Who Gets to Be Black?

Black is neither monolithic nor beyond reproach when it comes to criticism.

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I don’t have to do nothing but eat, drink, stay black, and die.

Langston Hughes initially penned the phrase, while Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark famously paraphrased it in Lean on Me. Purportedly, Billie Holiday even uttered it during her first encounter with Maya Angelou. And while I might add “and pay taxes” (because the IRS is not here for play-play), the sentiment is clear: For those of us who claim “blackness” (and, perhaps, a few who’d rather not), it is a natural fact of our existence, as intrinsic and undeniable as any other aspect of our lives. Regardless of how it manifests itself, it is not up for debate. Our blackness simply is.

And yet, like clockwork, there is a disturbing pattern that repeats itself as predictably and pathologically as any “Stages of … ” flowchart ever diagrammed by Luvvie:

Stage 1: The next “Great Black Hope” appears in the form of a movement, politician, activist, entertainer, artistic endeavor, academic, sports figure, etc., etc., etc.

Stage 2: A collective buzz of anticipation and delight rises at the mere thought of an inspiring new offering for and by the black community.

Stage 3: We take to the “interwebs” and a litany of essays and think pieces are published (#SorryNotSorry), discussing and debating the merits of said offering. Some perspectives are better written, researched and argued than others, but all either laud, constructively critique or outright discredit the aforementioned “Great Black Hope.” Note: Anything but pure, unadulterated praise and support is met with reflexively clutched pearls—because our collective consciousness is dependent on our unanimous approval of all things black. Oh, wait …

Stage 4: The self-appointed Guardians of the (Black) Galaxy (ranging from well-known luminaries and anonymous armchair activists to outright trolls) swoop in to discredit and demean even the most benign naysayers, by any means necessary. Ignoring the fact that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (shoutout to the late, great Audre Lorde), traditionally European-American epithets like “coon,” “Uncle Tom” and “Negro bed wench” are often casually bandied about … ironically, in the spirit of maintaining a united black front against white supremacy.

Stage 5: Rinse and repeat.

This is not new. It’s a cycle at least as old as our history in America. In fact, it’s a dynamic that has plagued every major movement and black uprising in America’s brief history. Sadly, it birthed the exhaustive “crabs in a barrel” trope and persists today. (On that note: If getting ahead were as simple and base as denigrating others, wouldn’t your average internet troll already be comfortably out of the barrel? Just food for thought … now that I’m craving a crab boil.)

But while it may not be new, it is tired because although we currently occupy every stratum of society, those of us in black bodies are equally aware that no amount of privilege can inoculate us from racism or potential brutality. But if our ongoing fight for autonomy, freedom and respect for our humanity is entirely in relationship to white supremacy, black individuality runs a very real risk of becoming collateral damage in the process.

Because who gets to lay exclusive claim to “blackness”? Who owns it in its entirety, is qualified to define and validate it, and is entitled to police it … you know, “for the culture”?

By clinging to the notion that our power lies not in our collective consciousness and responsibility but in unanimous and unconditional agreement, we are effectively denying each other’s individuality and humanity, mirroring the world at large.

We praise Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee in protest, while our intraracial freedoms seem hypocritically on condition of our compliance. And yet, as musician Michael Franti once noted, “There are as many black experiences as there are black people.” With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we reconsider our rules of engagement:

We Are Not Obligated to Agree

“Blackness is not a monolith,” we repeatedly (and rightfully) proclaim—sometimes in the midst of degrading each other for our personal preferences, triggers and interpretations (a tendency on which we all need to check ourselves). But the fact is my black is not your black, which is not his black, which is not her black. Accordingly, one perspective isn’t inherently more valid than another. And, for the most part, that’s OK.

Criticism Is Not Condemnation

It is also not a boycott or a mandate. Criticism is an opinion and, at most, a suggestion. It’s also a useful tool for understanding how others perceive the world. Granted, the perceptions of others may or may not be of personal interest to you. But they can certainly be helpful in trying to frame an argument in terms that others can readily understand and possibly accept.

Discourse Is an Essential Component of Progress

Historically, our leaders and thinkers have been individuals who asked difficult questions, took unpopular stances and challenged the status quo, both physically and philosophically. And yet we persist in demanding that all resistance correlates with our own specific agendas and narratives. But if blind allegiance and unanimous consensus were required to prove one’s blackness, would we have had a Marcus, a Malcolm, a Martin or even a Nat Turner to make a biopic about, let alone exhaustively debate its merits?

Blackness Is Not Beyond Reproach

Beyond any doubt, we are one of the most historically oppressed groups in America. However, the ongoing wrongs perpetrated against us do not exempt us from criticism (or critical thinking), or from taking responsibility for any harm we may do to others.

Blackness Is Not a Mindset

If it were, Rachel Dolezal would qualify. Blackness is not a singular experience, opinion or consensus. It is not a particular dialect, skin tone, body type, hair texture, class, sexuality, religion, film or television show, or even a recipe (our highly discerning tastes in potato salad, sweet potato pie, and mac and cheese notwithstanding).

In fact, since the abolition of slavery, blackness as manifested in America is no longer a singular culture. It is a collection of tribes—appropriate, given our origins. If that is the case, to find your tribe is not to deny your blackness but to continually expand the definition of what blackness is.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m personally not willing to trade one oppression for another. I also will not apologize for the way in which my particular blackness manifests itself in the world. My blackness isn’t up for debate. It simply is—even if I do nothing but eat, drink, stay black and die.