What is Blackness?
Is it based on where you’re from? Is it based on your skin tone? Is it based on your heritage? Is it a lived experience? What is BLACKNESS?
As someone whose Blackness was questioned loudly because of a question asked about a Black American musician, I must ask. It brought to the surface whether I was qualified to speak on Black American culture, and it also had some folks wondering if my Blackness was enough. Chisos! In the words of R&B songstress Deborah Cox, “How did you get here? Nobody’s supposed to be here.”
I am Nigerian-born and American-bred, having been here since I was 9 years old. I am now 33. At 9, I knew nothing. I didn’t even know to define myself as Black because I was from a country where Black is the default so there’s no need to define it. It’s like going to a Catholic church; no one needs to say they’re Catholic. So coming to the U.S. was my first time having to deal with race. I had never heard about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, because at school in Nigeria, we were learning about the Biafran War and how the country got colonized by the British and just got its independence in 1960.
Moving to Chicago, a place I had visited once when I was too little to remember much, was jarring, because it was also my introduction to racial politics. Even so, the subject of slavery was barely taught in the elementary and high schools I went to. You know, we talked about Harriet Tubman, who is the Matron Saint of Freedom, but also a crutch for folks to gloss over the depth of the horrors she was fighting against. Of course, every Black History Month, we had to recite Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech.
It wasn’t til I got to college at the University of Illinois that I really got to explore and deeply research slavery and its impact on this country. My major was Psychology but I ended up having a Sociology minor cuz I elected to take so many classes around race and ethnicity in the United States. I wanted to know so much more. College was where I took a Black Women in the US class, and on the first day, the professor (who is also now my mentor) kicked it off by saying “I know you’re wondering why this Latina woman is teaching this class. I’m Black. I’m just light with freckles. And also, we’re having a test on Valentine’s Day, because I’m single.” Gosh I loved that class so much (shoutout to Dr. Millward). College was where I first read Assata Shakur’s biography and it left an indelible mark on me. College was where I got trained to be a Counseling Center Paraprofessional, and had to spend the first semester of the program exploring all parts of my identity and identifying my privilege. Before we could be peer counselors, we needed to be clear on who we were and the space we take up on the world.
College is also where I reclaimed my pride as a Nigerian. Being an immigrant in the United States as a young girl is difficult. Coming here with a strong accent, strange name and shock of being the new girl for the first time, I was extra OTHER. I, like many others, heard the “African Booty Scratcher” insults. When you’re young, being different is not a badge of honor you celebrate. I lost most of my accent by the time I started college by mimicking the way my classmates spoke, and I tucked away my first name to protect it from those who made it ugly. When I got to undergrad and saw West Africans being unapologetically themselves, it inspired me to do the same. I ended up as Vice President of the African Cultural Association.
College expanded my world, solidified my politics, and deepened my love of Black people and Blackness, in all its variety and layers.
I am Black. I am Nigerian. I am Yoruba. I am Chicagoan. I am Nigerian American. I am Black American.
So… when is our Blackness enough?
Is my Blackness exempt because I wasn’t born in the United States? Does that exclude me from being able to say I am Black American when my formative years have been in this country? Because if that is the case, then it is saying that I have to opt out of an entire culture that I have been a part of for most of my life. It is saying that I am not truly home even though I hold the passport. It says that even though it is something I am proud of, I cannot claim it simply because when I came into this world, my ancestors were not enslaved.
The double consciousness that WEB DuBois spoke of also speaks to a lot of us who are first generation Africans or Caribbean folks and just immigrants, in general. We have one foot on each place and we are told we aren’t enough of either thing we claim. Some of us aren’t African enough, but then we’re told we’re also not American enough because we happened to not be born here. Why is that?
So we are only supposed to opt in to certain parts of it, but not all? At the other end of a police officer’s gun, my Africanness does me no good. I am Black to the white. When Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by New York City cops, his native tongue, motherland or heritage did nothing to save him. Sure, we can talk about the privilege of having the anchor of a place where you know you are from, but that privilege does not protect us from the racist structure that wants us all to fail strictly because of our diasporic relation, and our skin.
We can talk about how police brutalize Black people, but we cannot have voice to talk about Black American music because that isn’t OUR culture? I think it is absurd. We can speak up loudly about how Black people are discriminated against but we should shut up about Black celebrities since we have no claim to them? That they are somehow in a glass case we have no access to. Oh ok.
I listen to 90s R&B and Hip Hop as much as I listen to Afrobeats. But me not liking mumble rap is not a commentary on the state of Black America. It is audacious to think that the moment we express opinions that aren’t favorable, it is because we are anti-Black American. It’s like me telling someone who says they don’t like Fela Kuti’s music that they hate Africans. We have to elevate our conversations beyond using the countries of our births as the basis for the opinions we form on each other.
More importantly, my pride in my Nigerianness does not insult my Black Americanness. I can say “Naija no dey carry last” as I raise my green white green flag. I also proudly yell Back Lives Matter as I wave my red black green one. Jollof is delicious but jambalaya is sweet too.
When told to “Go back to Africa,” it is another reminder that you can be othered and call somewhere home but still be told you don’t belong in it, by people who look like you. Where is home then?
Who is the authority on Blackness and Black culture?
Black American culture is so deep and has such breadth and impact that its markers are often part of the global conversation. I was watching A Diff’rent World from my living room in Nigeria because we had a satellite dish. When I was 7, me and my cousins put on a talent show that we charged our parents to come watch in the living room, where we wore our clothes backwards since we loved Kris Kross. Black culture is global, because I identified with those things not because they are American but because they were Black. I will not opt out of it. I cannot opt out. I’m staying, like Effie White. I do not call myself an expert. I am a forever student.
Some people believe that those of us who aren’t borne from a legacy of slavery have no place in the conversation because we aren’t directly tied to that particular type of struggle. So is Blackness earned through some sort of pain? Do I need to suffer in a specific way before laying claim to it?
If you were always middle class or upper, are you less Black?
If you are light-skinned and haven’t had issues related to dark-skinned discrimination, are you less Black?
If you’re an Afro-Latina, who was born in Puerto Rico, are you less Black?
If you do not have ancestors who were ever enslaved, are you less Black?
We often say that Black is not a monolith but then we question Blackness that doesn’t look like ours. We wonder if the person who grew up differently than us really loves Black people. Everyone isn’t Omarosa or Stacey Dash just because they have been privileged.
If we are couching our Blackness in the struggle, then what are we working for? If the purpose of our rocky roads isn’t to smooth out the path of those who come after us, what is the wn? WHEN ARE WE ENOUGH? When can we rest in our Blackness without having to justify or defend it to people who want to act like we’re in some competition for the authentic Black experience? Is our Blackness ever enough?
So how do we heal?
Four years ago, I talked about how fortunate I feel that I got to the United States when I did, at such a young age. Read: my post titled About the Relationship Between Africans and African Americans. I was able to be in spaces that allowed me to explore what Blackness meant, and it was a growing point. I was also able to see how Africans who are older get to be fed bullshit about African Americans. I talked about the word “Akata” and why I don’t use it, because it has derogatory origins. It is a word that means “wild animal” but many people who use it don’t realize it, participating in dehumanizing skinfolk without realizing it. The need for us to heal is real.
There is advantage in youth because a lot of folks in the older generation of Africans never had a chance to unlearn whatever stereotypes they might have heard about African Americans. Maybe we need to help our parents by sending them WhatsApp threads, because you know that is where all the African aunts and uncles park themselves day in day out. If I get one more mass prayer that has floral background from them, I might need to block them. Anyway, what I see as the job of those who are the bridge, because we are living in both worlds, is to educate and have the conversation around our tensions. We need to get to a place of true growth.
So Wakanda… Whenever?
Black Panther came out and we were all inspired and coming together. We were carrying Wakanda passports but it’s clear that we haven’t really absorbed some of what I consider its best lessons.
We need to heal. Wakanda, unlike most of Africa, escaped colonization, which is why it’s the utopia we all want to live in. But most of Africa, unlike Wakanda, has been pilfered of its natural resources by the colonizers, and doesn’t have the capacity to help. So when Africans come to the United States and excel, we gotta know it’s not just from our own doing. We didn’t pull ourselves up by bootstraps. Who do we think made those boots? The African Americans who have been here for 400 years, beaten, chained up and denigrated. Their legacy allows us to then cross the ocean, on our own volition, and do well. We are standing on their shoulders and we must not forget that.
Similarly, Africans cannot feel like we are always one step away from being told that we need to “go back to Africa,” especially not from our own. We already get that language from white people. We can all wear ankara or kente for a film premiere but we cannot return to fighting each other based on where we are from right after.
We can talk about Wakanda Forever every day but it doesn’t ring true if we continue to other each other. I keep thinking about what T’Challa said when he went to the United Nations. “Fools build barriers, the wise build bridges.” I don’t care where you’re born. This melanin means we’re kinfolk, even if it’s far down the line. But we’ve let the world tell us who we are. We’ve called each other names. We’ve let the world tell us that we’re on different teams. And we’ve let each other down by not fighting for each other.
For the conversation to be productive and for healing to happen, both sides have to be willing to get uncomfortable, own our roles, apologize for them and make amends to each other. We need to learn each others’ histories, because life ain’t been no crystal stair for either side. The legacy of colonization still ravages the homes of those of whose ancestors were not chained into ships. We’re victims of white supremacy, and that is what we need to defeat. We need to love up on each other and make white folks uncomfortable because they know how unstoppable we will be when we know we go together. Questioning each others’ rights to Blackness is hustling backwards. We gotta do better.
Like hip hop icon, and Blue Ivy’s Daddy, Jay-Z said: “Nobody wins when the family feuds.”