Trying to define exactly what Black is has become increasingly difficult because the waters have become so muddied.
Unfortunately, stereotypes, such as “talking loudly” or “not being able to pay one’s bills,” have curiously become signifiers of “Blackness” that far too many celebrate as representing authentic “Black” culture. As a result, mediocrity, instead of excellence, has become associated with “blackness,” with some people even championing that mediocrity over excellence. “Blackness” itself is somehow a problem, with “slavery” and “civil rights” becoming the sum total of Black history.
While there is no denying that “slavery” and “civil rights” have greatly affected many aspects of Black life, these two historic realities, regardless of their lingering effects, are not the totality of our experience. This does not mean that claims of “acting white” are a manifestation of this either. Speaking personally, I’ve been just as maligned by proper Black people for being “too Black” as I have by others for so-called “acting white.”
The real solution lies not just in teaching our history and culture; for you can teach it but, if the students fundamentally do not love and embrace that history and culture, they just know facts. Sometimes those spewing the most evidence of Black pride are doing so to convince themselves that it and they are indeed great because, deep down, they just don’t believe it.
Even, with all the cruelness, bitterness and heartbreak that is definitely present in many of the circumstances of Black history and culture, there is still love as well as an impenetrable faith in spirituality and each other that too frequently gets dismissed from our teachings, even when we ourselves administer them.
Too often, the humanity that defines our core is missing in action and it’s not so much location-specific. Regardless of whether it’s on the African continent, in Brazil or these United States, that ever-abiding sense of humanity, the reaffirmation of life and love, has been consistent. It permeates and bleeds all over every period of Black history.
It is why “Black” can bind us together globally and why African-American, Afro-Brazilian or even Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda or “Brother” and “Folk” in my native Chicago can divide us. Far too often when we think of who we are, we think of the problems.
So every bad apple or assault even becomes representative of the group and so we speak of ourselves, and our boys and young men particularly, as if they were animals by promoting them as an “endangered” species but then raise hell when Hurricane Katrina victims are referred to as “refugees” instead of the “evacuees” they truly were. We can’t run with every slogan. We have to take a long, hard look at who we are as people. When you think of your family, your heritage and your culture, does it bring forth a sense of pride or shame?
Many people will hang their heads in shame because their ancestors were once sharecroppers or enslaved, which are man-determined positions, as if being a “master” is some prize or a position to be celebrated. No Black person in these United States should hang his or her head with shame if that’s their history; for it does not determine a person’s self-worth at all. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
Those people who flaunted their wealth, equating it with the numbers of slaves they owned or the many men and women, boys and girls, they ruled are the ones who were truly devoid of self-worth. They are the ones who were barbaric and sub-human. It’s their souls that truly needed saving. As Maya Angelou eloquently wrote and so many others have spoken, “You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
When I struggle to define the many things that Black most definitely is, no one word speaks louder to me than love. As I read the stories of unimaginable cruelty and marvel at the many unbelievable triumphs despite them, I can’t escape it. It is no accident that Dr. King, and the many before him, reasoned that love trumped hate.
So while, despite all my education and my never-ending pursuit of higher-learning of myself and the many who came before me, I can’t exactly enumerate all the things that Black is or even what Black ain’t. I do, however, know that it is powerful and, if fully embraced and practiced, like the circle, it cannot and will not be broken.
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