I’ve always hated history. In fact, my two worst subjects in school were history and geography. Those subjects were always just so … dry. Names, dates, everything reduced to rote memorization – they never held my interest long enough for me to learn anything. The ironic things is that I now write a lot of historical fiction. I’ve discovered this love of history and exotic places because I’ve learned to find the stories behind them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Black identity, in this country, has had to continually be reconstituted. We have had to constantly seek new parameters by which to measure and define ourselves. The fact of the matter is that it can be looked at fairly simply. If truth arises out of my experience, then it’s possible to say that truth can arise out of our (collective) experience. We can each have our own story, a story that defines who we are as a person. Our personal story is our ontological essence.
Building on that, a race of people could be defined as a people with a shared story, that is, experience, heritage, culture (insofar as it goes deeper than appreciating the aesthetics), and most importantly, history. History is the story of individuals coming together.

Getting back to my original discussion, for something to be black, it must reflect what it means to be black. Ontological blackness. And yet, when all is said and done, ontological blackness is a reaction to racism. [I ran across someone else thinking about similar issues from the flip-side. Phil Sinitiere examines the emergent church and the idea of white privilege. Part 1, 2, 3, 4.] In this regard, so much of what it means to be black is tied to, well, whiteness. Our story, the story of black people, is shaped by “white”-ness. Our history is one of striving for legitimacy in “their” eyes via “their” ways. We can’t seem to escape the oppositional fervor. We constantly look at ourselves through the eyes of others. We engage in a brand of racial apologetics: defining blackness against white ideology and cultural aesthetics; a battle of superiority and legitimacy; racial life as a series of binary determinants.

Thus we all become trapped in this endless cycle of trying to create criteria to define those in and out of any given group. And yet we can miss the point of these identifying stories and fail to see that our stories are actually quite similar.

For example, there is the story of aliens in a foreign land whose existence seems determined as crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival. That story, in turn, had been the source/inspiration of their art. The songs that bound them as a culture. The folk tales passed down that shaped them as a people. On a symbolic level, anyone can participate in this story, and, in fact, we all do. Especially since that was the story of the Old Testament Israelites. It is not as if black people have a monopoly on a story of crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival.

But that does not negate our particular story.

Every people has a story to tell. When all is said and done, “blackness” (any racial identity) is about shared story. A story that defines us and continues to form us. When stories are reduced to law or dogma, their vitality is drained. When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. In fact, when people become so removed from another’s story, they become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for they suggest other ways of living. Their stories become a threat.

What we can’t afford to do is let one story keep us from participating in other stories. Maybe this is where reconciliation can begin.