Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ideas of "Brotherhood" on a Global Scale

By Julia Johnson

For as long as I can remember there has been a dusty ragged copy of John Griffins Black Like Me (1961) floating around my house. I knew it belonged to my father and that both he and my mother had read it. Its presence always seemed appropriate in our home, as my mother is an avid reader and the book seemed personally relevant to my father, a black male born in 1950. Although I always noticed the books presence and brought it to school with me as a piece of my father, I never actually got around to reading it. In my own arrogance, the book looks nice on my shelf next to a slue of other provocative gender studies and race studies titles. However, in reading the chapters of Malcolm's autobiography I found myself pondering the connection between the texts. The interest was first a result of Malcolm's reference to both Baldwin and Griffin's work and their circulation in the "Holy Land" as texts that exemplify the American negro experience. 

After looking more into Black Like Me, something I found particularly intriguing was its relationship to Langston Hughes, which seemed to bring our course work full circle. The title of Griffins book is from the last line of Hughes poem "Dream Variations".

Dream Variations
by Langston Hughes

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance!  Whirl!  Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . . 
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

 After reading the poem I felt struck by the connections between Malcolm's experience, Black Like Me, and Hughes' work. All present an idea of an experience that transcends that of the individual. To me this idea is "Brotherhood" and more specifically a "Black Brotherhood". Black Brotherhood references the shared and unique experience of being non- white in social structures that privilege whiteness. This experience in America is documented by Griffin's book, as it tells how Griffin, a white man, darkened his skin and traveled around the American South for two months passing as black. It gave a direct line into the persisting problems of race relations in the U.S. After reading Chapter 18 of Malcolm's autobiography, the idea of what "brothers" can mean became much more expansive to me. Brothers are not just young black males fighting and living together in America, brothers span across the globe all under the same sky that Langston Hughes references in his poem.

Hughes does not wait for "cool evening" to merely escape the "white day", he longs to join the night and be one with it as his equal. In the night, he sees a likeness to himself that brings him peace. Night comes in the poem "tenderly" and "gently" giving way to a feeling of comfort that is welcomed by the speaker. While it can be assumed the voice of the poem is Hughes, the metaphor of night and day invites a sense of inclusivity as everyone experiences the passage time. Thus, all who are dark can identify with the night and share in Hughes' proposed dream. By opening up the poems meaning in this way, darkness can be used as the unifying feature of a specific type of brotherhood.

Blackness in the U.S, in reference to a holistic American experience, quickly becomes a trope of "otherness". But on a global scale this "otherness" is not prevalent in the same ways. Blackness as otherness in America is in reference to the white hegemonic structures that the U.S as an institution is built upon. In other parts of the world, this power structure is not the same. It takes form in other ways, such as imperialism and colonization, but still does not totally account for the inherently individual experience of the black American. However, even in the differences of the American experience, black people are still connected to the global community both in history and in complexion. The experience of the American negro should not be that of the individual, but rather a collective. While that collective is inherently American, if looked at globally, negroes have the capability to also unite under the collective of shared "non-whiteness".

For Malcolm, an expanded notion of otherness that can be shared by non-whites universally, is extremely empowering and enlightening. It provides a door to a global brotherhood that can be grown to a level that allows for black Americans to transcend white power structures in the U.S, while being supported by an international community. Malcolm's pilgrimage presented him with a space in which he was part of a brotherhood that had been lost to him. 

"My hands now readily plucked up food from a common dish shared with brother muslims; I was drinking without hesitation from the same glass as others; I was washing from the same
little pitcher of water; and sleeping with eight or ten others on a mat in the open. I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land-- every color, and class and rank; high officials and the beggar alike-- all snored in the same language" (pg. 350)

In reading his reflection, it is my belief that this experience was extremely profound for Malcolm, not only because of its roots to his spirituality as a Muslim, but also because it is an experience of brotherhood that the United States failed to provide him in his life. Blacks in the U.S must constantly battle a tradition that is embedded with their oppression. As an institution, the U.S. has not been able to successfully acknowledge what it means to be black in America. Therefore, a space in which the same type of unapologetic and shared unity that Malcolm experienced abroad, has not been able to be replicated for non-whites in the U.S. This space would include the same lack of "hesitation" and the same feeling of togetherness that Malcolm felt in coexisting with his Muslim brothers.

The question then becomes, if blacks unite under their identity as the "other" to whiteness, are they actually transcending the power structure they are aiming to separate themselves from or are they only perpetuating those same ideas of white hegemony? In Malcolm's eyes, I think such a transcendence would only be possible through a global unification of "brothers"; it would empower American negroes by linking them to a history they have been stripped of and giving new found agency and voice to their specific experience under the umbrella of an international alliance.

Malcolm notes that the thinking and strategies of black leaders in America are limited to what is accepted and advised by a status quo that already exists. The problem then lies that the status quo is a power structure that is WHITE and dismissive of "otherness". There will always be inherent limitations in trying to operate within a construct that is innately limiting and oppressive to you. In an identification as both the American Negro at home and abroad, Malcolm X becomes the symbol and leader of an international expansion of brotherhood. It is this identification that ties together the missing links of a potential negro community and the limited world view of domestic black leaders.

Blacks continuously look to the state to right the wrongs it has done to them, but these wrongs are indoctrinated into the foundation of the state itself. How can a community liberate itself within the confines of the same institution it seeks refuge from?  With that question in mind, it doesn't seem as radical or far fetched to want to develop a new and stronger understanding of what the black community actually is and who it consists of. Putting the plight of the African American on the global stage speaks to the legitimacy of the problem of race relations in the U.S and calls for a  specific type of unification that has the potential to be extremely empowering for black Americans. A requirement of brotherhood is community, and the realization of an expansion of the negro community creates a palette in which Griffin's book, Hughes' poem, and Malcolm X's experiences all speak to the same collective of brothers.

1 comment:

  1. Julia,

    You covered a lot of ground in this post and have brought many pertinent issues forward. One that I think is interesting to discuss is the more general pervasiveness of a global-mindedness which takes hold in many forms. We have seen throughout the last century that there has been a push to unite communities across the globe that seem to share certain characteristics or circumstances. We saw this with the Non-Aligned Movement and I think pan-Africanism is a good example as well. A more broad-based expression of this was the formation of the United Nations, which many took as an organization which would be rooted in international standards, holding nations accountable for any infractions. These movements seek to generalize, in a sense, as a means to create bonds between different social groups, nations, or individuals. It attempts to put these groups on a level plain, from which they can unite when necessary - but sometimes we have seen that these groups are utterly incapable of holding strong; we saw countries of the Non-Aligned movement give in to the draw of money or power. We saw the United Nations remain somewhat at the disposal of its largest contributor, the United States. And in pan-Africanism, we see differences in how individuals identify and nations become mired in civil disputes.

    All of these movements have served a very important role, but it begs the question of whether the idea of "global connection" is a valid one. Does power lie in a wide-spread network, or are people more empowered in a localized construct?


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