“If there are thirty-five million Black Americans then there are thirty-five million ways to be Black. There are ten billion cultural artifacts of Blackness and if you add them up and put them in a pot and stew it, that’s what Black culture is. Not one of those things is more authentic than the other.” ~ Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now
What does it mean to be authentically Black? Is it submission to Black solidarity? Is it prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable Black American communities over other Black and non-Black demographics? Is it ignoring other key characteristics of the human experience, such as gender, class, sexual orientation, and mixed ethnicities? What is it, really? If Blackness truly is a gumbo of 35 million Black Americans, not even touching upon other nation groups that share African ancestry, is it even possible to define Black culture as something entirely unique, apart from having brown skin? And if it truly is this difficult to pinpoint a singular definition, why do we attach our personal identities to it?
I don’t have the answers. I am Black. I am also a woman. I grew up middle class. I am straight. My ancestors were slaves in this country. Prior to that, they resided in Ghana, and that’s as far as I can cite my roots. But I grew up American with minimal exclusive “African Diaspora” influence apart from good soul food, Kwanzaa, Black Greek organizations, church, soul music, and a family of HBCU graduates. I went to both private and public schools primarily with the children of middle class white Americans. In college, I sat next to Americans and international students representing a plethora racial backgrounds. And frankly, I’ve put up with what Touré calls the “self-appointed identity cops” questioning my Blackness all my life.
“You talk like a white girl.” Yes, I’ve been speaking in complete sentences since I was two. Both of my parents were heavily educated, had me reading before Kindergarten, and would correct my English with the swiftness if they ever caught me conjugating a word incorrectly. But last I checked, speaking proper English doesn’t erase my Blackness.
“You’re a rich little white girl.” Yes, my father was a lawyer and both my mother and stepmother were engineers. I was not rich, but we surely were privileged. Does Blackness conflict with being middle class?
“You think you’re better than regular Black folks because you’re light skin.” Yes, my skin is not that dark. I don’t consider myself light skin but if there are only two categories, dark and light, I guess I’d fall in the latter. Is my lighter skin problematic to my Black identity? I’ve grown up with a family that represents all shades of beautiful, and we all self-identify as Black. I don’t consider my lighter brown skin any better than a darker hue, and frankly, I can’t do much to change the opinions of other color-struck individuals beyond sharing my piece on why I love every tint of brown.
I’ve found myself defending my Black identity since childhood, not from white Americans but shielding myself from the insults of my “own.” Never once have I stopped and asked, “What am I defending?” What am I trying to prove? What makes any individual more “Black” than another? And thankfully, Touré brings all these questions to the forefront in his new book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now. At the crux, the cultural critic wants to end the criticism of Black Americans that choose careers in the “system,” such the joining the police force or judiciary. He wants the side-eyes to stop at Black Americans that choose to partner with non-Blacks; it’s not racial abandonment. He wants Black actors, like Viola Davis, to have the liberty to play a plethora of roles, including a maid in The Help, without hearing critics label her performance as a setback. Basically, he wants us to respect the “full potential of Black humanity,” in the numerous ways it arrives.
Harvard University Professor Randall Kennedy calls B.S. on Touré, and brings additional discussion points into the limelight. It’s not that Touré’s argument doesn’t contain certain merits but rather it doesn’t account for Black public figures, such as Clarence Thomas, and their consistent participation in “racial betrayal.” In a popular essay for The Root, Kennedy writes, “But what about an African American who expresses racial hatred for blacks? Or what about an African American who joins a legitimate black-uplift organization for the purpose of crippling it? Blacks (or anyone else) who do or say such things ought to be shunned as forcefully as possible in order to punish them, render them ineffective and dissuade others from following a similar course.”
Agreed and Kennedy makes additional excellent points in his essay. But truthfully both scholars are attempting to wrap their hands around the slippery meeting place of racial identity and racial solidarity. Blackness, first and foremost, is a shared racial background of African ancestry. That means that Clarence Thomas and Malcolm X sit next to each other under this definition, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. In contrast, Black solidarity is an ideology, primarily defined by its many leaders, and will never reach a single definition. A perfect example is South African Activist Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement in which a Black uplift agenda was set and truly, any individual, Black or non-Black, could support the agenda and thus label himself or herself as “Black.”
Racial identity and racial solidarity are separate entities that at times overlap. And the latter will always fail to include some demographic of the former so long as they both live. I’ve stopped defending my Blackness and “allegiance” with a singular Black community. The truth is that I feel connected to certain communities of Black people, and others I don’t. My sentiments are not strictly regulated by my other social identities, but rather the role that I’ve decided I want to play as a human in this world. I’ll always be Black and at times, I’ll be labeled as standing in “solidarity,” at others I won’t. Either way, I do feel my actions are contributing to that pot and stew that Touré mentions, hopefully empowering another Black individual to embrace their racial identity regardless of what anyone else has to say.
How do you define Black identity versus Black solidarity? Are the two terms interchangeable? Are they profoundly different? And how have the two impacted your personal identity? Speak on it!