courier covered the event, so salient points raised by the panelists won't disappear into the ether.

"Contrary to what people think, we do not have a black community," said entrepreneur Claud Anderson as quoted in the Courier. "What we have are black neighborhoods."

The PG's version of that quote adds this line: "A neighborhood is a place where you eat and go to sleep."

Mr. Anderson, the founder of PowerNomics, blames the lack of prosperity in these neighborhoods on a failure to pool resources along racial lines.

"We fail to play as a team," Mr. Anderson said according to the Courier. "You'll never find a black town because we're too busy trying to integrate."

Both news accounts report the panelists' disappointment with the black middle class and its retreat behind what is effectively a gated community of integration.

In fact, a growing skepticism about integration appears to be the unintentional subtext of both articles, a sentiment that is beginning to rear its head in surprising places.

Without successful black role models living next door, spending their money exclusively in the community and attending the same schools, the habits that contribute to African-American success can't be learned by the neighborhood's have-nots according to the theory.

While there is a kernel of uncomfortable truth to this idea, it inevitably leads to a weird nostalgia for community and economic life during the Jim Crow era when black doctors and judges lived next door to jitney drivers and street sweepers because of law and necessity.

"We now have this class divide that we didn't used to have," said Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century. "One of the problems with the civil rights movement is it was not supposed to be about assimilating. Every other group came here with their culture intact."

Mr. Daniels raised several points I would have respectfully disagreed with him about if I were there, beginning with the notion that class divisions among black folks came about as the result of integration and "assimilation" by some blacks into the American middle class.

Brown-paper-bag tests and slavery-era tensions between so-called house negroes and field negroes would attest to divisions that have dogged blacks in America for centuries.

On the other hand, I agree with those panelists who cast doubt on the idea that a "black community" as some coherent entity containing all of our varied and contradictory qualities exists today.

But because I'm a contrarian, I'd go a step further and insist that the "black community" as we typically refer to it in the media has never existed, not even during the era of Reconstruction and slavery.

If every dollar made and spent by black folks never left the geographic confines of black neighborhoods, that wouldn't be evidence of a "black community" except on the most superficial level of skin color.

The "black community" as a social construct is the slippery creation of long-dead sociologists who had no idea what a weird and ethnically mutated country America was beneath its futile insistence on racial purity and separation. The "black community" transcends American differences. We are America.

I probably haven't done any of the panelists' positions justice. Still, I appreciate their attempt to bring light as well as heat to a difficult subject. That's what I try to do with this column every week, for all the good it does me.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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