Betting on Black Communities

Writer, womanist and often-times agitator Zora Neale Hurston once wrote to her brilliant brother-in-words Countee Cullen the following: “Personally, I have no desire for White association except where I am sought and the pleasure is mutual. That feeling grows out of my own self-respect. However blue the eye or yellow the hair, I see no glory to myself in the contact unless there is something more than the accident of race.”

In 1943, as African-Americans continued their fight towards integration and inclusion, Zora Neale Hurston couldn’t fathom why Black folk wanted so desperately to force an end to segregation. After all, Hurston was born in Eatonville, the first incorporated all-Black town in the United States. So she understood that Black people could create communities with thriving political, social and economic systems—communities that did just fine without White folks living in them or overseeing them. 

According to her letter to Cullen, she assumed, through their actions and reactions, that many of her peers believed her brand of Black power and social justice was amiss. Contemplating the recent murders of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, and listening to Glenda Moore speak out after her sons were swept away from her arms during Hurricane Sandy (neighbors refusing to help), I wonder if Zora had it right. Actually, I don’t wonder… I know.

My parents, like Zora, grew up in an all-Black settlement in southern Louisiana that informed many of their ideas about the importance of community. When they packed up and moved to the big city, they settled into another Black community close to other families who’d left the sweltering sugar cane and cotton fields of Louisiana for industrial work and a shot at a better life.

Continuing the rituals of my ancestors, I grew up in a Black community, attended all community schools, and settled eventually into attending an HBCU for my undergraduate and graduate education. When I chose to purchase my home, I decided on a community similar to the one that had nurtured my parents and I. Along with living in a mostly African-American community, I teach at an HBCU and try to conduct as much of my business as possible in Black communities.

As Zora stated in her letter to Cullen, I want to feel welcome where I live, work and spend my hard-earned money. And more than anything, what I want (and what I f*cking deserve) is to feel safe. I refuse to live in a community where Blackness is deemed so atrocious and monstrous that my appearance, even as I beg for help, makes me dangerous and a target for brutality, violence and murder. We see example after example that we’re not welcome in the White communities we hope (in 2013) will finally accept us. 

After our divestment, we have the audacity to talk about how run-down and dangerous our communities have become. Our absence, lack of care and respect is partly why they’re in the shape they’re in.

It is time, as James Baldwin once wrote in a letter to his nephew, that we “know whence [we] came,” and possibly return there.

I always enjoy watching T’Keyah Crystal Keymah perform her “Black World” skit on In Living Color, where she dramatizes a young girl’s desire to live in a world where she feels comfortable, loved and safe. Somewhere along the way, we stopped viewing our communities as those life- and light-giving vessels, and have allowed many of them to collapse into themselves. We stopped giving back, stopped being politically active on local levels, stopped investing in our community institutions. (Many of my friends claim they live in suburban neighborhoods because they want better schools for their children, for instance.) And after our divestment, we have the audacity to talk about how run-down and dangerous our communities have become. Our absence, lack of care and respect for our communities is partly why they’re in the shape they’re in.

At the time of Zora’s letter (and even after), she was championed by White right-wing Republicans because her message seemed to side with segregation. She was called—on many occasions, by fellow Black intellectuals—a race traitor. Some may read my words here and consider me a separatist, and in the age of post-racial America, a racist even. “We are not all that way,” some Whites will cry as we battle for justice for Renesha, and Jonathan, and Trayvon, and Jordan, and…  To them, my question is, “What are you doing to address those who are, indeed, undeniably ‘that way?’” 

I’m betting on Black (communities), and I think many more of us should. What are your thoughts?

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and scribe. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.