Advancing the Conversation?

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.

I assume Michelle Higgins wants subversive blackness. But is that what Ligon Duncan, Jemar Tisby, and Sean Lucas were bargaining for?

15 thoughts on “Advancing the Conversation?

  1. How could a conversation (which could have been an okay idea had it not only pretended to be about racism in the church for only 10 minutes) ever ease the yoke of blackness from Obama’s symbolically black (and blue apparently) shoulders?

    And, maybe more importantly (just maybe), how could it have stopped the disproportionate killing of blacks by the police?

    And, if that’s such a big deal to God, why hasn’t Tom Woods spoken at IVF? Probly cause he’s Catholic, right? The Mises Institute has been explicitly anti-police for much longer. And there’s less trans people involved.


  2. George, I think if you can understand one of the groups, that’s the one you fit in. But if all of them make zero sense to you, then you’re probly voting for Trump.


  3. After teaching at an HBCU for a decade, I laugh: these would be noble Evangelicals have no idea what they are embracing. None at all. The history of civil rights is a murky mess, and those who want to appropriate a Bible story version of it or its loudest modern day proponents will end up badly burned.


  4. Take it from one who knows first hand and who also has invested enormously in overcoming this very thing. There is a great gulf fixed between even the best intentioned, historically orthodox white American Christians and even the most conservative and best intentioned black American Christians.

    On their best day, hands joined and raised to heaven, crying out to God that ALL His children who are brethren in both Adams would live in singleness of mind to His glory… they ain’t even close to actual unity much past the level of Nicea.

    I have come to the conclusion that this will not be solved without crushing cross centered persecution that divides the sheep from the goats rather than the blacks from the whites.


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