Saturday, 15 October 2011 04:15

The Existential Reasons Why Black Folk Seek Prestige

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This paper began with an observation that black folk all over the world seem motivated by desire to seem important and prestigious in people's eyes. It says that this drive tends to make them self-centered and unable to care for social interests. Therefore, the drive for personal prestige is problematical. It tried to understand why black folk seem to have this arrested development, arrested at narcissistic level of being instead of the fully adult level of being that serves social good. It posited an existential explanation of the phenomenon. Its argument is that human beings perceive their lives as meaningless and purposeless and their selves as nothing important and refuse to accept those negative perceptions and instead struggle for their opposite hence struggles to seem special. Africans, it says, exaggerate what all human beings do perhaps because of circumstances that made them stuck at a more childish level of development. The paper hopes that black folk would eventually transcend their present tendency to be self-centered egotists and become social centered and self-actualizing human beings. It says that such transformation of the African character is necessary for Africa to be developed.Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs


By Ozodi Thomas Osuji

If you have been around Africans and African Americans for any length of time you probably have noticed that their lives are practically devoted to what seem infantile efforts to seem important; these people are obsessively and compulsively motivated to seem prestigious persons. They are title crazy and the moment they obtain, say, a doctorate degree they want to be called doctor and if they teach at colleges to be called professor. If they have any kind of high social status they want the whole world to know about it. They feel angry at you if you dared not recognize their presumed social importance, say, not call them by their empty titles.

What they are doing other human beings are also doing but in a less exaggerated manner. White folks and Asian folks do seek social importance and want to seem like they are very important persons but the trait is exaggerated in black folk.

Black folk go to ridiculous length trying to seem important in folk's eyes when clearly they are not. Consider black postal clerks and nurses (both working class folk) driving around in Mercedes Benz cars, dressing in expensive suits and generally appearing as if they are persons of high social worth. These nothings pretending to be very important persons initially seemed hilarious to me and I laughed at them. But later I began trying to understand why these folks would not lighten up, relax and smell the roses rather than appear all stuffy, high and mighty. What is it with these folks; what makes them pretend to be what they are not, important?

Why would a human being reject his actual self and invent another self, an alternative self that he believes is socially important and pretend to be it? Clearly, black folk reject their actual black selves and invent imaginary important selves and pretend to be the alternative ideal selves. To reject ones actual self is to be ashamed of one's actual self. To pretend to be another self is to believe that the imaginary self, a mentally and socially constructed self, is better than the actual self. It would seem that black folk hate their actual black selves and use their minds to construct ideal selves and pretend to be them? If that is the case why do they hate and reject their actual selves and pretend to be fictive perfect selves?

In an effort to understand this phenomenon I looked at the sociological and psychological literature. Many black scholars have actually looked at the phenomenon in some detail. In his classic book, the Negro Middle Class, the Negro sociologist, Franklyn Frazier, pointed out how black middle class folks act like they are god almighty himself, how they bought flashy cars that made them seem very important, wore expensive suits and generally presented themselves as persons of high social status. He observed that on their jobs that they are very unproductive. Generally, white folks work hard and obtain high social status from the competences they show on their jobs. But a black professor, for example, would not do the required research and publish and would by anyone's standards be mediocre and yet pretend to be the mightiest thing that happened to academia; he certainly wants every person in his mediocre world to call him a professor. A white professor, on the other hand, most likely dresses very simply, may be in a khaki pant and white shirt but seldom appears like a high and mighty person; he drives around in cheap cars and lives in simple working class houses and or apartments; he devotes his time to doing research and writing and publishing for he derives worth from the competence he exhibits in his work. Black professors dress in expensive clothes and live conspicuously luxurious life styles that their meager salaries seldom can afford. (In Nigeria they resort to taking bribes from students to admit them to their largely mediocre colleges and pass them in examinations etc. to be able to live as high and mighty instead of the poor monks, scholars that academics are supposed to be.) Why do they do this sort of thing?

Frazier and other sociologists and social psychologists speculated on the reasons why black folk do this sort of thing. Their thesis is that slavery and colonialism reduced black folk to social nothingness. A people whose social worth is destroyed are said to be stuck at a level of development where they seek social worth. (See: Karon, The Negro Personality; Thomas Pettigrew, A Profile of the Negro American; Albert Meme, The Colonizer and the Colonized; Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask; Omanini, Prospero and Caliban, the Psychology of the Colonized African etc.)

Abraham Maslow had postulated a hierarchy of needs that he said human beings have: physiological, security, social acceptance, self-esteem and self-actualization. He said that it is only when lower order needs are satisfied that higher order needs are pursued. For example, one must first eat food and survive to seek safety. When both food and safety are met one seeks social acceptance. When those are met one seeks high self-esteem and finally when the four lower order needs are met one seeks self-actualization; that is, one wants to know who one is and does what is in accord with it. But until lower order needs are met one does not seek higher order needs.

In Maslow's categories, it is possible to say that black folks were denied social worth and they are stuck where they are seeking social worth hence their tendency to do things that would make them seem important in society's eyes. Black folks are seeking social importance because they were denied social importance by white folk (slavery and colonialism).

Initially, such sociological explanation seemed sufficient until I broke away from academic sociology and psychology and did my own thinking. I developed my own pattern of explaining phenomena that is not beholden to this or that academic discipline. I have an existential approach to human beings and will use that perspective to explain black folk's seeking of social attention to the point of neglecting working on behalf of their people.

If the reader is not informed on existentialism I suggest that he familiarize himself with the writings of Camus, Sartre, Jasper, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and other writers generally deemed to have an existential perspective on human beings. I am not going to review the literature here but would borrow from existentialism as I see fit to make my point.

Existentialism is based on clear eyed perception of the human condition, a perception not colored by our imaginary sense of specialness. If you have eyes to see you must have noticed a few things about human beings. We eat other animals and vegetables to stay alive. Our bodies are made of the various elements (oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron etc.). We obtain these elements from the food we eat. We live for, say, one hundred years and then die. When we die our bodies decay and continue to exist as parts of the various elements that had made them up.

Each element is a different arrangement of particles in the atom. The atom is composed of a nucleus, which is composed of protons and neutrons, circled by electrons; different elements have different numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons in their atoms. When our bodies die the atoms decay into the various protons, neutrons and electrons. Those, in turn, decay into their constituent parts, such as quarks and photons. Ultimately, what was the human body returns to photons, the original source of matter (according to the Big Bang hypothesis on the origin of the universe something came out of nowhere, became extremely hot and produced light, photons, that in the first nanosecond of its existence transmuted into quarks and quarks into protons and neutrons and in time those transformed themselves into atoms of hydrogen, helium and eventually the other 100 or so naturally occurring elements in the universe etc...scientists have produced other elements that exist briefly and die out).

Put differently, what we call our bodies is temporary arrangement of atoms and elements that in time return to their kind in nature. Ultimately, matter came from nothing. As the Big Bang hypothesis on the origin of the universe has it, out of nowhere and nothing something appeared, something the size of a sub atomic particle and that something became extremely hot and exploded and the explosion created matter and energy, space and time. For our present purpose, we came from nothingness and will eventually return to nothingness. Thus, existentially we are nothing!

Pure reason shows us that our lives have no intrinsic meaning, purpose and point to them.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176