Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Soul of Black Consumerism

Article first published as The Soul of Black Consumerism on Blogcritics.

Jayne Dirt over at the Clutch Mag Online has raised a question worth pondering during these waning days of Black History Month: "Is Hip-Hop to blame for the rampant consumerism among Black Folk?"

Dirt contemplates the apparent disconnect between the glorification of consumption in the musical discourse of artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West and the economic reality of most of their fans:

"These hip-hop songs boasting of all the material items they have accumulated, and the fabulous gold-plated, diamond-encrusted lives they live is [sic] a bit passé. Unfortunately, Americans (and specifically black folks) are the ultimate consumers and eat up every word of this mess up, dying to buy new Louis Vuitton bags (or sneakers), when they receive government assistance, or live a paycheck above the poverty line."

Given the extraordinary power that music has to influence human thought, feeling, and behavior, this is a fair question to ask. I'll leave it to others more informed about Hip-Hop to debate Dirt's assertions. What I've been thinking about lately are the psycho-spiritual motivations behind consumerism in Black America.

I believe that the feverish pursuit of material things that we witness among Black folk is a racialized expression of the consumerism afflicting Americans generally. For Black Americans, our economic behavior is a reflection of the collision of internalized materialism and internalized racism. Acquiring material things matters because we associate these things (consciously or not) with the power traditionally possessed by White Americans.

Acquiring them has not only practical value, but psychological value as a counter to our feelings of racial inferiority. We need to acquire more and more in order to quiet that nagging sense that no matter how much we have, we are never quite fully human beings. This is why you will witness even Black folk of means self-destruct either through disastrous financial decisions, or self-medicating their self-doubt (i.e. Whitney Houston).

Given our history this is hardly surprising. That a people who were long considered property should come to believe their salvation lay in amassing it is but one indication of the psychic toll of slavery. As such, the antics of a Jay-Z or Kanye West can be understood as reflecting a psyche still held in captivity to materialist conceptualizations of Black identity. It is art imitating life, or perhaps more accurately, art imitating death, the death of human nobility due to the insanity of White supremacy.

If this analysis is valid, it speaks to the urgency of recognizing the ideology of materialism and its bastard offspring, consumerism, as being just as deadly to Black Americans as racism. The need is urgent for consultation on how to resist the internalized materialist-racial inferiority that has claimed too many of our people.

This must involve more than criticizing the cultural apostles of materialism whether in the entertainment industry or otherwise, necessary as that critique is. A radical re-centering of the soul in our lives is required, understanding that our identity is fundamentally spiritual, and beginning to think, feel, and act based on that reality. As 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, has explained:

"For man two wings are necessary. One wing is physical power and material civilization; the other is spiritual power and divine civilization. With one wing only, flight is impossible. Two wings are essential. Therefore, no matter how much material civilization advances, it cannot attain to perfection except through the uplift of spiritual civilization. All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found the spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism."

Image courtesy of Wikimedia. This image was originally posted to Flickr by PlatoArt at