Juneteenth Reflections About African American Unity, Collective Work and Responsibility in 2023: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Hands are joined in diverse shades representing African American skin tones.  The caption reads Juneteenth, Freedom Day!

Unity and collective work and responsibility are African and African American values that go back centuries. Unity (i.e., being and acting in harmony together) among African and African American communities has been manifested through diverse practices (e.g., fighting against oppression to ensure and protect our civil rights, decolonization, and celebrating our common heritage). A symbol of collective work and responsibility, as represented by the third symbol of Kwanzaa is the Akoma Ntoaso. This represents teamwork by which individuals share a commitment towards the betterment of the community in informed and responsible ways. Are communal practices beneficial to African Americans?

The Good

Johnson and Carter (2020) identified a model of “Black Cultural Strength” that related to life satisfaction and well being among African Americans. Their model of black cultural strength included the following: (a) a positive and prominent racial identity where being Black is an important part of one’s sense of self along with having a positive view of Black Americans, (b) effectively coping with racism (e.g., talking with those involved to mitigate the situation, involving allies), (c) communalism such as providing and receiving support among family and friends, and getting a sense of personal identity from the family or group, (d) cultural spirituality such as believing in spiritual forces and feeling the presence of God, and (e) receiving positive racial socialization such as being guided to understand biases towards African Americans and racial pride. Of these, communalism was the most prominent factor that represented black cultural strength. The higher one’s black cultural strength, the higher one’s life satisfaction and well being .

African American students have been found to learn better in communal learning conditions. In communal learning conditions African American students are encouraged to work together to learn. Their commonalities are emphasized (e.g., attending the same school, being classmates). Desks are arranged in a circle, students are directed to hold hands as they are instructed to help each other and do their best. From elementary school to college, African American students tend to perform better under communal learning conditions opposed to more individualized learning conditions. Individualized learning conditions are more competitive. Students work alone, and desks are arranged in traditional rows. Community is not emphasized.

Having a positive racial identity is a protective factor for African American youth and adults. This means it is associated with a greater likelihood of positive outcomes (e.g., academic achievement and self esteem), and a lower likelihood of negative outcomes such as substance use and depressive symptoms (e.g., Hughes, Kiecolt, Keith, & Demo, 2015). As positive racial identity relates to feeling connected with and being proud of African Americans, there is inherent communalism. Black Americans turned out as a collective to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States (POTUS), twice. Higher than usual Black voter turnout supported the first African American POTUS but also showed positive racial socialization, racial pride, and progress for the community.

The Bad

While communalism is a source of cultural strength, there are issues. Though a communal approach to learning is beneficial to African American students, the data also show that in high school and college, the benefits depend on whether youth have a communal outlook. When African American students were not communally oriented, they did not benefit from the communal approach. Instead, they learned better under individualized learning conditions (Hurley, Leath, Hurley, & Pauletto, 2023).

One “bad” is when communalism is inflexible, and does not accommodate diversity. When sectors of the community feel limited or excluded from participation, the community is also harmed. It is estimated that racism against African Americans has cost the United States economy 16 trillion dollars over the past 20 years. This is manifested through such things as inequities in wages, access to mortgages, quality health care and education. Consequently, African Americans have had more obstacles to achieving their full potential and capacity to generate wealth. We should be mindful then NOT to suppress or exclude the contributions of community members (e.g., by gender, skin tone, sexual orientation, individual characteristics and ways of personal expression). We should practice inclusion so the community benefits from everyone’s contributions.

Another “bad” is when there is not mutual support between the individual and the community, or among members. Sometimes, individuals have unreasonable expectations as to what they should receive from the community, take more than they receive or are willing to give. A case in point. I was once “volunteered” by a colleague for a major undertaking on behalf of another colleague which had nothing to do with the organization where we all worked. Said colleague had taken on a large project for which she was ill prepared, and thought that I should be the one to remedy and essentially clean up the situation. She used others in the community to do her bidding. Even still, the colleague in need of my help had a habit of mocking my strong work ethic, and, the reason she was in this predicament was because it appeared she had a short cut to a significant outcome.

When individuals take the community for granted, and strain relationships in doing so, the sense of community is hampered. When community members make poor decisions that thwart their own or others’ opportunities, and expect to consume the resources of members as a resolution, the community is hampered. Communalism requires sufficient care and contribution from all individuals within it, or it will not be maintained or of use. As seen in the communal learning conditions, Black students were encouraged to work hard and contribute!

The Ugly

Though communal practices can be an asset to African Americans, assets can become liabilities. When the capacities of individuals (e.g., time, money, plans, goals, talents, participation and opportunities) are drained or minimized by communalism, little is left. As such the motivations and resources for community involvement are lost. Ongoing experiences with the “bad” reflects one aspect of “ugly.”

African Americans mimicking the tools of white supremacy within the community is another aspect of “ugly.” This needs to STOP as such tools were designed to keep African Americans deprived of their dignity, potential, personal and cultural strengths.

  • Across centuries there have been systematic efforts to defile the representation of African Americans through the use of stereotypes and caricatures. See stereotypes of African Americans. And while these were initiated and disseminated by Whites, Black people as a collective subsequently participated in perpetuating and profiting from stereotypes and caricatures. This reflects not only how individuals portray themselves through various venues, but what we consume and accept. What messages are sent to youth and others who interact with and are charged with the supervision our our youth? Stereotypes matter because they are believed and adopted.
  • There are other ways the mainstream culture has systematically undermined the integrity of the community. Redlining limited where we could live and the flow of resources into our communities. There have been ongoing efforts to disrupt and corrupt civil and human rights initiatives stemming from the community by law enforcement and politicians (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Wokeness, Civil Rights Movement). Yet some African Americans have taken up similar policies and practices that are detrimental, and ignore the realities of racism. Minstrel shows were forms of entertainment whereby White men dressed up in blackface, and disparaged our skin tone, facial features, hair, speech, mannerisms, and intellect. Blacks were also caricatured through their representation in everyday objects. Yet within the Black community, the “N” word is commonplace albeit spelled and sounding somewhat differently. Colorism, texturism, and featurism are far too frequent.
Photo Source: WikiMedia Commons
  • Our displays of dignity, class, confidence, and wealth have also been disparaged. “Uppity” is a term historically applied to African Americans who were perceived to act above what White folks perceived was our lot. To have an extensive vocabulary, feel good about one’s self, have confidence, be assertive, have opinions, be President or First Lady of the United States, or simply minding our own business are just some of the reasons black people have been called “uppity.” Black people have also been killed for being perceived as “uppity.” Moreover, the connotation of “uppity” is that we should be boxed in and limited! So WHY do we use such language among ourselves? Though most of us may not literally use the word “uppity,” comparable language IS commonly used by Blacks towards Blacks. “You think you are better than us.” “You act like you are too good.” Such statements are also frequently accompanied by sanctions (e.g., bullying and harassment). This often applies to situations where others’ decisions are self affirming, perceived as advantageous and/or different, (e.g., skill development, expanding opportunities or interests, and engaging in various of forms of self care). Yet these statements also convey that Black people should be boxed in and limited.

The aim of a communal narcissist is self glorification using the community as a backdrop. Communal narcissists can be found among diverse groups of people. You can find them in a variety of spaces from local organizations to Presidential politics, taking up the spotlight. They may make grand gestures, large donations, and go to great lengths to appear helpful and concerned. Behind closed doors however, or once the fanfare diminishes, they have less of a penchant for completing the work required, may act contrary to the very causes and issues for which they advocate, and/or lack the skills and knowledge to carry out the work.

Communal narcissists are especially dangerous and “ugly” for the Black community because targets of involvement include charitable, social, and community causes for which we should benefit. Communal narcissists can get in the way and detract from the aims and outcomes. They are reported as difficult to work with, make the organizations for which they are involved more about them, say and do what they need in order to fulfill their thirst for power and recognition. At the same time their public persona is down with and connected to the people, and as a community champion. Consequently, their true nature is camouflaged.

Celebrities who are also communal narcissists can be especially dangerous. Celebrity worship in the African American community appears higher than others (e.g., Brooks, 2021). What celebrities say and do are given a lot of weight. But when their words and deeds are ill conceived and self-serving, less attention is given to the priorities and needs of the community.

As a community then, we should focus on accountability and transparency! What work is being done relevant to our causes? What are the accomplishments and how do said accomplishments support our needs? Who is doing the work? What are their qualifications and history as it pertains to achieving the expected goals?

In conclusion, I hope these reflections provided you with more ideas about how you would like to see, establish, adjust, or practice communalism.

Happy Juneteenth!


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