On being a black american…

My dad sent me this clip the other day of Smokey Robinson speaking on being a black american.

My first thought was not too shabby. A bit too pro-american for me (like that point about why everyone’s trying to come here–not necessarily b/c the US is so great like he says–might want to check to see how much influence the US has on those foreign economies).

Interestingly though, he ends up sticking with the label ‘black.’ To me this seems to be just as vague and desperate as ‘african-american.’ I say desperate because a lot a blood, sweat, and tears has gone into trying to name this collective experience of being black in america, yet whenever i think about it too much, ‘black’ to me just seems like a mechanical label that reinforces a dualistic color line (even reinforcing social divisions and consequently barriers to cooperative action) and reinforces the notion of ‘whiteness,’ which isn’t a cultural ethnicity or a race, but rather an incredibly problematic hierarchical political position.

I find it curious how most non-melanin people (as my uncle would say) go by the label ‘white’ instead of their oftentimes-known cultural heritage, lets say french-irish-american, for example; whereas, the vast majority of blacks that lack the luxury of knowing their ancestry more than 2 to 4 generations back would be pretty excited to have such information as it can hold value in shaping identity. ‘Whiteness’ and being able to promptly identity with white social class and the privileges it confers speaks volumes in that it is treated as more important and prominent than more geographically-centered cultural identities. I’d say it is (more than anything else) a politically-charged cultural simplification/reduction and the marker of a far-reaching and infamous shared cultural experience that needs to be understood and challenged.

For ‘black americans,’ any label (whether black, african-american, colored, etc.) is complicated because we’re not trying to simplify who we are (most of us aren’t anyway – hopefully), but instead trying to encapsulate everything about us in one term: the nature of our origins, our experiences in america, our cultures, our politics, our loyalties, our interests, our relationships, our prospects for the future, our contradictions, etc (all of which, somehow, seems to be lodged in that question of if some black person is really black enough–what does that really mean? and why walk willingly into such reductionism?). If you pick it apart a bit, placing that much weight atop one label makes it buckle a lot.

Any all-encompassing label for ‘black americans’ struggles under a tremendous amount of pressure. By pressure I mean trying to fit us under any one label is trying to contain much more than is reasonable and sensible while still being able to call it an ‘identity.’ Just pondering the historical, political, cultural, economic (etc., etc.) diversity of the answer to the question ‘who are we?’…responses can only come back in the form of long discussions and as-of-yet unfinished dialogue: stolen and forgotten pasts; forced migration; deculturization of many cultures; colonialism/postcolonialis m/neocolonialism; domination; marginalization; class separations (external as well as internal); nationalism; integration; sexuality; traditional african art forms; new/vanguard art forms; culturally co-opted art forms; religion, colonial religion, liberation theologies, recapturing religious diversity; capitalism; corporatization, fetishization, and globalization of ‘urban’ culture; mythologies of social progress in america; and so on. (Im sure this all has something to do with why I really dont like Tyler Perry movies. How cliché can you get.)

A lot of this pressure has to do with this absurd position our cultural experience has been in and the social position we’ve held here in this location for the past few centuries. Didn’t want to come here, but were brought here and were hated for being here. Made the country better and built the infrastructure, but were told to go home. We were the heartbeat of the nation, but were marginalized and dominated at the same time. We fight for it and are fought by it. We work hard for power and self-determination and strong communities, but are preyed upon by elite and corporate interest to the point where massive social divisions between middle and lower class blacks result. We allow the current generation to be called the ‘hiphop generation’ when the hiphop is corporately driven and the lyrics are right-wing and reinforce the status quo. We allow BET to still be on the air. So, yeah, its complicated to see how our culture, our politics, our loyalties, our interests, our relationships, our prospects for the future, our contradictions, etc could get wrapped up under one label.

Its interesting too that Robinson also raises that divide between black americans and africans, like its been too long for black americans to have any real connections with the continent. Directly contradicts a lot of Malcolm X’s work on international unity and linking (post)colonial struggles between black americans and africans.

Pursuing constituent identity while fighting degenerating oversimplifications of the group seems to be a constant theme to keep an eye on in these anti-oppression struggles.

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