The root of community comes from the Latin communis, which means shared in common. A community can be defined as a social unit that shares common norms, values, language or religion that are the foundation of an identifiable culture that creates a shared identity. They also share a sense of place. This is important because it’s the culture that transfers the identity from generation to generation in that specific geography that supports and maintains the community.
We are inherently social animals, but specific communities are not preordained. They evolve as the response of groups of individuals to the physical conditions of their environment. The black community of today has its genesis in the response of groups of individual Africans and their descendants to their enslavement in North America.
What separates the black community from everyone else in America is how we came here. Malcolm used to say, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!” Unlike everyone else, our ancestors didn’t come to America by choice; they were violently extracted from Africa so their labor could be exploited in America. We didn’t choose America; America chose us.
You Can Never Go Home Again the title of a novel by Thomas Wolfe about a young author who writes a successful novel about his hometown that outrages its residents and makes him an outcast. This estrangement sends him on a journey in search of a new identity in a troubled pre-WWII world. This is the other foundational reality of the black community: Once we got here, we couldn’t leave. Everybody from Europe came here voluntarily, including indentured servants, and they all retained the theoretical possibility of returning to their ancestral homelands. Our ancestors never had the option of leaving and, like Wolfe’s protagonist, had no home to return to. Nothing speaks to this sadness better than the Killmonger death scene in Black Panther.
Our ancestors were given a new identity by their captors; they became Negroes because they were slaves, they were slaves because they were Negroes. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir Twelve Years A Slave illustrates the impossibility of anyone black escaping the logic of this paradigm. Black life and liberty have always been at risk to the arbitrariness of white men. The only thing separates Solomon Northup from Michael Brown is time.
Today’s black community is a function of overt, structural, systemic oppression of a group of human beings around the social construct of race. But as they say in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way,” so like Sisyphus they struggled against the absurdity of their condition and created a new identity and culture out of the chaos of racism and slavery. Central to that identity and culture was the inseparability of the fate of the black individual from the destiny of the black community. We will see the full articulation of this fusion of the new individual identity with the group identity when we get to post-Civil War America.
It’s this historical reality that makes us a community, but it also makes us a community formed by someone else’s hand. Just as we didn’t choose America, we didn’t choose each other either. And it’s this historical reality that is impacting how we have and haven’t navigated the 21st century. It’s this social construct and the oppression associated with it that must be the basis of our political organizing until race is no longer a social construct or race is no longer the basis of oppression.
We were brought here against our will because we were black. We were enslaved and robbed of our labor because we were black. We were stripped of our historical identities because we were black. In fact, we didn’t know we were black until we got to America.
The second in a series of commentaries on the evolution of the black community and black political unity.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.