What is blackness?

THIS PAST Saturday, my ultra-talented friend Tiffany Bacon had me on her Praise 103.9 FM radio show “Praise In The City.”

Though we usually talk politics or education, she surprised me this time by asking me a simple question: “What does it mean to be black?”

To me, this is the mother of all loaded questions, mostly because your answer depends upon what’s important to you, your personal definition of black culture, and what influences that definition.

[blocktext align=”right”]“What does it mean to be black?” To me, this is the mother of all loaded questions, mostly because your answer depends upon what’s important to you, your personal definition of black culture, and what influences that definition.[/blocktext]

That last one is the most important, in my opinion, because class, education levels, age, and family background often influence one’s definition of blackness.

At least that’s what I found out when I put the question on my Facebook page.

Some folks talked about things like music and movies (my “Black Card” is in constant jeopardy because I have yet to see one of the “Friday” movies). Others argued over the relevance of the question.

I had one friend who said blackness meant nothing, while another said it meant everything.

The person who said it meant nothing is in his 20s. Like most young people, he sees race is an old school concept. He comes from a generation whose relationships are multicultural and perceived to be colorblind.

The person who said it means everything was older, and had lived through some of the more overt racism of the past. He doubts that colorblindness is even possible.

Neither answer is surprising, because like I said, class, age and educational levels factor into our definitions of blackness, and those things are most likely influenced in some way by pop culture.

Pop Culture and “Blackness”

According to the folks at Nielsen, the company that calculates television ratings, black people watch more television than any group. Because the black community also carries $1 billion in purchasing power, it’s no surprise that ABC just handed Shonda Rhimes its entire Thursday night schedule. Her shows may not directly speak to blacks, but with stars like Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and the like, they certainly attract blacks t watch.

[blocktext align=”left”]From Washington’s Olivia Pope to the great, wide world of reality television, pop culture’s interpretation of blackness sometimes exposes a class and educational divide that we don’t want to see.[/blocktext]

From Washington’s Olivia Pope to the great, wide world of reality television, pop culture’s interpretation of blackness sometimes exposes a class and educational divide that we don’t want to see.

“Good Times” and “The Cosby Show” are two black family shows that illustrate what I mean.

“Good Times, produced by renowned TV hitmaker Norman Lear, was a spin-off of “Maude,” which featured Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) as Maude and Walter Finlay’s no-nonsense maid.

Florida lived in the projects with her husband, three children, and wisecracking best friend, Wilona. While the family stuck together through many tragedies (Florida’s screaming “Damn! Damn! Damn!” after James’s funeral has become a popular meme for frustrated Philadelphia Eagles fans), the Evans family seemed cursed. You kinda wondered why they never got out of the ghetto, no matter what good fortune came their way.

Still, you never missed an episode because you knew people like the Evans family—good, hardworking folks who seemed to know struggle on a first name basis.

But in 1984, television icon Bill Cosby decided to bring another black family to television, the Huxtables.

Clair and Cliff Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad and Cosby) were a lawyer and doctor who lived in a Brooklyn brownstone with their five kids, a host of extended family, and friends who sometimes included folks like Stevie Wonder, Lena Horne, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Since I was in college and didn’t really have too much time for television, I saw “The Cosby Show” as just another decent comedy. Clair and Cliff could have been my parents. I had cousins like the Huxtable kids. It was no big deal to me.

But for some folks, “The Cosby Show” wasn’t authentically “black” enough. I’d often hear people say, “I don’t know no black people that live like that!” It broke my heart every time.

And maybe that’s why the question: “What does it mean to be black?” is important.

Who defines “Blackness?”

When we’d rather buy into the perception of black people as written by a white man than the perception of us as written by a black man, we need to think about whose vision we’re allowing to rule the day.

I don’t say that because there aren’t hardworking black families that can’t catch a break in our communities. There are. I used to teach their kids.

I say that because when you allow someone who isn’t you to define who you are, you become a caricature. You become one-dimensional.

[blocktext align=”right”]When you allow someone who isn’t you to define who you are, you become a caricature. You become one-dimensional.[/blocktext]

Take reality television, for example. You have “Basketball Wives,” a show filled with women who are either divorced from, never married to, or jump-offs of basketball players. “Love and Hip Hop” features women who throw themselves at rappers in such a way that I’m surprised no one’s suffered a broken neck. Then you have the whole “Real Housewives” series. Please don’t make me define that.

I also invite you to hang out on Facebook when “Scandal” is on. The fact that Olivia Pope’s designer duds encase a strong woman who is also a hot mess is a source of consternation for black folks who believe that self-definition isn’t noble or pristine. It’s just bad.

Yet these same folks never miss an episode of any of the reality shows I’ve mentioned.

My head spins.

Still, it all goes back to generational definitions of blackness.

Age and “Blackness”

When Barack Obama became president in 2008, many younger folks, voted for him because they felt he represented a post-racial America.

In a way, that’s how I felt when I left Pemberton, N.J. in 1982 and went off to The Ohio State University. I had grown up in a predominately military, very multicultural set of circumstances and I thought that every place was like my hometown.

It wasn’t.

From that moment on I dreamed of a time when my color would be inconsequential.

It isn’t.

And if I’m honest with myself, I’m more comfortable with the American Salad than the American Melting Pot because the Melting Pot decides how I’m defined and mutes much of my flavor while the Salad allows me to bring all of my flavor to the party.

That’s why the question, “What does it mean to be black?” is still so important. There is much that we’ve brought to the Salad that is America, but we also have this nasty habit of allowing others to decide what parts of us are worthy of inclusion.

Because of this, deciding that it doesn’t matter is dangerous.

I hope my young friend realizes that someday. Perhaps my older friend can teach favicon 3

Featured Photo © Canstock Photo

denise clay 2Denise Clay is a journalist and adjunct professor. She is active in the National Association of Black Journalists and the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.


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Camari Ellis

Great Piece! It is definitely hard to narrow down what exactly “Blackness”, it might be better to ask what it isnt… But you would still be in the gray zone also.

Solomon Jones

That’s a good point, Camari. Here are the other questions I want answered where blackness is concerned. What is “acting white?” Like, seriously. I mean beyond obvious mimicry, what does that actually mean? Also, what is a race card? And if it exists, may I please have one? A brother needs a break.

gilberto gonzalez

What does it mean to be Black? From the outside looking in, Main
stream media tells me; to be black you must have a Set of Beat Head Sets; To be
Black you must have $250.00 sneakers, all blacks can rap, all blacks can play
basketball, all black men use the N word Etc.… These are some labels main streams
America uses to define what it is to be Black and then uses these labels to
sell its products. My best friend is black and he does not fit into any of
these labels that America uses to define him. My best friend has designed award-winning toys for Mattel, is an amazing artist, husband and father. He is African American but if I use the labels placed by America on him then I don’t know what the hell he is.

I just know that he is the godfather to my sons, I am the godfather to his daughters, he
is my brother, he is the only person that has been with me for 32 years and I
love him. He will also be the first to tell you he is proud of being an African American man and if you use the N word he will knock you teeth out.

Solomon Jones

Gilberto, your friend proves that we can’t trust what mainstream media tells us about African Americans, or any other group, for that matter. Mainstream media tends to define people using stereotypes in order to more quickly and easily tell complex stories. The problem with doing that is that the stories end up being based on falsehoods, and in the words of the old folks I grew up with, a half truth is a whole lie.