“One of the ways that I think that the civil rights movement . . . weakened itself was by enforcing a single way of being black — being authentically black,” Obama said.
“And, as a consequence, there were a whole bunch of young black people — and I fell prey to this for a time when I was a teenager — who thought that if you were really ‘down’ you had to be a certain way. And oftentimes that was anti-something. You defined yourself by being against things as opposed to what you were for. And I think now young people realize, you know what, being African American can mean a whole range of things. There’s a whole bunch of possibilities out there for how you want to live your life, what values you want to express, who you choose to interact with.”
— A quote from President Obama from Eugene Robinson’s column (via Richard Prince’s Journalisms)
I once wrote a column called “The Sell-Out” where I used the metaphor of slave liberator Harriet Tubman’s gun being pointed at anyone who dared to get off the trail of the Underground Railroad and risk everyone’s lives and freedom in their cowardice. I wrote that while maintaining a semblance of unity in Black America is no longer a life or death proposition, we still have Harriet’s gun pointed at one another, prepared the shoot the minute someone is perceived to get out of line. That we are pressured to walk a particular route as African Americans and never waver from it.
This is a self-imposed, community-imposed way that is largely superficial now and often does more harm than good. The biggest limitations come in the forms of what are considering things black people can and can’t do which often keep people from advancing or being more well-rounded or just being themselves.
I stopped listening to the people who had their guns pointed at me, shouting “Conform or die” years ago. But we still put a lot of pressure on each other to get in the race box and get angry when others refuse. Deal-breakers depend on who you’re dealing with (as everyone has their own definition of what is acceptable blackness). For some it’s your political affiliation. For others it’s sexual orientation. We can easily accept those who are “undeniably black” who are accused of horrible things or commit failures (re: R. Kelly, Mike Tyson, etc.), as long as they’ve maintained their blackness, anything seems to be forgiveable by some in the community. But if you have chosen a different path or are perceived as “suspect” in your intentions (re: Soledad O’Brien, John McWhorter), it’s likely that you couldn’t get urinated on if you were emulsified in flames.
One of the reasons why I empathize with black people who think different than me, even when I don’t agree with them, is because I’ve always lived two steps from being unceremoniously dumped and rejected by great swaths of black people. While never as out-of-the-box as say, Clarence Thomas (who in his mind sincerely believes he’s helping), I have been given the “side-eye” many times on everything from my clothes to who I chose to associate with to the music I listen to. I once got so exhausted from the external pressures of both blacks and whites to conform that I rejected everyone, went to live in the California desert and hung out with nothing but counter-culture types and journalists for nearly five years.
Being told to conform didn’t endear me to blackness as much as I love my people, my community and my culture. Fear would not keep me by their side. Threats didn’t work. Neither did intimidation, accusations and name-calling. It only made me resentful. It only made me want to reject them. Which made me sad. There was a point in my life four years ago where I only had one other African American friend. I’d gone from a life that was undeniably (and nearly exclusively) black, to one where hardly any black people were present at all. I was struggling to relate to the people I did meet.
My mother used to tell me that some black people still don’t realize that they are free. That was often the problem I ran into. I realized I was free to go wherever I wanted, live however I wanted and befriend whomever I wanted. I didn’t see limits. When I entered my mostly white world of the workforce I pushed fears of racism largely out of my head, realizing that if I obsessed over what white people thought of me I would go insane. If people liked me, great. If they didn’t, who cared? That was the attitude I cultivated. No one, nothing was going to keep me from living the life I chose. Unfortunately, a lot of the people I met were still in the box. They were not thinking as free people. They still saw the world in places they could and could not go. I was told I couldn’t trust my best friend because she was white. I was told my love of sushi was abnormal. I was told not to go just about everywhere and I was told to be suspicious of everyone. Why would I read books about ancient Roman history and other “white” things? Why would I actually strike up a conversation with the Vietnamese people at the nail salon? How could I not have a home church? How could I break up with a guy because we had different views on Christianity? That black man was a Christian and liked going to church (five times a week to my once a month). What was MY problem? Why was I smiling at strangers and speaking Spanglish? What was wrong with me?
I realized that a lot of this came out of places of protection and fear. Church is safe. The community is safe. Other blacks are supposed to be safe. The outside world, historically, was hostile. But I didn’t grow up in the segregated South. I didn’t know the hostility first hand and even when I encountered racism I was more likely to brush it off and shrug than become obsessed with it. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t see the point in obsessively dwelling on that which I could not control. I am free. I can learn what I want and go where I want, love who I want, experience what I want. Free. More black people need to realize that. Screaming for the outsiders to get back in place doesn’t make them want to come back to blackness. It makes them want run as far from the status quo as possible, cut off all their hair, move to Anywhere But Here, USA, marry the person who reminds them the least of other black people and live their life as Negro non grata. For me, it’s easier to love and accept what makes us different than to reject it. There should be more than one or two kinds of blackness for the millions of black people who live in the United States. Yet somedays, you’d think there was only one way to be black in America.
Agree? Disagree? Give me your opinion below or write your own response and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it could run on the site. This story is part of the Unconventional Wisdom series. To read previous stories, click here.