Joshua Packwood's march across the stage as Morehouse College's first white valedictorian left a trail of fiery online commentary from African Americans, filled with consternation, anger and fear. For some, white participation and success in the black world means the failure and even end of blackness. For me, Packwood's successes are but a part of a larger global movement toward multicultural pluralism.
The backlash from blacks is tinged with paranoia. In a recent op-ed, NPR's News and Notes commentator Jasmyne Cannick paired Packwood with Ellie Gunderson, the white president of Georgetown's NAACP chapter, suggesting that the prominence of whites in black institutions endangers the vitality and uniqueness of black culture and signals a failure in black performance. The article describes a fear of invasion and cultural dilution—one that is not entirely different from that of white supremacists who claimed that they must protect the sanctity of white institutions.
In some ways, the defensive pose is understandable. Black consciousness is rooted in the need for oppositional ideologies, developed to protect the community from the ignominy and violence resulting from racism. The Harlem Renaissance, negritude, the Black Arts and Black Power movements all sought to affirm the value of black and African culture, heritage and identity. In his essay "Orphée Noir," the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre identified negritude as a sort of "anti-racist racism."
Black consciousness is still important; however, the problem arises when the movement becomes rigid and institutionalized, losing the potential of what would otherwise be more inclusive and uplifting crusades. The xenophobia expressed by some black commentators on the Web has no place in the postmodern world, especially for blacks who have been particularly excluded. Sartre predicted that racism and negritude would eventually resolve the persisting contradictions. In other words, the black institutions that were developed to serve blacks in ways that had been denied them by white institutions would eventually collide with those very same original structures of exclusion. This is exactly what has happened in the case of Joshua Packwood. This white American moves freely in a black context, and Morehouse, a black institution, maintains its identity while producing hybrid leaders suitable for a pluralistic world.
History has left us all with overlapping identities and realities. Ethnicity in today's world is more like a spectrum whose edges bleed into each other with no beginning and no end. Technology, capital and people traverse the world's borders every day. Culture gets transported in carry-ons. The desire to preserve some concept of a group's purity in today's globalized society is absurd. Far from losing something in these new, hybrid developments, blacks continue to be a part of the global process of cultural diffusion.
We shouldn't fear this brave new world because as blacks in America, we have been worldwide leaders in hybridity for centuries. During the Atlantic slave trade, blacks fused vastly different elements from diverse African cultures, various European traditions and their environment in the New World, to create what Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant refers to as creolity. It is this type of cultural fusion that created one of America's most celebrated cultural forms: jazz. Negro spirituals, African rhythm and black vernacular expressions were filtered through European instrumentation and harmony to create what is known the world over as one of the coolest musical genres.
Today, elements of black hybrid culture have ceased being niche phenomena and have seeped into mainstream popular culture, leading other groups around the world to adopt "black" practices. Hip-hop, for instance, is a dominant cultural force everywhere from Moscow to Casablanca to São Paolo. Whether the influence is positive or not can be debated, but the position of black people at the forefront of global cultural production cannot be denied.
Packwood's success at Morehouse does not signal a reversal or decline in black success. At Morehouse, a school that consistently has at least one Rhodes' scholar finalist each year, graduates many students directly to top Wall Street firms and produces many socially-conscious citizens, Packwood stands out for his race not his merit. Like Packwood, many black Americans are making significant impacts in diverse and often unexpected places.
Instead of worrying about Josh Packwood, we should concern ourselves with making blackness a positive force in a pluralistic and globalized world.
W. Hassan Marsh is a freelance journalist from Atlanta who has lived and traveled extensively in Francophone countries. He blogs at The Maroon Wanderer.