Black As Race-Based Fictive Kinship

According to a 1994 paper found in Journal Of Comparative Family Studies, fictive kinship served two purposes in US Black history. This study suggests that fictive kinship obligations “helped to socialize children into the slave community” as well as acting to “bind unrelated individuals to each other”. Now, this particular reference is in context of US Black children showing and being shown a particular reverence to US Black adults via titles typically utilized to delineate familial kinship and familial hierarchy.


There is an obviously practical (although still potentially dangerous when abused) reason for fictive kinship and fictive kinship obligations even at a solely racial level. I would extend this sentiment to include that it is most beneficial at a local level, and most insecure and manipulative where familiarity is more distant. Terms like “aunt” and “uncle” applied to neighbors, friends, and familiar parties regardless of physical proximity establishes a relationship of seniority (hierarchy; chain of command) coupled with an acknowledgment of affinity based on choice (fictive) as opposed to consanguinity.


I would like to note here that in same study, its authors explain how US Whytes used language of kinship to establish and reflect “the manifest status difference that existed between slaves and their owners”. This pattern of behavior seems to be residually reflected when some US Whytes refer to US Black Women as “sistaz” or half jokingly refer to US Black men as “brothas”. While in contemporary times, this usage may be more pop cultural mimicry or a superficial and annoying attempt at acculturation, when utilized in more scornful or even solely as a mechanism for racial nomenclature I find it necessary to highlight a possible historical trajectory.


Ultimately, my thesis here is that “race” should not be assumed to mean “family”. By whatever utility we seek to forge solidarity amongst US Blacks for a purpose of group social mobility, it must be well-connected nodes and not distant networks. These distant networks should not be imagined as distance of proximity, but distance of familiarity. Barrack Obama’s successes as a nonWhyte person do not advance me socio-economically. There is no reason why former President Obama and I should be referring to each other as “brothers” in a pragmatic sense that two lifelong friends sharing an obligation of protecting one another might call each other “brothers” or “cousins”. This particular form of kinship obligation is unbalanced and its value as social capital relies on Obama’s ability to manipulate me for his purposes, while I only receive a symbol token of shared membership.


Race as kinship should not be more valued than actual bond as kinship. There are possibly a number of reasons why a complete stranger would elevate no familiarity to a level of kinship, sure. I, unfortunately, cannot think of any reason outside of that complete stranger attempting to manipulate someone. Race as social capital tends to be one-sided, even for US Whytes despite this undergrad understanding of “Whyte Privilege”. Whatever advantages are to be found by membership of race are still determined mainly by a person’s personal network. Loosely tied group memberships do not hold more significance of value and stature than more closely knit ones no matter how cuddly our titles are.


This of course leads to me asking a question I have been asking through OWL’s Asylum for a better part of a decade: What does it mean to be “Black”? In relation to social capital and kinship obligations, what does being “Black” entail? What does it mean to be a member of this “Black” race? What necessary requirements exist to be a member or to maintain good standing as member of this “Black” race? Is there a charter for this “Black” race detailing responsibilities and duties for those members to hold other members accountable to? What rewards, privileges, and advantages do those maintaining good standing by demonstrating loyalty to members of this “Black” race stand to receive and how are these rewards meted out? Is there a “Black” race tax collected by membership to afford privileges for those outstanding in duty?


Many of these questions may be read as facetious, but there is an obvious danger in treating race as one would treat their family, church, or more formally organized grouping. There is nothing more than convenience suggesting that one member of this “Black” race be held to a set of obligations to strangers who also happen to be members of “Black” race. Choice, selection, and familiarity are key strengths of fictive kinship and its subsequent purposes as a tool of obligation and loyalty. Race works to negate all three of those qualities. Fictive kinship demands accountability and blatant acceptance of reciprocity regarding obligations analogous to ascribed familial titles and metaphoric relationships. Calling Joe Biden, “Uncle” Joe should imply a familiarity and obligation analogous to one assumed by a mother or father’s brother to their sibling’s child.


If race based obligations do not reciprocate at a level where race can be regarded as a support network as it stands, then those race based obligations should be questioned. That is to say, if basic expectations of kinship roles such as financial assistance in difficult times cannot be expected of members of a race, than any obligation borne of an assumption(presumption?) of kinship obligation based on two parties sharing membership in a race should be questioned and loyalties doubted. There has to be an articulated functional purpose for race designations at a personal, social, economic, financial, and political level not just at a supposedly “biological” one. Given our very specious understanding of “race” as a biological factor of genetic salience, we should hope that our fictive designations bear some reasoning of that practical sort.


The first time I remember hearing the phrase, “Blacks are not monolithic” was on one of those Black talk shows catering to the upper tenth. One of the guests was suggesting that he was not a “sellout” and that the rapper discussing selling drugs to other US Blacks was. In that framing, the phrase was used less to indicate the individuality of US Blacks, but to distinguish himself and his “kind of people” from other types of US Blacks. It was a subtle nod to US Black internecine classism and a form of colorism.


In the United States, due to the savagery, hostility, and mastery of war techniques(guns, germs and steel?), Whyte settlers and later government interests were given an extreme advantage militarily over all other racial segments here. This would be doubly so for their hierarchical force over US Blacks brought from Afrika as slaves. Even the freed Blacks would be constantly outmanned, and thus outpowered by their Whyte counterparts. Our genesis here in the Newfoundland was one of total powerlessness; even our most powerful had little influence and almost no might compared to those Whytes they would face to gain more.


Power in a network or social system has to be passed. Often, in order for it to be passed, it needs to be defined. As British colonial settlers began to accrue wealth, they also strengthened their bonds through various organizations. Ultimately, their ties to one another, their organizations, their networks culminated in the definition of a national entity with which they could represent themselves. The idea of a monolithic whole formed of diverse and powerful interests gave way to the establishment of the United States of America. Before they could separate and push away the British kingdom, they needed to be organized collectively as a large and impersonal political, corporate, or social structure regarded as intractably indivisible and uniform. In short, a monolith or at least a group acting monolithic due to size and physical possessions.


Now, it is difficult for me to describe a race as a monolith. Races stretch beyond national borders, and even continental ones. Further, there is no default social structure to race. Race is not nation. Race is not even family. The present day response to seeing what one assumes is a member of the same race is what is referred to as “fictive kinship”. It is the same sort of pattern of behavior that causes a neighbor of many years to be referred to as “auntie” or “uncle” by the children. This association of relationships can foster behaviors that would be strange if conveyed on, well, strangers. At a local(proximity and association-wise) this is healthy and helpful. However, at a distant level, especially one where class and status create hierarchal obstacles to proximity and association, this assumption of kinship can be dangerous. One drive that motivates me most to forge my conceptual framework, “Black Media Trust” is this manipulation of racial fictive kinship obligations.


A part of my study and my conceptualization of Black Media Trust is the misuse of US Blacks’s insecurity of lack of cohesive and static enough identity. I am not obligated as a US Black to support any other human simply because they are also Black. Just because someone discusses an inequality that greatly impacts US Blacks via their art does not mean I have to agree with their art if I do not. There is no US Black “hive mind” that allows us to share appreciation of the same cultural artifacts. There is no collective US Black financial institution that represents the economic visions of every living and recently lived US Black person.


I have psychological health needs. I have the need to preserve my lived perceptions and synthesis of such perceptions that form my internal “Me”. If presentations of US Blacks, or representations of US Blacks, that do not reflect my lived perceptions of reality, I have the eternal human right to not want to be associated with those renderings. Furthermore, if the appearance of US Blacks or Afrikans portraying US Blacks on screen does not add to my financial or social capital in a significantly tangible way, I do not wish to be obligated to support. I will not be obligated to support, or identify with such creations. There is no collective financial benefit when these transactions of cultural possessions are sold by these individuals and their stakeholders. Whatever sacral essence is to be distilled from banging beat, proverbial word play, and dexterous dance move it is removed once point of sale has met dried ink on contract. There is a danger in an unspoken contract that obligates one to fictive kinship rites without reciprocation, compromise, or a detailed description of how one avoids being stigmatized as pariah (such as being labeled “sellout”).


While I feel my own definitions of “sell out” are also growing lenient, I do also sense a deep annimosity towards anyone using fictive kinship racial obligations to exploit US Blacks. However the majority of the collective can persuade the rest of the body to define and identify with “Blackness”, will be what it will be. It would be nice, from my balcony looking onto the world, if those definitions did not work to force US Blacks into postures and roles as limited as I deem them to be presently. It would be nice to not have to consume the qualifying of purely human or even USAmerican styles being reflected from US Blacks as “Black” this or that. So one ever says Anerd for Asian “nerds”, or Merds, for Mexican ones. I do not see the accuracy in proclaiming one’s identity as “blerd”, when every grouping has their asocial and awkward participants. This need for US Blacks to pronounce their adoption of intellectual pursuits as the Black version of it is shortsighted and a residue of US Slavery conditioning US citizens to define Blacks as inferior intellectually.