It’s usually threatened whenever there is a cultural milestone that you’ve failed to accomplish. Perhaps you’ve never seen the original Roots or have not fully memorized the entire catalog of Luther Vandross. When those around you discover this lapse in your black cultural conditioning, the threat is issued: “We’re going to revoke your black card.” That is, your inclusion in the collective black community is going to be rescinded.
Mine has been threatened for a number of reasons: I haven’t seen every episode of Good Times; I didn’t like hot sauce until I was in my mid-30s; I think John Singleton’s Baby Boy is an earnest yet overrated film—and those are the minor offenses. There are three main reasons why my black card has almost been revoked, and one reason it’ll never be taken away.
I see that she is talented. I recognize and respect her unique voice. Her music just comes off as so damn … old. The lush instrumentals and, in my eyes, excessive vocalizations rub me the wrong way. I don’t begrudge anyone who is a fan; it’s just not for me.
When listening to Anita Baker, I feel as if I should be wearing a leather baseball hat while rocking a velour sweatsuit and Stacy Adams shoes. I also feel the need to say things like, “What y’all young bucks know about this?” and comment on how a person wearing a finely tailored suit with matching shoes is “suited and booted” while I make my way to the driveway to play basketball in the aforementioned dress shoes. Y’all can have Baker. I validate her as a national treasure; I just don’t want to listen to her music.
I didn’t say “bad”—I said “overrated.” Look, if I want some fried chicken, more often than not I’m going to visit a local black church and buy one of their fried-chicken dinners. They sell them every other week, and it’ll probably come with green beans, mashed potatoes and a roll. If that fails, I’ll go to Popeyes. Not because it’s great—just because it’s there.
My theory about why Popeyes is so popular is simple: Black folks are able to get the flavor of hot sauce on decently seasoned chicken without actually having to put hot sauce on the chicken. Now, to be sure, there are many who still put hot sauce on Popeyes spicy chicken, but I hold to my hypothesis.
Hate-watching is defined as watching something for the sake of the enjoyment one derives from mocking or criticizing it. I’ve seen every single Tyler Perry movie (save for Madea’s Christmas—I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through that one), and I’ve hated every one except Daddy’s Little Girls—and that was only because of the all-consuming charisma of Idris Elba.
Perry’s films are not just bad; they are case studies in horrific filmmaking. He uses good actors, but he fails them with poor editing, bad scripts and one-dimensional characters. He is an auteur in the worst-possible way: His films are almost uniformly bad. His moralizing is also off-putting. One need only watch Temptation to see how this impulse hurts his filmmaking.
While my articulation of the above has often put my black card in danger, it has never successfully been taken away, for one simple reason:
Contrary to white supremacist narratives about what it means to be black, we, as a people, do not all like the same things. There are black comic book readers, like Deborah Whaley, who were once on the margins of black culture but are now in the mainstream. There is the Afropunk band Rough Francis, who took up the mantle of the underappreciated Detroit black proto-punk band Death. There is even the brilliant Chance the Rapper, who brings his nerdy, gospel-influenced sensibilities to bear upon postmodern hip-hop.
Blackness is no one thing. We are a complex, beautiful people. The next time someone tries to take away your black card, ask that person if he or she has read Frantz Fanon or W.E.B. Du Bois or Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright or Kiese Laymon, or if he or she has seen Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. You’ll discover that we all have cultural blind spots—or things about which we disagree. We should celebrate our variations instead of seeking uniformity … unless you don’t like Prince. Then we’ve got problems.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.