It was not so long ago, after Michael Brown’s death, that lots of people in Reformed circles were calling for a conversation about race. After almost two years and after listening to some of the chatter, I am not so hopeful. Anyone who wants a version of how that conversation is going among people without faith — in this case a journalist and an Ivy League student newspaper editor — give a listen and embrace the suck.
But in the interest of avoiding a bad ending for the PCA, where the conversation has escalated more than anywhere else in NAPARC circles, I offer the latest musings on blackness from Michael Eric Dyson:
There is the symbolic blackness that the president perfectly embodies. By this I mean the representative sort, in which his blackness is the blackness of the masses; his lean body carries the weight of the race, and the words of James Baldwin meet those of pioneering scholar Anna Julia Cooper: To paraphrase Cooper, when and where a black figure like Obama enters, black folk automatically enter with him, as he bears what Baldwin termed the “burden of representation.” Like other symbolic blacks before him, Obama has no choice in the matter—one fittingly symbolized in nonnegotiable terms of existence that are nearly Cartesian: he is, therefore we are.
There is, too, substitute blackness, in which luminaries like Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder supply the blackness—the resonant cultural tropes, the signifying gestures, the explicit mention of race in context—that a figure like Obama, bound on all sides by demands and constraints, can barely acknowledge, much less embrace. Historical contingency and political necessity meld to determine Obama’s role, versus that of substitute blacks, when it comes to speaking about race: he can’t, but they can.
Then there is surplus blackness, which is too much blackness for many outside the race, and some inside it. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are some noted examples, figures whose blackness is never in question, even if the use and force of it depends on the situation at hand or the need of the group at the moment. If substitute blackness is a conditional stand-in for blackness, surplus blackness is the display of blackness—in fact, blackness as display. The nearly exclusive imperative of surplus blackness is to stand up for black folk in public, whether after a police killing of an innocent black or a neighbor-to-neighbor murder or a cry for racial justice in the courts. Obama’s symbolic blackness also sometimes takes up the cause of black folk, but more often judges them. When it comes to defending black people: he won’t, but they will.
Finally, there is subversive blackness, glimpsed most recently in the activism of Black Lives Matter, where the meanings of blackness compete and collide, where blackness is at once self-subverting and self-regenerating. Subversive blackness glances sideways at symbolic, substitute and surplus blackness, preferring, instead, to grasp what’s been left out of the official narratives of blackness and to fill in the blanks. It is perhaps summed up in Kanye West’s credo, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” which nicely captures the irreverence that Obama spurns but subversive blackness embraces: he isn’t, but they are.