Blackness Primer Revisited

Writer John McWhorter defends fried chicken, dancing and Ebonics.

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My recent piece on a definition of blackness seems to have created some misunderstandings. Many seem to think that if all people of African descent do not exhibit a cultural trait, then there are no grounds for designating that trait "black."

Upon which I note: ostriches do not fly; bats do. Does this mean that we are "stereotyping" in making the generalization that birds fly?

Of course not. Most birds fly. My quick list of some traits that can be considered "black" was based on the same logic. That is: There are definable cultural characteristics and behaviors that link black people to one another culturally, and this complex of characteristics and behaviors can be designated "black culture." This particular complex of characteristics and behaviors does not describe Jewish people or Armenians. It describes black Americans.

Black English was created by black people; most black people speak it to some extent. If there were no black Americans there would be no Black English. It is a black cultural trait.

Christianity is a bedrock of cultural blackness. There are, of course, Black Muslims, but not as many as Christians. Barack Obama was counseled by black ministers that if he was to have credibility in the community where he was organizing, he would have to join a church. Their counsel would seem to suggest that Christianity plays a central role in black culture. Were they "stereotyping" black culture? Christianity played a central role in the Civil Rights movement: that is, the black people with most influence over the community were Christian ministers.

In the program to the original Broadway production of the musical Hairspray, six of the eleven black cast members thanked God (not Allah) for their success. One the 24 white cast members, only one did that. This was another indication that Christian faith plays a central role in black culture – unless for some reason white actors have a commitment to suppressing evidence of their faith in their program bios, which obviously they do not.

Or: in the film of Waiting to Exhale, there is a quick exterior sequence of the protagonists leaving church on Sunday, despite that the movie is not about religion. Think about how much less likely that shot would be in the latest film with people like Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, or Katie Holmes. If they were seen leaving church – especially four characters together – then the movie would likely be about the church in some way. In Waiting to Exhale, that sequence was a nice touch of authenticity – in that Christianity is part of the warp and woof of the culture.

Fried chicken is a part of black culture. It was created in the South, and black Americans once mostly lived in the South. Naturally, fried chicken would remain popular with black people. In addition, black people helped develop its seasoning, and ate it especially often because slaves were only allowed to keep chickens.

Its popularity lives on. Fried chicken is much more likely to be served at a black event than a white one outside of the South, and thank God for that. People offended to read that chicken has something to do with black culture are claiming that soul food is not black food. Excuse me?

Is there a certain shame in some of these traditions? I, for one, am ashamed of none of them.