If culture, in its truest form, is our sense of identity, who we are, then to be stripped of it can be traumatizing to say the least. It’s one of those tertiary effects of slavery that doesn’t get a lot of play: it left a lot of people insecure about their blackness. I imagine this chiefly an issue for black Americans, because let me tell you, Jamaicans have no identity and pride issues. Ditto Africans.

I was surfing the Internet when I ran across a LiveJournal community for “oreos”. Made up of black folks insecure in their “blackness.” Their stories start to sound alike after a while. Some variation on “I grew up in the suburbs and ‘lost my way’”: My whole life I grew up in “white” settings–school, church, neighborhood. So I don’t sound or act black. What’s ironic is that white and Asian people who act black or ghetto give me just as much grief. (OR) I never seemed to fit in with anyone. In high school, I read a lot and listened to whatever music interested me. I had friends, but I wasn’t hung up on color. The black kids teased me a lot.

However, racial identity issues are not unique to black folks. I know “oreos” (black on the outside and white on the inside), “eggs” (white on the outside and “yellow” on the inside), and “bananas” (“yellow” on the outside and white on the inside). Maybe examining a kind of racial journey anecdotally found among American black folks might shed some light.

This journey of defining blackness was the basis for my first novel, Strange Fruit (still making the publishing rounds). This might seem like “too black” of a theme, but I think the idea of struggling with identity is a universal one. When I was in college, I ran across this article on the “Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience” (sometimes called Nigrescence, developed from the work of Dr. William E. Cross, Jr., author of Shades of Black, one of the most frequently referenced texts on Black identity). The stages of Nigrescence goes something like this:

Pre-Encounter Stage
In the first stage, individuals downplay the importance of race in their lives and focus more on their membership in other groups (e.g. religion, social class, sexual orientation). Some people in this stage consider race-based physical characteristics to play an insignificant role in their daily lives, while others see race only as a problem that is linked to issues of social discrimination, and even others have negative attitudes toward Blacks.

Ah, the “colorless” stage. It sounds like a good and reasonable stage to be at. A live and let live, non-judgment, “can’t we all just get along” sort of place. It sounds like something to be strived for not run from. The problem is the negation of cultural identity: my blackness, for example, is part of who I am. To reject, dismiss, ignore it is to do the same to part of me.

Encounter Stage
The second stage of the Nigrescence experience in which individuals encounter an experience that causes them to challenge their current feelings about themselves and their interpretation of the condition of Black people in America. The experience is often one in which individuals face a blatant racist event. However, there are other instances in which the experience is more positive. In any event, the Encounter experience is one that is so foreign to individuals’ previous worldview regarding race that it forces them to rethink their attitudes about race.

This is what I call “The Rodney King Memo” or the angry stage since this is the stage where there is the greatest danger of getting “stalled.” Few things can shatter a person like having their worldview collapse. The anger at the injustice and inequities can form a defensive armor.

In the third stage, individuals immerse themselves in Blackness and feel liberated from Whiteness; they have positive feelings toward everything associated with Black people and a negative view of those things associated with White people. Despite this immersion into all things Black, individuals have not psychologically committed to a Black identity.

I so clearly remember this stage. I wouldn’t do anything if it wasn’t black. I ate at black owned restaurants. Went to a black-owned dry-cleaner. Movies? “Yeah, I’ll check out a movie, but it’ll take a black one to move me.” I read a version of this article in the Black studies class that I enrolled in. Ironically, this phase comes with a spurt of creativity. I found this bit in my ad-hoc journal from the early 90s, as I went through this phase:

“Ours was a race that built great empires, civilizations, and culture. The only race to wander and conquer (in order to spread its self-declared superiority) is the white race. With slavery, they cut us off from our religion, culture, and language until we were the only race to have absolutely no identity. We couldn’t even keep our true family names. A collective tabula rasa upon which the white man imprinted history, his language, his culture and sense of aesthetic and his religion. Why are we so integration crazed?

“We were brainwashed into thinking white is good, black is bad–to hate ourselves and our color. We were taught to think that the lighter your skin color is, the better you are–in a society where the lighter you are the farther you can get. We were dubbed ‘the Negro’ and taught that our native Africa was peopled by heathen savages. We were raped, beaten, enslaved, worked, and tortured. We were kept ignorant and uneducated.

“We were taught to submit to and obey the white man by worshiping his alien (to us) white God (it’s amazing how God and Jesus are always depicted as white). In fact, never did white people spread Christ the way He did. Jesus spread his message in a meek and humble way. White people always spread his message with bloodshed.”

Obviously, still quite a bit of anger in this phase.

The fourth stage is described as a psychological change wherein individuals learn to balance their Blackness with the other demands of personhood (e.g. other group memberships).

It’s only at this stage that blackness starts to be defined, starts to become a part of the individual. I would guess that the anger and immersion of the previous phases were an over-reaction–the pendulum swinging so far the other way–due to where the person was when this started. Now, the pendulum is coming back to the middle; the person, however, is trying to figure out where that middle is.

The final stage of the Nigrescence model, in contrast to previous stages, this stage involves commitment to a plan of action, and individuals begin to live in accordance with the new self-image that they have developed.

Here, blackness takes on the dimension of praxis, theory accompanied by social action.

“Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not being.” –Paul Tillich

For the longest time, blackness was a state of non-being. People ask why black people make such a big deal of Black icons, black power mottos, even the high esteem in which Malcolm X is held. Because it is about reclaiming pride. Eschewing self-hatred. The whole “black and proud” recovery of our sense of pride, borders on a certain amount of culture worship. There are historical and societal reasons why we are where we are, victims of the holocaust known as slavery. Paradoxically, another unfortunate consequence of that human tragedy is that the idea of victimhood has also become part of our identity, popping up too often as excuses for why we can’t succeed.

Our neighborhoods feel less and less like communities devastated by drugs and crime, with our people imprisoned at a disproportionate rate because of this. Our teenage pregnancy rate has sky rocketed. Even as the effects of institutional racism lessen, as educational opportunities broaden. Victimization gave us a pass for a while, but after a while, blaming white folks isn’t enough. The deterioration in personal, familial, and communal responsibility and relations must be countered.

“What is needed is not integration but a sense of worth in being black, and only black people can teach that. Black consciousness is the key to the Black man’s emancipation from his distorted self-image.” –James Cone

Being black means being true to who you are. Black self-consciousness, black experience, it its totality of life and ideology. Transcends individuality in the name of communal survival. Well woo-hoo. So I know who I am, secure in what I am. Where does that leave me? I’m still not sure if I’m comfortable with this idea of blackness, if I want to carry this burden of race society feels so intent to foist on me. The thing is, it seems like I’m only now at a place to begin to relate to others within my community and without. However, history now stands in my way, as if I have to traverse a long winding path of past hurts and grievances before I can deal or be dealt with by other people groups as equals. Or, maybe the problem is that I am trying to deal with a modern problem through a modern paradigm trying to find a modern solution. Maybe that’s what we have to press beyond.