Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

Blackness Primer Revisited


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.

I am quite the fan of fried chicken and anybody who thinks I hate hip-hop might want to take a peek my book, All About the Beat, coming out later this year.


Ebonics, as I have written, is not "bad grammar."

And as to dancing, I remember how in college black parties were more about dancing than about excessive drinking. I thought that was good. Dancing is more central to black culture than to white culture; it is taught early and passed on. This is good. The book that gets this across most effectively that I am aware of is this one.


I sense that many respondents to what I wrote don't like the idea of being put in a box. Okay, but I did not intend it to be a complete listing of blackness. Nor did I intend that such a list could possibly be the totality of any individual human being.

Those traits would be, simply, the black traits about them, indications of their membership in black culture.


Yet I might add that I'm not sure why my list would necessarily be considered a "box." If all black people actually did, somehow, display all the listed traits, I would consider it wonderful.

However, all black people do not display all of these traits to an equal degree, and if there were a complete list of cultural black traits, again, black people would participate in them to differing degrees.


Many readers seem to think that I was reading black people out of being "really black" if they did not participate in all of these traits, or one or two of them. However, if it's important that we are wary of "stereotyping," it is equally important to be wary of binary thinking: It's not that one is either black or not; my very point was that it is a continuum.

Greater comfort with that continuum would mean that, for example, if Newark Mayor Cory Booker runs for president one day no one will be musing grimly about whether he is "black enough" because of his background.


As to the idea that cultural blackness is a matter of being aware of and dealing with white people perceptions of us, I'm not with it. That, to me, is too glum, to serve as a useful self-definition. More to the point is James Weldon Johnson's watch-cry: "I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell."

Right? Well then, it won't work to define blackness as how the police feel about you.


Johnson's autobiography is out in a fresh printing; it's worth a look to see someone's positive black identity in hideous times. There is nothing bizarre or un-intellectual, then, in my statement that Ebonics and chicken have something to do with being black. It is a simple statement about two utterly obvious features of the black American heritage, as are the other few features I tossed out.

The idea that there is anything "controversial" in my simple statement is based on, from what I see, a kind of evasion.Some people would like to evade a clear-eyed definition of what black American culture because they feel there is something to be ashamed about in Ebonics, fried chicken and dancing well. I dispute that.


Others evade a clear-eyed definition of black culture because they have been told that there is something wrong with them if they do not use Ebonics or cannot "bust a move." I dispute that as well. There is a such thing as black culture. There is nothing wrong with it. Some people are more culturally black than others, and there is nothing wrong with that either.

As such, my assertion that Michael Eric Dyson is blacker than me is neither a slam nor a statement of insecurity. It is a simple statement of fact (and, for the record, he and I get along just fine.)


The very fact that people see it as at all noteworthy for me to point out that simple fact is precisely what my piece was about.

John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of "Losing the Race."


John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. 

Share This Story

Get our newsletter