Some Thoughts on Black Self-Determination


I cried during the scene in Black Panther when Erik Killmonger spoke with his father, because he was expressing the hurt that I’ve had so much trouble putting into words. Erik’s rage is overblown and genocidal for the sake of a Hollywood blockbuster, but that rage is so real and so raw for so many people, including me.

We could have had so much more than this. More than ghettos and police brutality and slavery and HIV and heart disease and redlining. So much was stolen from us while we have been raped and tortured in the cruelest ways for hundreds of years. Our women, children and men are killed and their murderers walk free, not in 1818, but in 2018. We experience the constant indignities of working for less money to live in more dangerous neighborhoods. I’ve often heard the way that America treats black people described as a slow-moving genocide, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Genocide isn’t slow. It burns white hot and rages out of control; it’s how you kill six million Jews in six years or a million Rwandans in one hundred days. What’s happening here is different. It’s meticulous and planned for the long term to make money. Extract maximum value from Black people, and shave a few years off of Black life here and there, not with gas chambers or roaming death squads, but with poor food and divestment.

All of this continues to exist after the end of state-sanctioned segregation. The legacy and effects of all of those laws and practices continue down to today of course, but it’s no longer illegal for black people to live in certain places, go to certain schools, or vote (actually, scratch that last one). Somehow we still find ourselves locked in certain communities, hoping for the trickle-down from benevolent white people. We can’t get better schools for our children, unless it’s to benefit white children too. We can’t get development for our own sake; it’s designed to attract white people. Dozens of buildings, millions of dollars, and still, the North End is the North End. How much longer are we going to continue to ask for things- education, equality, justice- from people who don’t want to give them to us?

A lot of serious people have positioned liberation as the answer to that question. It’s an idea that animates a great deal of progressive/radical work, especially in terms of racial justice. The end goal of various movements, from emancipation through Black Lives Matter and beyond, is liberation for oppressed Black people. But liberation is a noun. It’s a thing, like a tree or a rock. We can describe what a rock looks like, but what does liberation actually look like, in practice?

To me, it looks alot like Bloomfield, CT.

Bloomfield is one of the 21st century inheritors of the self sufficient Black community in America. It is the only municipality in New England which has a majority Black population, with 58% of its 20,000 residents hailing from African American and black West Indian descent. A Black woman is the mayor. The Town Council is majority Black. The Board of Education is almost all Black, with a Black chairperson. The median income is on par with the median income for the state. The schools have completed an amazing turnaround in the last decade. There’s a fascinating history of how Bloomfield’s population became majority Black (I wrote about it in the first chapter of my senior college project), but the short version is the same as everywhere else: block busting, racially restrictive housing covenants, redlining and white flight. Out of the lemons of racial segregation, a pretty amazing lemonade of Black self-determination has emerged.

A question I’ve been struggling with though is whether or not anything that grows from the poisoned ground of racism in America can be just. If real estate is racist (it is), municipal borders lock less mobile Black people out of critical resources (they do), schools are not about education but instead signaling social capital through access (they are), and all of this is dripping in patriarchy which reinforces Claudia Jones’ triple oppression, then is Bloomfield, as simply a Black version of all of those systems, actually worth celebrating?

I argue yes, because the fact of the matter is that all systems are created by people, and people are generally terrible. Claudia Jones was a Communist, a member of a system which envisioned a radically different socioeconomic system than capitalism. It was also a system which directly led to the deaths of millions of people, just like capitalism. And mercantilism. And feudalism. And the divine right of kings. And every single imperfect system which imperfect humans have tried. There is no magic inflection point where this time we’re going to get it right. We’ve already tried that- it was called the End Of History, and it included all of the racism and sexism that plagues us still. Then September 11th happened, and we were reminded that some people don’t forget history.

That’s all to say that liberation in practice is going to look a lot like whatever the dominant system of the day is, and our task is not to labor in the hopes that one day we can declare victory over the worst impulses of humanity. Our task will be to mitigate those impulses as best as we can, because you can be assured that the system of global white supremacy will fall someday, just as the Assyrians fell and every organizing system since then has. People will be at the center of whatever comes next, and you can also be assured that one group of people will try to treat another group as lesser.

Right now, we find ourselves as the group being treated as lesser, and to paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, appealing to your enemy for better treatment requires them to give a fuck about you. Let us weep for what could have been, recognize what is, and fight for what can be. We have a pretty good example of what can be, right next door.

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