by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson
The Talented Ms. Muse asked “What is Blackness?” on Monday.
I still haven’t been able to think of an answer.
I have a black experience.
[Note: that is a black experience, not the black experience.]
I grew up educated in classic black literature. Most of my early books were from the Afrobets series. My mother was so adamant that I would escape the taint of ingrained white supremacy that lurks in the American social consciousness that she went to the opposite extreme. I learned to reject Aryan beauty ideals. I learned to hold a deep seated mistrust for white people, even growing up in the late 1980s in a predominantly white suburb. I became so accustomed to seeing everything reflected through an African American perspective. Most of my books were by black authors. If I watched television, it was normally something on Howard University television. I went to African-American expos and black family reunions. One Christmas, I remember my mother putting foundation on a Santa Claus ornament, literally painting his face black. I remember feeling a strong sense of pride at being born black.
Then, thirteen years into my black experience, I was called a racist by another black friend, and spent my teen years reevaluating how I viewed the world. I decided to try things that were outside of the generally accepted norms of black society, rebelling against my hip-hop household with rock and roll, adopting different styles, taking the time to learn about the struggles of other cultures, and a different set of friends.
At sixteen, I finally learned to ignore groupthink and just be myself. I came to the conclusion that blackness cannot be quantified in simple actions or the way words are spoken. As a result, over the last few years, I have learned to challenge and release some of the notions I held about interracial dating, about white people in general, and about the preconceived notions of what makes a person authentically black.
My friends also have their own stories of blackness. One is an African-American, in the process of converting to Judaism, who has found a synagogue that will embrace his sexual orientation, and spends his time traveling the globe.
I have another friend who has become accustomed to being the only black girl at the indie rock show, who finds as much style inspiration in Marilyn Manson as she does as Marilyn Monroe.
One friend self-identifies as black, even though she is technically mixed. While she feels more comfortable with her African-American heritage, she constantly battles misconceptions about her attitude and outlook – with light skin, long hair, and green eyes, she has seen the worst of our internal color wars.
A fourth friend does not identify as African-American – yet, because of the pigmentation of her skin, she is often tagged with the label. A fifth friend embraces his African-American heritage, but is constantly challenged about his blackness because he tends to date white women.
These are all stories that involve living while black – but do those experiences come close to defining blackness?
While I have become quite comfortable in my skin, and love hanging with my band of “one black” (or Latino or Asian) kids, I still have not uncovered the answer to Wendi’s question, which I first asked myself at thirteen:
What does it mean to be black?
At first, I believed in the stereotypical norms of being black, becoming painfully aware that they did not reflect my reality in the slightest.
Later, as I let go of society’s collective opinion about what it means to be black, I began to think being black only meant having a solid grasp of history and collective responsibility to the community. While I like that answer the most, it is not entirely true – there are many blacks who are willfully ignorant of their history, or devoid of a sense of collective responsibility. In the eyes of society, that does not make them any less black. So scratch that theory.
Then, I thought being black was an immutable given, as determined by your ethnic background – but that answer falls short on so many different levels.
I would like to say that being black is simply to claim blackness, but that is not quite true either. Does being black refer to specific hardships? Specific actions? Maintaining a certain kind of hairstyle? Being able to freestyle on command? Making sure your Melanin Quotient (MQ) stays in the high 90s?
What makes blackness so hard to define is that it implies there is a specific black experience that can be used as a reference. However, there is no specific black experience – there are many different stories that may overlap and interweave, but no definitive black experience.
No one is issued a “how to be black” handbook at birth – and I am sure if we were, half of us would spend our time rebelling against the guidelines in the book.
So, what is blackness?
I’m not sure there will ever be an answer to that question.
In the meantime, I’ll just continue being unapologetically myself.
Maybe I can reshape the idea of blackness into something that is reflective of my own experience.