Friday, April 4, 2014

Speaking of Black Folk

I have no doubt that you’ve heard, at some time in your life, something like this: “Black people don’t do, say or think X,” where X is anything that can be done, said or thought. Claims of this form are made by many different people, and they’re so common in conversations by, about, and among Black folk, that they’re usually taken as Gospel. “Black people don’t skydive,” or, “Black people don’t listen to death metal,” or “Black people (all of them) believe God exists, and that church attendance is necessary for the good life.” Granted, you might not have heard these specific statements, but you no doubt, get my drift: when talking about the race—individual Black people taken collectively—there is a tendency of some (maybe most) speakers to generalize, universalize, stereotype and essentialize. (And yes, I did just the same thing in that sentence. But bear with me).

We all know how these conversations and comments sound, and even what they’re meant to describe. But do we really believe them? Do we take them “with a grain of salt”? Do we think such statements actually say something true, or point to something real, about the world and, specifically, the (Black) people in it? Whether you do or not, I want to suggest that when it comes to Black folk—whom I love and appreciate—we ought to be careful when engaging this conversation; specifically, the conversation about who is “really” or “authentically” Black.

“Come on son. Chill,” you might say. “It’s not that serious. I think we all know which statements about Black people are meant to be taken literally, figuratively, loosely or offensively.” Perhaps. I don’t doubt it. But it’s a curious thing, then—isn’t it?—that so many of us Black folk understand these nuances, yet harmful narratives and stereotypes persist and proliferate.[1] Growing up as a young Black student, for example, if you’re considered a nerd—because you read regularly, speak articulately, and earn good grades—that means you’re “acting white.” Really? But there’s a rich tradition of Black academic and scholastic achievement!

Why would one Black student tell another reading widely and speaking articulately is “acting white”? Are literacy and articulacy the sole property of white people? Are they all smart, well-read, and articulate? Are intelligence and critical thinking skills attainable only by white folk? And what does it say about Black folk “generally” when this insult is addressed by young Black students to other young Black students who want to learn, and strengthen their intellects? It turns out, wanting to read challenging texts, excel in math and science, and write clear prose, means you’re not really or authentically Black—you’re a sellout. The psychological damage of such messages—which one hopes are on the wane—requires no further comment.

Black people don’t play violin.” Why not? According to whom? Perhaps in one’s personal experience, one has never encountered a Black violinist. That’s fair enough. But to assume that no Black person plays the violin is a gratuitous claim—really, a non-sequitur. And even if it was empirically verifiable—hypothetically-speaking—that not a single Black person plays the violin, would that mean, then, that this is merely something Black people don’t do (because of lack of interest, or they haven’t received the requisite training, etc.)? Or, would this signify a skill of which Black folk are inherently incapable of attaining? There is a difference.

Please do not miss my point here. It is not that Black folk have actually declared, “Black people don’t play violin,” or, “Black people don’t skydive”—though it’s plausible you’ve heard a Black person state something similar. The point here is that Black people are not a monolith. There exist myriad things Black folk do and don’t do, say and don’t say, think and don’t think. We are not a universally-agreed group who cheer on the same sports teams, read the same novels, watch the same shows on television (some of us watch little to no television at all!), listen to the same music and so on. That’s just not who we are!—if I might be permitted, for that brief moment, to speak for all of us. Moment over.

And here it should be remembered—in all this talk by Black folk about Black folk—that Blackness is not circumscribed to Black folk in America. “Black” signifies certain histories and cultural experiences in the U.S., sure. Read more expansively, however, it encompasses a diaspora, which includes the cultures and traditions of the range of African-descended folk, from Haitians to Jamaicans to Nigerians and so on.[2]

According to a 2009 social research poll, most Black people (in America) are religious. Note, however, that not all of us are religious, or have been. Atheism and agnositicism are respectable positions one can hold regarding the question of God (and there are several others). Moreover, although non-believers (generally considered) constitute a (growing) minority, some Black people do identify as atheists and agnostics—whether or not Black believers agree, or understand why.

Similarly, some Black folk are—though we liberals, Democrats and leftists wonder why—conservative or Republican. In fact, some Black folk identify politically as Democrat, but hold social views scarcely distinguishable from conservatives! Go figure! Black people are complicated, and there are one-million-and-one views out there up for debate. We are truly a motely crew.

This can go on and on. The notion, however, is this: when thinking about, and especially discussing, Black folk, it is imperative to mind the dissent, diversity, and differences that obtain (and always have) in our community. Ours is, and should ever remain, a cultural (or racial) democracy. Of course, we are united in our shared interests, histories, and cultures, but we are different as well. We are young and old; LGBTQI and heterosexual; believers and non-believers; Democrats and Republicans; Capitalists and Socialists; American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, etc.; upper-middle class, working class and underclass; and so on. These nuances matter. And, for the most part (forgive my idealism), this is a beautiful thing.

Thus, in our conversations about us, we should never pass over this beautiful diversity in silence. There exists no warrant to police Blackness whereby some of us claim that only certain Black folk are “really” or “authentically” Black. Our depth and breadth as a people transcend such myopic provincialism and stale essentialism.

As Audre Lorde reminds us:

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. Our Dead Behind Us: Poems

 *And check out Black Public Media's Black Folk Don't series on YouTube.


[1] I do not mean that these, “harmful narratives and stereotypes persist and proliferate,” exclusively because we Black folk advance them. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, to be sure, all (many) of us have probably perpetuated—or indifferently abided—harmful stereotypes about Black folk at some point in our lives.

[2] The African diaspora is extremely vast. For more information, see I thank E. Rey for apprising me of this omission in an earlier draft of this piece.

You can follow the writer on twitter @__nolan_ 

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