How do these images and longings for certain types of lives, mates and relationships get shaped? To whom do we look for examples and for approval? My point here is that Black angst over appearing freaky, weird, less-than, or too Black shape our decisions and the ways we treat each other. Perhaps—the logic goes—if I speak, act and embody the White middle class heterosexual standard, or at least closely approximate it, I will finally be accepted as levelly human, as worthy, employable and loved.
This is from a beautiful essay posted over at Racialicious titled Truth/Reconciliation: Morehouse on My Mind by Jafari Sinclaire Allen. Please read it; the author says so many important things about identity and the journey toward owning, living into and loving one’s identity while resisting those who would deny us our own truth – even those who occupy our supposed safe spaces.
There is much to mull over; however I am particularly struck by Allen’s description of the “black angst” that shapes our decisions and the way we treat each other.
The problem is said to be that many of us are too black. (Here I note that any marginalized group can fill in the blank of too “______ “- too brown, too gay, too female, too poor, too disabled… you get the picture. But for here I want to go with black.) We refuse to get rid of this blackness. Oh, we will try to tone it down, hide it, even denounce it when we see others being it – this black that is so offensive to this country, that, as Pat Buchanan has so charmingly put it; has been the best thing that has happened to black people.
But even if we refuse to own the blackness, or the whatever-ness, chances are high that sooner or later it will out. Some of us will bleach our skin, and straighten our hair and go under the knife so that our hips and thighs and noses and lips are not so offensively full. We will learn to modulate the tone of our voices and cultivate a manner of speaking that will make you wonder when you talk to us on the phone … so that we can get the job interview, but we know that when we show up the jig is up.
But some of us… some of us refuse to go along, either from the start, or eventually. Maybe it’s strategic, maybe we just don’t know better, maybe we just don’t care. We don’t talk right, we don’t dress right, we don’t live in the right neighborhoods, we don’t eat the right foods, we don’t go to the right churches – if we go to church at all. We don’t give our kids the right names. We refuse to let go of our blackness. It is in the way we walk and the way we laugh, the way we love and the way we die.
Too often the way we die is in a hail of bullets – like the one that killed Sean Bell over a year ago; the one for which, apparently, no one must answer. Because he was a black man. His death does not matter. Sometimes it is on the floor of a hospital waiting room.
I don’t want to understand that I live in a country that doesn’t like black people; but is willing to consider us if we are not too black. This is why certain ones like Oprah and Bill (Cosby) are held up as the standard against which all of us are judged.
But even Oprah is not safe.
What’s with the put-on “black” English when Oprah and Obama were addressing the crowds in South Carolina? Okay, Oprah is reaching back for her roots, but Obama??? Was he being black or was he being southern or was he just being phoney? He sure didn’t sound like the man I heard in Iowa.
She (and others) have been recently criticized for using ‘black’ English in front of black audiences – a little thing lots of people who cross cultural boundaries do called code switching. But it’s one of those things that makes mainstream America nervous. Black people who act like black people. Must not do.
When America found out that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama attends a church that bills itself as unapologetically Christian and unashamedly black – America – mainstream America, that is, went apoplectic. Unashamedly black? What madness is this? Of course blacks should be ashamed. Blackness is that which must be eradicated.
How do we break free? What needs to happen? Must we (whichever “we” you prefer) always carry the shield, the armor, the protection – or will there be a time, a place, a space to let down our guard so that the real work of changing this world can begin? Some think that this must be an individual work – that the task is to become thick skinned enough and skilled enough at being strong and doing your thing and not letting what others think of you get you down….but I don’t want to believe that. I don’t want to live into the American myth of rugged individualism. I want community. I want people to walk with me – allowing me to walk the way I walk. For you and me and all of us – as long as it doesn’t harm another – to walk the way we walk, and talk the way we talk, and inhabit the universe the way we do.
That should be good enough.