Brother brother, sister sister
If you’re miss or if you’re mister
Listen please to this fact
Black is black is black is black
Lyrics from Black is Black by Jungle Bros (1988)
Let me be very clear. There are no degrees of blackness, no illegitimate black people, and no experiences, ideas, or actions which can strip one of their blackness. Regrettably, some recent criticisms of Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have once again highlighted the ugly, insulting, and damaging idea of there being legitimate, authentic, or ‘real’ black people. While others are designated phony perpetrators and deemed insufficiently ‘one of us’. Whether coming from people on the ideological left or right, we’ve seen these same despicable public attacks on prominent people like Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Wayne Brady, Donald Glover, Robert Griffith III, and many others for decades. However, we need to look closer at the negative consequences this ignorant mindset has for both ordinary people in the Black community and the nation.
“Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican.” — Ali Alexander @ali
I’ve been confronted my entire life, both from black and non-black people, by the stifling and crippling nature of silly and ever-shifting parameters of so-called ‘authentic’ blackness. Unfortunately, its ignorance isn’t the exclusive purview of any one race, ethnicity, educational level, or partisan identification. What is required, however, are small-minded and ignorant notions of black people’s experiences, and everyday lives.
As a child, other’s warped ideas of legitimate blackness were present both while living in a nearly all-black urban neighborhood, and later in a leafy, mostly white middle-class suburbs. I was physically attacked and bullied many times for behaviors deemed insufficiently black while living in a nearly all non-white city. Then after my family moved to a mostly white suburb, the strangling confines of authentic blackness continued. Once, when visiting the home of a white friend, he proudly introduced me to his parents as, “The whitest black guy I know.”
My sister and I were told we spoke ‘white’ by friends and family because our mother dared emphasize the importance of diction and vocabulary, the joy of reading, and the enjoyment of intellectual curiosity. Especially for me, a tall lanky black boy who was also unashamedly a Freddie Mercury loving, chess-playing, PBS watching, newspaper reading, Dr. Who fan, the questioning of my black legitimacy was always present.
In the minds of these and other self-anointed arbiters of blackness, to be genuinely black one must, among an endless and ever-changing list of requirements, be English speaking with bad diction and a limited vocabulary, not be middle class or from the suburbs, not be biracial or in an interracial relationship, be a direct descendants of Southern U.S. slavery, and be observantly religious. Anyone deviating from these and other stereotypes is deemed less than Black or suspiciously ‘quasi-black.’ It’s not only stupid, it’s insulting.
This imagined black ideal was never every African American’s reality and is increasingly less so as the community grows more diverse. Historically, they have always been people in America who were both proudly Black and educated, non-English speaking, multilingual, biracial, in interracial relationships, living outside of the American South, or many other similarly bogus measurements of blackness.
However, what’s worse than the insult of having your identity questioned by someone’s narrow perceptions is the psychological damage done to those people whose experiences or preferences fail to fit the mold. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who taught me not to narrowly define my blackness. However, many too many black people often feel they cannot proudly and fully be black while also embracing the non-stereotypical passions or other expressions of their individual uniqueness which bring them joy.
Let’s keep it simple. To be a Black American one simply needs to be an American who is a descendant from Africa. Blackness is not a socio-economic category, a way of walking or speaking, or one’s ability to dance. To believe so is to believe that race and class are synonymous and that poverty and ignorance are necessary components of black authenticity. This is not only untrue, it’s offensive.
These misconceptions are unfortunately present in the interactions Africans, African Americans, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Canadians, and Afro-Europeans have with each other. Once, I nearly pulled my hair out when I heard a young lady say, “I’m not black, I’m Jamaican”. For the ten of millions of us in the global African Diaspora, our various distinctions are not caused by innate differences for which we should look down on each other. But due simply to what language the slave ship’s captain spoke, where the slave ship dropped you off, and whether the slaver caught you at all.
Unfortunately, many centuries of racism and racial hierarchical ideas have made many blacks themselves limit the full spectrum of what they can be or achieve. It forces many of us to abandon our passions and individual identities, feeling that not doing so would so an abandonment of our connection to the black community and our black identity. Similarly, the limited constraints of legitimate blackness create those people who deny their community and say things like, “I’m just an American!” Many do this out of the misguided fear of being pigeonholed into the straitjacket of a narrow black identity.
You don’t have to abandon your nationality or ethnicity to be authentically black. You are no less black because you’re proudly American, British, Canadian, Caribbean, or Latinx. This kind of narrow thinking hurts the black community and the nation. We don’t know how many children don’t pursue their dreams of an ivy league education, becoming a doctor, an engineer, or a ballet dancer out of a misguided sense of diminishing their blackness. We must allow and even encourage all people to be full expressions of themselves without creating bifurcated identities from which they must choose. To not do so is to limit their full potential, stagnant their growth, and miss out on their complete contribution to themselves, their communities, and the nation.
About the Author:
Michael Jackson is a Housing Narrative Fellow & Communications Fellow at Community Change as well as a freelance editor and public policy/political writer living in New York City. He holds a B.A. in political science with a concentration in American Politics & Urban Studies from California State University, East Bay & was formerly a graduate fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Ph.D. program. You can follow him on Twitter at @blk_Intellect
Edited article originally published Sept.15th, 2019 by Community Change on Changewire.com