“I’ve got so much trouble on my mind …”

I’ve been thinking through–actually, wrestling with–the idea of what it means to be black. This isn’t the first time that I’ve made several stabs at organizing some of my thoughts on the ideas of blackness, from looking at where we are now to examining where some of our ideas of blackness come from. Nor will it be the last time, especially since issues of race and identity are important themes in a lot of my fiction. This particular line of thought started with an off-hand remark made by a friend. They said that they don’t see color and it reminded me of how for a long time that was how I tried to see myself as “colorless”. The problem was that the rest of society didn’t get that memo and what I came to realize was that every time I stepped out of my front door, I was identified and treated primarily as a black man.

Attendant with the idea of blackness are the twin corollaries of the possibility of losing one’s blackness (racial apostasy?): “selling out” (which seems to have the derogatory connotations of becoming corporate, mainstream, educated/articulate, and integrated) and “keeping it real” (which in praxis seems to strive to be hard, poor, and too often dumb). Why? Because too often “blacker than thou” folks challenge my “blackness” as if my ghetto pass could be revoked. In a lot of ways, we have prided ourselves on identifying blackness with the idea of being ghetto. Just like at some point the idea of ghetto became the modern equivalent to field Negroes, and thus “real”. This is the stuff that frustrates me.

Identity politics has reared its head in a variety of ways in the last few years, much of it centering on African-Americans. Sometimes I have to wonder if much of it is designed to foment this idea of “us” vs. “them”. Designed not only to shape and define a people, but also to demand a certain kind of conformity from them – forcing its members to swear allegiance to their side. That probably has helped given rise to the idea that black people think alike. There is the illusion that we move as a block (since 80% of us vote Democratic. By the way, do you know what that gets us? Written off by the Republicans and taken for granted by the Democrats.)

Implicitly ties to identity politics is the yoke of community. A necessary and wanted yoke, but a yoke nonetheless. We bear the weight of community in our actions, with the ideas of it “takes a village”, solidarity, loyalty, authenticity as part of the package. Though I fear a loss of our sense of community with our buy in to American values such as individuality and consumerism. Still, does community equal race?

The dirty little secret of race relations is that race doesn’t exist. I hate to break it to people, but we’re just different complexions. The idea is a construct of the modern era, a by-product of the Enlightenment/Romantic thought, designed to separate, categorize, even prioritize people. Before the idea of race, we were divided by nationality, language, or families (because–being people and all–we have to keep creating things to divide us at all times). The difference between Blacks and whites were set up by people who wanted to remain in power.

The problem of race, or as W.E.B DuBois called it, “the Negro problem”, is an old one. Race is reified, treated as if it (objectively) exists independent historical, sociological, and cultural intentions. Race is the first lens through which black people view life. Blackness as essential to our definition of what makes us human and race is key to our identity formation. My issue is how the idea of race plays into the equation. Better yet, what is a race? Is it culture, history, creative expression, and/or a worldview. I feel like the philosopher who argued that we know things because we recognize their essence. It’s the idea of the essence of “blackness” that I’m trying to figure out. Is it the shared physical traits that identify the member within the group, i.e., skin color, a right of birth? Behavior? Dress? What is the priority: is it culture over skin color. History, the story that unites us? Is there such a thing as the black experience? Is there a black perspective? Exploring ontological blackness is sort of an existential look at what it means to be black.

So I do what any student of culture does when searching for answers: turn to television. Donald Bogle, in his seminal work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, identified those images of black people as presented in film. The popular face of (ontological) blackness is trying to be sold to us in the form of rap videos and culture. Turning on my MTV, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that I see a lot of bucks and hos pursuing bling. I don’t even buy into this idea of reclaiming negative epithets as an act of empowerment. It feeds self-hatred in my mind. Maybe I give rap videos too much credit for reflecting our values since I can’t seriously see sagging pants and gold chains as the face of blackness. Sadly, in too many ways, it’s like a contemporary version of blackface minstrelsy. And like the minstrel days of old, complaints arise when other cultures adopt the trappings of the entertainment/culture and threaten to co-opt it (thus testing the racists among us to come up with new epithets – I mean, come on, “wiggers”?).

I suspect that in order to come closer to the idea of race, one must examine what we mean by culture: a system of human practices that constitute society. Interconnected spheres of activity–this web of social interactions–encompassing: economics, politics, morals, religion, art, and language. [This reminds me: In college, I took a linguistics course where the professor wanted me–the lone black in the class–to speak on Black English Dialect. Luckily, her PC nature caused her to shake herself back to her senses. However, she went on to discuss “blackness” as defined linguistically: dropping ‘r’ or “g” or adding “ed” to perfectly fine past tense words. This doesn’t even begin to cover slang as a defining principle, amounting to a dividing wall of insider language designed to keep those not in the know locked outside of the culture.] Culture, in its truest form, is our sense of identity, who we are.

Add the weight of community to a unifying culture to help define race and that makes race identity the be all. “Blackness” subordinates internal differences so that everything is secondary to our racial identity. Do we need to press beyond this, strive for some sort of … cultural (or racial) transcendence?

That’s what I’m thinking through.