Revisiting the ‘I’ in Individuality – Black on Black Thought

This is part of the bi-weekly Black on Black Thought feature.

Today we look again at the concept of individuality. James wrote a piece today called Am I destroying the black community? that is a response to something I wrote last November called How the myth of individualism is destroying the Black community. In it, he refutes many of my points, but I think at the core he misses some fundamental truths that are necessary for individual success and collective advancement.

2 I’s don’t make a We

James says (my emphasis added):

Charging those of us who fail to drink collectivist Kool-Aid with “destroying” anything is to miss many points, and the most obvious is that despite whatever struggles black people face, black people in America, in 2008, have it better off than we’ve ever had it and it’s not even close. There’s a very good chance that a black man could be elected President in November, yet we’re all supposed to open our history books to page 128 to study yet another of America’s broken promises to black people. As Barack Obama said in his race speech from Philadelphia, what’s amazing isn’t how badly blacks are doing, but how much we’ve accomplished, given the odds against us.

Life is undoubtedly different today than it was many years ago. Barack Obama becoming President is a net positive for this country as a whole. However, I firmly believe that outliers do not define trends. Making that statement is not an indictment on said outliers; it is instead a proclamation of the reality that having a Black Council[wo]man/Mayor/Senator/Governor/President in an of itself has limited impact on day-to-day life.

Let’s look at some data on Black male joblessness since Brown v. Board of Education. That’s just one measure, but it’s one of the more important ones because joblessness is often the first step towards other social issues. Tell me if this is better or worse:

  • Employment rates among black male teens and young adults ages 16 to 19 have dropped considerably over the past 50 years, from 52% in ’54 to 20% in ’03. Worse.
  • Among 20 to 24 year old black men, employment rates averaged just 57 percent during the past three years, compared with an average of 80 percent employment in the late 1960s. Worse.
  • In 2002, a full quarter of African-American men ages 20 to 64 were not employed at any point during the year. The year-round joblessness rate for black adult males in 2002 was twice as high as that of white and Hispanic males. This trend has been steadily increasing since 1973. Worse.

What’s interesting is that over this same time period, we’ve seen a large wave of Black leadership is business, government, and pretty much everything else. There are individuals that are indeed breaking through. But a larger number of people being able to say “I made it” hasn’t translated very well to people being able to say “We mad it.” People being able to say “I made it” is nice, but they are using the “I” in “Individual” instead of the “I” in “Institutional”. Working towards the “Institutional” goal of collective advancement can make the phrase “I made it” actually matter to more people than you.

It is not selfish to [want to] achieve individual success, however you define it. It is short-sighted, however, to have that as the only end goal.

The Cost of Double Consciousness

James says:

Gilchrist’s argument brings to mind the very same reason individualists shy away from the black community: membership fees are often too high. When people hear that they need sacrifice their individualism to join the black community, they start thinking that maybe the community isn’t for them.

W.E.B. DuBois is credited with coining the phrase double consciousness, which in simple terms the duality inherent in the African American identity, that you were literally part African and part American. It talks about the gift and curse of having two parts of your identity, and how that manifests itself (or should manifest itself) in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds.

This concept is the basis of my thinking on individualism. My view of this double-consciousness is not only that I’m one part African and one part American, but that I am one part individual and one part member of the larger community. With this view of myself, I have equal responsibility and equal accountability to both myself and my community. It is not that one necessarily takes precedence, but what’s important to understand is that they both exist. If this notion was to inform our thinking of ourselves, our communities, our nations, our world, and our environment, we wouldn’t view helping others as payment of membership dues. We’d look at it as paying dues to ourselves.

The destroyer

I people do not think about or act in the best interest of the community or environment in which they exist, that neglect will become destructive to that community or environment. We have seen this with the environment virtually every day for the last 100+ years in the Western world. I don’t want a climate crisis to occur within the Black community due to similarly destructive neglect.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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