What Black Culture IS… A Love Letter

First written September 2, 2014 by Nicole Young

Despite never having studied anything related to the African Diaspora, I am a proud member of the Africana Studies listserv at my alma mater.

I read every email because it makes me happy to know that there are ridiculously smart people in the world putting thought and rigorous research into the intricacies of Blackness, Black culture, and how the African diaspora interacts with the rest of the world. While I sometimes laugh at the minutia, such as “Holy Hungers: Food as Material Culture in African Diaspora Religions,” I am interested and excited to read new topics all the time.

In April, the literary kerfuffle between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait led to an amazing segment on Melissa Harris-Perry featuring Mr. Coates and Professor Brittney Cooper on the same panel (this pseudo-Africana nerd’s dream come true). There were a couple of amazing moments in their discussion of race, progress, and hope, but the ones that most stand out are when they talk in the affirmative about what Black culture is; listen for references to rigorous hope at about the 6 minute mark and later a discussion of The Dozens. These were refreshingly rare moments of praise and celebration of Black culture (not just music or dance) on national TV.

Outside of the academy, I’ve found that there is reluctance to define Black culture in America. The concern is that doing so will do two things: (1) alienate those who do not fit the mold of traditional Black culture; (2) reveal some sort of dark secret about Black culture that we would like to keep under wraps. After all, the worrisome part for many people is that being Black is not just middle class Black culture; low-income and working class folks also contribute to the multi-faceted prism of Blackness in America. And so, a reluctance to define our culture has left us an open target for those who would assert that Blackness is in fact the absence of culture or those who would conflate Black culture with poverty.

We are up in arms whenever Blackness is appropriated for white gain and rightfully so, but so much of how we define Blackness is reactionary. Black people are always telling the country and the world what Blackness is not instead of what it is. We are unwilling to name that which we own and in the vacuum that this silence leaves behind, people can ascribe whatever values they want to Blackness.

I’m not a huge hip-hop head, but for better or for worse, hip-hop is Black culture. And in the past 30 years, it seems that rap and hip-hop are the only things affirmatively and publicly associated with Blackness.

Black people created Hip-Hop, but we’ve created so many other things. We created gospel music and R&B. I remember the first time I had to explain Luther Vandross to a white friend. I was blown. Luther was so ubiquitous in my life and the lives of most of the people with whom I socialized, that it never occurred to me that everyone wouldn’t know exactly who I was talking about when I said “Lutha.” The moment I realized that this was a Black thing, I couldn’t help but be proud. Being Black, it turned out, was a positive experience that I did not share with everyone.

Call and response is Black culture. If you’ve ever been to a Black church, or just a movie theater with a 60% Black crowd, you know this. Sometimes it’s embarrassing but it’s also amazing. Ask any Black kid at the front of the room who forgot their lines or hit the wrong note on their solo. That child knows the comfort a “that’s alright, baby” from the back of the room brings.

The Dozens are Black culture. My mother and I were raised in two very different places. She spent her formative years in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn. Later, she and my father raised their children in the burbiest of suburbs, Virginia Beach. Our childhoods were worlds apart and yet one thing we are both acutely familiar with was the concept of playing The Dozens. The Dozens, for those who don’t know, begin somewhere around “Your mama’s so fat (dumb, etc)…” and end with the last verbal warrior standing. The whole experience is more than a playground thing (just ask Black Twitter); The Dozens is a battle of biting wit and a certain artful cutting down with a specific cultural flavor. I could write pages on The Dozens, but in the end, it’s a survival tactic in a world in which your mere existence can be called into question at any moment.

The large web of family is Black culture. I remember in 3rd grade when we had to draw a picture of our nuclear family. My nine year old self was appalled that the only people I could include were my mom, my dad, and myself. What about my cousins? My aunts? My grandparents? These people weren’t extra or “extended” family; they were my whole family with no qualifications. Of course, it would be insane to claim that every Black family feels the same, but I will say that in my life I’ve noticed that the bold lines with which many white people draw their family boundaries are often non-existent in the Black family.

And the list goes on: Black church culture, double syllable nicknames (how many Nic-nics and Man-mans do we all know), braids and outrageous hair color, and Black barber shops/beauty salons. I would never claim that my random list above is any way representative of the millions of Black lives and experiences that exist in America. Similarly, it would outrageous to claim that the caricatures of Greek families that exist in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” hold true in every Greek house in the country, but the point is that Black people do have a culture. We are not just the opposite of white culture. We are not just a reaction to the oppression that this country heaps upon us. Race is a completely social construct and yet its arbitrary boundaries force a group of people into a certain shared experience and the creation of a culture: in this case, Black culture in America. We are a people, a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional people with a beautiful culture and we should celebrate that.

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Collected Young Minds gave young minds a space to share their thoughts, engage with a community of peers, and gave voice to their views without censorship or prerequisites. This is a collection of essays written between 2013 and 2019 from various authors.

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Corey Ponder

Corey Ponder

Tech policy professional by day, wannabe superhero by night. Passionate about building communities, spaces, and platforms focused on inclusion and empathy.

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