What Does it Mean to be Black?

Queen Tiye

One of the topics that came up at the Soul Sistah Series “Manicures & Mimosas” event last Sunday was the question of what Blackness is. Oh it was so good!!! But it was also kind of troubling. We all know what it means to be defined by nationality. I never refer to people Latin descent by a racial category. And although Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are often referred to as the Yellow race, I never think of or make reference to anyone of those nationalities as a Yellow person. Haitians like my husband are categorically Black in America, but they define themselves among themselves primarily by their nationality the way that most Blacks of West Indian/Caribbean living in America do.

When the question was asked, “What is Black?” there was a lot of speculation, some very interesting self-made identities but nothing concrete, nothing definite.  And there was the silence of the question hanging in the air, which to me is not silence at all, but a total sense of disconnection to a part of oneself that has been denied on multiple levels for so long, first by Whites and then, quite often, by our own selves

When I think about all of the media that I believe has defined me from my earliest consciousness to now, the first thing I can identify that stands out as Black is music. My parents played Calypso, Socca, Reggae, Jazz, Funk, Pop, R&B which segued into my own love of Rap, Hip-Hop, Neo Soul, Rock and more. I got a sense of what it meant to be soulful, spiritual, rhythmic, loving, cool, funny, rebellious, and revolutionary from Black artists who were the foundation of soul and blues and Jazz (the only original “American” Art form) and passed it on to the next generation of Black artists. The origins of all popular music influence can easily be traced back to the continent. But for everything else, pride in self, a sense of connection to a tribe, ritual and culture that was inherently “Black” my mom had to get it in around all the usual white archetypal narratives that flood into our lives as Black people from further back than we can even remember.

If it were not for her being vigilant about finding children’s stories like Ashanti to ZuluAnansi The Spider, A Story A StoryCorduroyBringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, and the series of Golden Legacy comic books created to teach children about great Black inventors, explorers and pioneers,  trips to the museum to see ancient African and Egyptian Art, taking my brother and I to the Shrine of Ptah to learn the History of Khamit and more, what would we be left with?

Elvis, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume, Little House, The Waltons, White “His”story, All in the Family and well I could go on but you get the point. Not to say that I don’t love these shows and didn’t love reading those books or hearing that music but what does any of that stuff have to with my roots, with where I come from, with who I am in any way other than what basic human experience declares and which was an experience denied to my ancestors during slavery, post slavery and still is in many ways? What if anything, besides music, do I connect to that tells me what it means to be Black other than all the negative stereotypes put out by White media and internalized by us in the form of self-hatred, paranoia, shame and fragmentation?

Double consciousness is a trip. And for those of us who identify as Blacks in America with no clear definition of what that means, racial identity politics often consists of a series of the most unwanted, destructive and misunderstood associations ever.

Suppose you were told establishing stories and fairy tales as a child, which included the faces of those who looked like you and those stories were confirmed by the majority of the institutions, organizations, television shows, magazines, literature, etc.  that you came into contact with for the rest of your life. This would mean that an immense and bloody effort was made over the course of hundreds of years to this day, one you are barely even aware of, (unless you’re Tim Wise) to ensure that simply by default of your skin color, you would benefit from a privilege that anyone whose skin color has been categorically targeted as a threat could never experience. And you would learn in ways you are not aware of to deny and even prevent any effort to prove this and defend every campaign to uphold it.

I live in a country built on the backs of Black Slaves. The first and largest crops of these slaves were stolen from the continent of Africa. They were ripped from their soil, their culture, their identities, their language, the very foundation of their lives, brought in chains to a foreign land and eventually over generations and struggles for basic rights came to be known as Negros, as Coloreds, as Afro Americans, as Blacks. We have been named by the oppressor, reclaimed names that remind of us of a past we were cut off from, made up names for ourselves, reclaimed derogatory names and some of us have even tried to embrace an “American” identity. Are ancestors are not immigrants who made the decision to adopt names that would strategically erase their Italian, Polish, Armenian, Latin, Greek, etc. descent so that they and their next generations could come to fall under the racial category of White. There are records of these arrivals and records of their connections to their actual heritage and identity. The same is not so for Black Americans.

I for one occasionally experience a constant internal struggle with feeling too “Black” not “Black” enough,  having too White tendencies, adapting to different spaces and, conversations and discussions based on whatever part of me is called forth to be most present in order to communicate, negotiate and chameleon my way through life and always being a bit self conscious about the things I do feel comfortable with based on the interpreted connection to what could be considered inherently a part of me.

Yeah, a mess.

I got exposed to both Queen Tiye (luckily) and the White Cleopatra played by Elizabeth Taylor. But I was never exposed to discussions, Black versions, books, music or Literature to confirm Queen Tiye’s existence. Unless Black youth are trained to be critical thinkers, to do research and get beyond the blinders of lies so readily available in the standardization of Whiteness, it becomes second nature to think of oneself as second class without even being aware of it. On many levels the subconscious effects of this imbalance are still coursing through me. And it is only through the vigilance of spaces created by women and people of color to ensure that we don’t ever continue to marginalize or own history, beauty, brilliance and worth that the richness of our broad and multifaceted identities can be re-discovered, preserved, celebrated, loved, revered and passed on for generations.

Are you self proclaimed Black woman? What do you think it means to Black?

Does the answer come to you quickly? Do you need a moment to think about it?


Let us learn together.


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