by Etecia Brown
Lately I have been seeing images and hearing many people dialogue about what it means to be Black, African-American, etc. I find most disturbing the large amounts of people who argue against being identified as Black or African-American as if it's a carcinogenic disease.
And sure, people should be able to call themselves how they see fit. However, I think it is imperative that we as a community acknowledge the ways in which we shun blackness.
I grew up in Hunterspoint in San Francisco, a predominantly African-American neighborhood that is currently going through gentrification much like the rest of the country's inner city dwellings. Commonly in San Francisco when people ask where you're from the typical response includes the city where the person were born/raised or the specific neighborhood the person grew up in. Every now and then I have been asked (usually by foreigners) where I am from specifically, as if San Francisco is not a logical explanation. Further explaining my family's roots in New Orleans just frustrates the inquirer more because being from America in their mind didn't look like what they saw in front of them. Growing up I realized there were things that were understood by Black people about Black culture in my community. Even though it was the hood, it most definitely was a community. I would always gaze at the murals on my car rides home showcasing Black art. There were often times when the community came together to march about social justice issues, host events, and have social gatherings. I went to a predominantly "African-American" (sometimes I use this word because it sounds ?scholarly?) elementary school where the history curriculum covered only Black and Native American history (I knew nothing about Christopher Columbus). We frequented Native American retreat/cultural centers and attended museums and dance and arts workshops relating to African culture. Our teacher showed the class Eyes on the Prize in the 3rd grade. The entire school sung the "Black National Anthem" every morning before the first period bell rang. We were fully equipped with the tools to go out into the world and be Black! Blackness was a protest against the system of Whiteness that sought to oppress and marginalize all people of color. This Black identity was an identity of otherness that also included the few Middle Eastern, Samoan, Asian, and Latino kids at my elementary school. And the two White children who went to my school were also engrained with the 7 virtues of Maat and went out into their world standing on the side with the oppressed. Blackness was an environment socially and psychologically.
I self-describe as Black. For me its a political statement. I am proud, I am here, I am firm in my convictions. Occasionally in my writings or in an academic setting I use "African-American" to describe the people as a whole usually dependent on the context. My family is from San Francisco 4 generations deep. Before that they were from New Orleans. My grandmother did what little research she could and was able to trace our family back to the late 1800's but as most people now know there weren't accurate records kept of American slaves, so her research ended there. My family being from New Orleans, were many different shades of brown as the French were fans of seeing how many ways they could build a "nigger" (i.e. Quadroon, Octoroon, Griffe, Sacatra, Meamelouc, Metif, Quarteron, Sangmele, Mango). The different color classifications gave way to many Black people being "color struck" (as my grandma says)-- fixated with the idea of light skin. This colorism still continues to affect the way Black people get along today. In the media and especially on social media you see battles of light skin vs. dark skin, "good" hair vs. "nappy" hair. Many Black people today still use the word "fair" to describe light skin. The definition of fair is beautiful. This shunning of blackness is deeply imbedded in our everyday language and behavior. In part due to the vocal celebrities of mixed-raced background, such as Mariah Carey and Tiger Woods, the 90's and early 2000's was full of protests by "mixed-raced" persons who wanted to be recognized and identified as such. Many of my Black peers in high school would desperately try to fit in to this craze because they saw on TV, in magazines, and heard on the radio how a person of mixed-race was glorified, praised, considered "most beautiful", and closer to Whiteness-closer to "right". I recall many Black people during this time (and still today) bragging about being "1/16th Native American" or an "1/8th White". Being Black was no longer a good enough answer when someone asked you what your ethnicity was. Many boys in high school would ask me "what are you mixed with?" Then go on to say, "you don't act like a typical Black girl". Typical meaning-ugly, ghetto, loud, dirty, etc. Again, blackness was casted as something bad and shameful. Often I would hear Black people shamelessly admitting to seeking out non-Blacks to reproduce with purposely so they could have "pretty babies with good hair". Which begs the question-what does it mean to be mixed? Better yet, what does it mean to be Black? Most Black Americans are mixed anyway due to the breeding and systematic raping of slave women. Not to mention the many Maroon tribes that were formed with run-away slaves and the indigenous people of this land. To be Black American inherently means to be mixed. It baffles me when Black Americans fight against this fact-shunning the word "Black" because identifying as "mixed" sounds more exotic. Black people are longing to take off the Black mask so that they feel comfortable in a society that was not meant for them. Just as changing your name from Jose to Joe gets you a job. Unfortunately (for some), black skin is a life long job.
As I continued my education and moved on to schools that were less diverse I was able to see how Blackness and Whiteness was a dichotomy that played out globally. For example, in countries such as India and other parts of Southeast Asia and Africa bleaching cream is a number one commodity because dark skin is associated with something evil and undesirable. Furthermore, in the Caribbean, in countries like Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic there is systematic segregation based upon the color of a person's skin and texture of their hair. America was founded on the ideology that to be Black meant to be bad, wicked, dirty, a slave, poor, uneducated, etc. Blackness was defined physically to mean any person having one drop of African blood. Being Black or White was a determinant of how a person in this country would be treated and accepted. Many races fought legally for their right to be classified as White using the eugenics based pseudo science and "naturalization" laws of the time.The breeding of slaves to be various shades of black was a process created by slave owners to allocate different jobs to slaves as well as turn slaves against one another. However, no matter the gradient, these slaves were still made to be sure they knew they were Black. And Black would never be White. The word "Nigger" derives from the word Negro. Negro is how the Spanish colonizers referred to their African slaves, "negro" literally means black in Spanish. Many Blacks in this country fought for the freedoms to participate fully in society and be accepted as human beings with inalienable rights. Apart of this road to freedom also meant the telling of our history, the writing of our own stories, the creation of our own media and culture. "Niggers" became "Negro", later "Colored" then "Black". Shortly after it was decided by the powers that be that "African-American" is the politically correct terminology to describe a Black person.
As a side-note**The Spaniards also dealt in the slave trade of Africans in the Americas (West and South West U.S.,Central America, South America) as well as the Portuguese (Brazil), British (Canada/U.S.), and French (Canada/Louisiana). Many of my Latino friends refer to themselves as Spanish and fail to understand that they too are descendants of slaves. The religion they practice (Christianity) the language they speak (Spanish) is that of their colonizer. And their blood was systematically tainted by the gold struck conquistadors.
Not just Black Americans but Carribeans also resist Blackness. Many prefer to be identified specifically as whichever Carribean island they came from. Contrastingly, I never request to be called "American". The word American to me does not portray an accurate description of who I am today, what my history has been, and where my family comes from. Although I am absolutely unequivocally American in terms of nationality (citizenship, legal country of origin,etc.). It is clear that the stereotypes that are associated with the word "Black" is something that Black foreigners want nothing to do with, rightly so. Many of these stereotypes commonly perpetuated are negative. How do we stop the funneling of these negative stereotypes into these countries? Furthermore, many Caribbeans don't see themselves as descendants of slaves like Black Americans, but rather they see their "native" culture as Carribean and often omit the harsh reality that the slave trade played in their "home" island's existence. Similarly, many Africans prefer being identified by whichever country they came from and commonly get offended if someone refers to them as "Black"; again, because of the negative stereotypes associated with Blackness.
Many "foreigners" in this country want to be identified as the model minority- unassuming, studious, hard working, and most graciously assimilating to dominant culture (Whiteness).
Beautiful is Black. The medium is the massage. Blackness is something sacred and this must be a common notion in the homes of all people of color. Moreover, to be smart, eloquent, sophisticated, hard-working, independent, head-strong, and charismatic should not be associated with any color. In the words of Dr. King, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The Black community (all those descendant of the Diaspora) must begin to find the ways in which we are alike instead of dividing over our minor differences. Blackness, although a social construct, is very real in terms of how persons are treated by dominant (WASP) society. It is important that we hold up a mirror and remind ourselves how necessary, valuable, and beautiful we are on a daily basis. Your skin no matter the shade is not an apology. Say it loud!