Monday, March 3, 2008

The Metamorphosis...of Blackness

As I have learned from traveling, both within the United States and abroad, my appearance means different things to different people. As does my self-identified title, (black) American. In some places, even my own backyard, I am mistaken for someone different, a member to an ethnic group or nationality to which I confess no allegiance or overt hereditary link. I have written about these cases of confusion before, often stumbling to find the words to explain myself out of sometimes testy situations with the inquirer wanting to hear something I honestly can't provide:

I’ve had to comfort people who seemed distraught about my racial background many a time. In fact, I have even come to accept this half declarative/half interrogative sentence as a common feature of conversation. I am so comfortable with it now that I have my own little phrase to use as a reply. When asked “what are you?” or when my racial background is challenged with a “but you don’t look . . .” or “but you can’t be 100%. . .” I am known to reply: “My family is black, white, and Native American—you know, the slavery era remix.”

While some find racial ambiguity a privilege, at times, it can be quite the conversational burden. Other times, it proves itself an obstacle during attempts at creating racial community cohesion. One doesn't have to look far to find examples of this split identity crisis. Take the case of Barack Obama, whose African-American-ness was put to the test on a daily basis at the early stages of his candidacy. Take a look at Halle Berry, whose announcement as the first black woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress was not without criticism, with many members of that black community wondering whether Hollywood was using Halle, a biracial woman, as a surrogate for an authentic black one, despite Berry herself identifying as black. Though the aforementioned examples are of biracial famous folks, I can look to my own friends and family for those who felt that they can "never quite fit" within the black community as a result of their skin color.

My mother, for example, serves to debunk many a stereotype of her elderly black patients, many of whom attest to initially not having trusted my mother because she has such light skin. Despite her having experienced segregation just as the rest of the black South, women and men who shared her "high yellow" complexion were caught in the middle--clearly not accepted by whites, but sometimes lacking the trust of darker blacks who feared their light-skinned counterparts would reap the benefits of white supremacy by being visual examples of slavery-era miscegenation. As my mother found, if anything, that evidence of old school race-mixing made her hated even more by whites, whose antebellum stories never included the rampant sexual assault of female slaves.

I also have friends who have expressed similar feelings of alientation from both white and black communities on account of their lighter skin tones, saying that they sometimes feel the need to overcompensate for their appearance by way of stereotypical behavior, activities, or styles of dress for fear of not being accepted by their black peers as a result of assumed character traits associated with lighter-skinned people (including, but not limited to, snobbishness, lack of authenticity in the black experience, and general shiftiness).

It doesn't take much to remind blacks (of any color) what their race means in a socio-political context. All we need to do is turn on the television or radio, pick up a newspaper, or relocate to be reminded that equality beyond laws can be little more than a figment of our imagination.

Though in reading pieces like K.A. Dilday's Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled "Go Back to Black," I wondered if settling on a more accurate or even inclusive moniker would help revive our fight for social recognition as equals now that the legal bit was technically covered by the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Could "black," minus the hyphened awkwardness of African-American or the extensive explanations of origin, be the most simple yet effective way to initiate this process? Dilday seems to think so:

It’s hard to understand why black Americans ever tried to use the term African-American to exclude people. The black American community’s social and political power derives from its inclusiveness. Everyone who identifies as black has traditionally been welcomed, no matter their skin color or date of arrival. In Britain, in contrast, dark-skinned people who trace their relatives to particular former colonies can be cliquish. Beyond the fact that blacks make up a smaller share of the population here, this regional identity may be a reason that the British black community isn’t as powerful a social and political force.

I’ve never minded not knowing who my ancestors are beyond a few generations. My partner is an Englishman whose family tree is the sort that professional genealogists post on the Internet because it can be traced back to the first king of England in the 11th century. To me, it’s more comforting to know that, through me, our children will be black, with all of the privileges and pains.

On Mr. Obama’s behalf, American blacks have set aside their exclusive label. Polls show that about 80 percent of blacks who have voted in the Democratic primaries have chosen him. And all of the black people in the mountains of Morocco, the poor suburbs of Paris, the little villages in Kenya and the streets of London are cheering Mr. Obama’s victories because they see him as one of their own.

Black Americans should honor that. It’s time to retire the term African-American and go back to black.

What do you think?

- Wendi Muse

1 comment:

Wayetu Moore said...

Growing up, I also struggled with identity and didn't embrace my bi-cultural background until college. As far as everyone was concerned, black or white, I was African-American with a traditional African name and foreign parents. In college my heritage was more closely dissected, forcing me to at times pick whether I was going to a Black Student Association or African Student Association meeting. I recognized that I was both, but strangely neither. When I called myself African-American, I felt as though my "blackness" (like Obama) was also getting questioned because of my family's history and absence from this country during the Civil Rights Movement. I was raised as an African-American; I am from a predominantly white town in Texas, I have been called nigger, I have been made to feel less worthy of life because of the color of my skin, and I subsequently found a pride in the stories and legacies of historical black leaders. I was ,however, never "black enough" because of the exoticism of my background. On the other side, when I called myself African-American, some of my African peers felt as though I was trying to hide my heritage and disclaim who I was. So what am I? Who are we? Black is accurate because it associates and recognizes a collective experience of people of color around the world. While African-American is what we've been taught is correct, it holds that we are less American than our white counterparts, who do not have a prefix.

However, what I deem correct in identifying myself is different than what even my sister may use. Race is more of a concept. The classification of race comes with the association with a particular experience.