What's Your Tribe? (page 2)
"What is your tribe?" The question may sound strange if asked of a person in these United States, but given today's multi-ethnic world of racial conflict it seems to me quite appropriate.
My initial exposure to race and tribes came over 75 years ago when I was a child living in Monrovia, Liberia, the African nation founded in 1820 by "Free Slaves" from the U.S.. Being the son of a Black American diplomat gave me fascinating experiences in the "Dark Continent." My first Liberian friend was the son of an American Black woman and a male descendant of the original Black immigrants or so-called "Americo-Liberians." He later explained that there were 11 native tribes in the Monrovia area alone: the two indigenous Kpelle and Vai tribes and nine others -- Kru, Mendi, Bassa, Goia, Kranh, Lorma, Geesee, Mano and Gio. This early introduction led to my fascination with the source, definition, and nature of tribes.
My further education came with the 1937 movie "King Solomon's Mines" in which the African natives were depicted as ignorant, uncivilized, child-like savages with pierced noses, rings through their ears and wearing grass skirts – none of whom looked like the Africans that I recalled as a child. Nevertheless, I was proud of how Paul Robeson, playing a supporting tribal part, projected a manly dignity and intelligence despite his humiliating stereotypic role. Years later, when I learned that he was a Rutgers graduate, Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian, and a Columbia Law School alumnus who had passed the bar exam, followed by an outstanding theatrical and musical career, my admiration of Robeson's courage in surmounting such demeaning casting was raised even higher.
My third experience with race and tribes came when I was the first Black attending a graduate school of international affairs in segregated Washington, D.C. On one occasion my white classmates and I patronized a neighborhood restaurant where the owner questioned my ethnicity or race, asking, "What is he?" "I don't know what you mean," a classmate replied, "but I know he has a lot of Irish in him." On another occasion while touring the Capitol, I encountered a group of visiting Africans from the former French colony of Ivory Coast who did not speak English, so I decided to help them out in French. A nearby white person overhearing my translations asked me, "What tribe are you?" Because I was Black I must therefore belong to an African tribe.
It occurred to me that my questioner also belonged to a "tribe" — the "white Anglo-Saxon tribe," perhaps even a sub-group — the wealthy Eastern college educated. I concluded that people tend to differentiate themselves tribally by race, ethnicity, religion, education, income, speech, food, song, games, sports, dance, social customs – a tremendous range of measures that can be used to define and delineate a special group.
But these tribal differences have consequences. For example, when today's young Blacks wear baggy pants and jackets imitating the garb worn in prisons, they are distinguishing themselves from others who do not follow their urban "street fashion." But what does this fashion communicate to the "other tribes?" Is the message received that such Black youth glorify criminals and want to emulate them? Or another example about language. When the Black Rap music uses language that vilifies women and their own mothers as whores or record songs that promote a life of violence, does this convey the impression that the U.S. Black tribe admires such anti-social values?
There are , of course, negative tribal values in the white society as well. When racists fly the Confederate flag out of their home windows or stick flag decals on their pick-up trucks, the message comes across as bigoted tribal symbol of those who extol the pre-Lincoln South of slavery and not-so-secretly embrace anti-Black views. Similarly, those white elite tribes who paternalistically encourage special academic indulgence for Black students are disdainfully suggesting that Blacks are inherently and genetically less intelligent. Of course, when young Blacks claim that book learning and academic excellence is "acting white," they are validating the prejudice of tribal whites.
These reflections cause me to ponder a number of questions. Who determines tribal values and where do they come from? To what extent is a tribal identity or label forced upon us by others rather than our imposing it upon ourselves? Are all "tribal" differences positive or negative? Are the differences accurate or untrue — and in whose eyes? Even more important, how much of the escalating strife and clashes among "tribes" today is based upon these differences?
I end with another perplexing question. Current genome studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that the genomic DNA structure among different species of monkeys and apes is extremely varied, much more so than among humans. The genomic difference between any two humans on earth is only one-tenth of one percent, while that of Orangutan apes is ten times that of humans. If mankind is 99.9 per cent identical genetically, despite skin color, hair, height, eye color etc., why do we persist in maintaining our tribal customs that keep us so separate and create so much human conflict, violence and warfare? Hindus vs. Muslims in India. Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland. Hutus vs. Tutsis in Burundi. Whites killing a Black in Jasper, Texas and Blacks killing a Jew in Brooklyn, New York. The appalling, unending list is global.
So, what is our tribe – man or monkey?
Reprinted with the permission of the Journal of Urban Youth Culture.
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