Years ago, I found myself in the midst of a gathering at a home of a Jamaican parishioner. The Event was only a few years after I arrived to America from my native Puerto Rico. A narrow family room and the waning daylight made the atmosphere intimate and about ten of us, mostly black Caribbean and African Americans, chat while waiting for the feast of good Jamaican cuisine.
As the night progressed, everyone was having a good time until, and seemingly out of nowhere, an argumentative man began a provocative monologue on race. A back-and-forth argument ensued with several people. The man insisted, “We are all black—that is our identity, and nothing supersedes that reality,” he declared.
The atmosphere changed and most people, apparently knowing that the man was often abrasive, only gave faint assent by nodding while trying to change the subject. He was one of those self-proclaimed “experts” on race whose ideas seemed more like ex-cathedra definitions you had to accept without doubt. The Jamaican host was the only one engaging him in a pointless battle of wills. Nefarious triangulation was inevitable and you could sense that no one there wanted to be pulled into the fray. Being the new kid on the block and with only a broken English capacity, I was even more vulnerable. You guessed it, I became prey. “You are wrong,” he told the Jamaican lady. “And this brother here knows it. He knows he is black.” I felt the penetrating gaze of all eyes awaiting my reply. Taken off guard, I awkwardly blurted, “Yes, I am black.” The sad puppy look on my face soon found the Jamaican lady’s countenance, as if imploring, “Please, do not take away my plate!” Proud of his victory, the man ended his diatribes, to everyone’s relief, except mine.
Driving home, I was upset. The incident felt like an intellectual assault perpetrated by a bully and I let him get away with it. I thought how it embodied the received wisdom on black identity, filled with truisms, assumptions, and whimsical lines of demarcation. Even more importantly, I thought about how my intrinsic worth as a person faded behind a veneer of pretense about race in America. Even those who obliquely assented to the grand proclamation of blackness gave no real clue of what they really thought. They went with the flow, abiding by the authoritarian demarcation of authenticity they were expected never to cross. The shallow allure of race grabbed them and betrayed me and I was upset.
My book, Not Tragically Colored, is like starting that conversation again to rescue human dignity from the expansive, and yet shallow, sea of color. Making race the principle source of identity empowers those who offer the crudest and most simplistic explanations for the black experience and alienates all from realizing that we are unique and unrepeatable. Race is presented to us today as the great boundary, the atomistic identifier that places limits on our identity, rather than as one aspect of our deeper reality as persons made in the very image of God. We are being swallowed by race, we cannot breadth without it. From the ideology behind the slogan that race matters we have come to the inevitable end of that path, race is all that matters.
The old racialist orthodoxies propose only two alternatives, either blacks are inferior or, racism explains it all. From exclusion because of race we have moved to inclusion because of race while we miss the person in front of us. Racialism, the inordinate attention to and the erroneous placement of race within the understanding of the self, has become the great evil of our time.
Not Tragically Colored reminds us that men choose, not races. Human dignity resides in our being intelligent and free beings capable of determining our lives by our choices. “Action reveals the person,” wrote Karol Wojtyla. Our challenge is to assume with courage the difficult task of being persons. The very concept of race is no longer helpful, as it has taken over human identity and becoming a place to hide. We must transcend the boundaries of the label and cross the transcendent threshold of what philosopher Gabriel Marcel calls an “inner urgent need” to be fully human. That job is not transferable to entities, labels, or groups. The human person, not the racial group, has the task of participating in his own development and growth. Race consciousness and the priority of racial identity lure us into abdicating the responsibility of personhood, the responsibility of liberty.
I know the temptation well, because I succumbed to it on that long gone day at a pleasant gathering. The call is to affirm our individuality and our capacity to choose our path in life in spite of social pressures to conform. The task is to be free.
Ismael Hernandez is the Executive Director of the Freedom & Virtue Institute, a faith-based non-profit, working with churches and schools, aimed at teaching those in need to become self-sufficient. Ismael can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.