15

Who’s Afraid of Blackness

We were standing at the bar of a very low key venue in Soho. It was the joint birthday party of two of my editors and the night was young. Imani and I were laughing at something when a couple of guys introduced themselves. We all chatted before we split into one-on-one woman/man conversations. Emile was a chocolate Ivy league brother from Haiti. You could tell he was used to easily impressionable types who swoon over a man’s intellect. Everything he wanted to discuss was political or community oriented. I didn’t mind, as these conversations are ones I have daily. But it was a party. Eventually the conversation took a turn down a dark road I rather not travel. I loathe the simplistic comparison of the success immigrants in America have had despite coming from nothing versus the plight of Blacks and their socioeconomic status today. But we found ourselves there.

“In the morning during rush hour all the Arabs, Asians and Indians are catching the train to Brooklyn while Blacks commute into the city for their jobs,” he said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that immigrants aren’t trying to assimilate into white mainstream,” he responded. “They understand the value of the black market, which is why they own everything in our neighborhoods. They couldn’t care less about going to work for some firm on Wall Street.”

I replied with something sarcastic about that being a generalization and not the full picture. His response was myopic, explaining that the Asians who were in his Ivy league MBA program were not at all concerned with using their degrees to work for any Fortune 500 corporations. They got the degree(s), he said, and in most cases went back to their native countries to circulate money in their own communities, or they opened businesses here to send money back home. It all sounded like the tired, lazy argument that immigrants have been able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, so blacks should be able to do the same. He wasn’t saying that, but was walking a fine line. Unexpectedly he blurted out, “Black Americans have an inferiority complex that keeps them down more than anything.”

Wait, what?

As a Haitian his ideals of blackness were not the same as black Americans. He also never dealt with being embarrassed of other blacks (as American blacks often are) because of the racial makeup in his country. His argument was that black Americans are too busy trying to prove to white people that we’re “good enough” because of the residual affects of slavery. He also argued this should be the furthest thing on our agenda.

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Yesterday, Sean Combs (Puffy) announced he will launch his cable music network, Revolt, in a partnership with Comcast that is scheduled to debut in 2013. His announcement of course overshadowed the news that Magic Johnson will launch ASPIRE network (also in partnership with Comcast), which will feature programming depicting blacks in a positive light. I happily tweeted about being proud of Puff, and excited about the possibilities of Johnson’s ASPIRE.

Less than 24 hours later I read Puff’s timeline to see what he was saying about his new business venture. I was taken aback when I read his tweet, “FYI #Revolt is NOT a “BLACK NETWORK!” I just happen to be Black-Lol. This network is for all colors-all races…TechniColor 🙂 RT!”

Sigh. Double sigh.

Prior to reading those tweets I had tweeted how much I respected Puff for always recognizing his target demographic and never pandering to mainstream. Unlike Jay Z, who recently said, “We don’t envision ourselves as an urban brand or streetwear brand,” in an attempt to rebrand Rocawear, I applauded Puff for never going that route with Sean John, Ciroc or any of his other brands. What a difference a day makes.

I get it, Puff. Revolt is not a black network. I’m not mad about that either. This post is not about his network not being a black one. It’s about the disclaimer that I can’t help but feel like was an attempt to separate himself from anything that could be perceived as being only for the Negroes. It reads as: “This here ain’t jus fo’ the Negroes, sah.” As if there is something wrong with something being solely black or created for a black demographic. And when has a wealthy white person ever launched a new business venture with the caveat that it’s not a “white business,” but one for all colors?

Why do we always have to pander to mainstream? When will we recognize the power in the black dollar? Oprah’s OWN network isn’t a “black network” either. How’s that working out for her? I say that with no malice, but to bring attention to the inherent idea that mainstream automatically means more successful. Targeting the black demographic is ok. Don’t let mainstream shame you about it either.

*********

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer sat down with Tavis Smiley recently to discuss the controversy over “The Help,” in which both Davis and Spencer have won awards for their roles. Smiley kept it real about his ambivalence about the celebration of two black women playing maids in 2012. Just like the academy awarded Denzel Washington the award for “Training Day” where Washington plays a corrupt cop, Smiley, like most us, questions what the academy chooses to reward when it comes to African-American depictions. In the interview Davis and Spencer admitted they understand where the controversy is coming from. However, Davis was compelled to express the heavy burden placed on black artists:

And I will say this – that very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African Americans have is absolutely destroying the Black artist. The Black artist cannot live in the place – in a revisionist place. The Black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy.

Her stance was that black artists cannot exist only in a place that represents the best of blackness. Black people, our history, our stories, are complex. An artist who only takes roles that are uplifting, that tell a pretty story, is limiting to the black artist. Spencer, on the other hand, said she had not one hesitation about playing the maid or representing for her race.

*******

To Emile’s point, perhaps he’s onto something about this inferiority complex.

The black artist doesn’t want to be seen as a black [insert profession]. They just want to be seen as the thing they do. Black writers, black painters, black filmmakers are essentially writers, painters, filmmakers. The qualifiers aren’t necessary. Artists also want the liberty to create their art without it automatically being deemed “for black people.” And that’s our right as artists. It’s also totally reasonable. Blackness is convoluted. Like black people, black artists aren’t a monolith. Perhaps those things that are traditionally considered “black culture” aren’t relatable to some artists, therefore you have black artists who create art outside of the realms of blackness. I can live with that.

But I have to question the motives to shy away from the label “black.” Why are we so desperate for mainstream’s inclusion? Is it because we’ve been excluded for so long? Is it because we inherently think mainstream (read: white) is superior? Is navigating the space of mainstream the indicator of ultimate success?

As an artist I understand it all. I’ve had countless conversations about not wanting my hypothetical book to only be in the African-American literature section of Barnes & Nobles, or if the section should even exist. I’ve had even more conversations about wanting to break into writing for mainstream publications. I have to check my motives as well. Why am I so pressed about getting into mainstream magazines? Is it because I subconsciously think a clip in Cosmopolitan means more than a clip in ESSENCE? Of course I don’t. But the questions are worth analysis.

********

Puff is as successful as they come. His drive and business savvy took him from intern to mogul. Yet even with that level of success he’s asking that his Twitter followers “retweet” his tweet about Revolt not being a black network.

One day I hope we’re truly free. Free from trying to prove, still, that we’re good enough.

 

*Update thanks to one of my brilliant Twitter sisters @arieswym. Puff, Johnson and other minority’s were granted the opportunity to own networks with the Comcast/NBC merger because of the Memorandum of Understanding created by African-American organizations and Congress. Under the merger the FCC and Congress required Comcast to increase independent minority owned networks. As @arieswym said in the comment section, it’s ironic that Puff is tweeting about Revolt not being a black network when what I’ve outlined above is the only reason he has the network. See links below.

** African American Leadership Organizations and Comcast/NBC Universal Announce Memorandum of Understanding

*** Comcast launches minority-owned channels to meet regulatory commitments

 

 

 

  • Diya

    I think this is an issue not only in the professional industries but on personal levels as well.  As someone who’s spent most of her life being told that she wasn’t a “real” Black girl, it makes one question if I want to be a part of that categorization anyway.  I think part of being an African-American is that struggle to decide whether you want to be labeled Black or American, if you can be both, or if the two can even be separated.  Great piece.

    • I definitely agree Diya! I’ve always been told that I sound White or too proper to truly be a Black girl. For as long as I could remember, certain family members on my father’s side used to point that out and make me feel less than. I hated that! Yes, I have taken different classes for my certificate in African American Studies and my minor in Spanish and I see things through a different lens. I don’t know if that’s what more people need, the experience of living through someone else’s lives or what but we can’t keep doing this to our youth. It sends very confusing signals

      • Anonymous

        I wanted to take the time to think so I could respond to both you and Radiya’s point with care and compassion. I’m bothered about this notion of “real blackness” and how we choose to define, identify & police other people’s blackness. However, I do recognize black Americans have a unique culture which is why certain things or experiences are used to “measure” folks’ blackness. For example, Whitney’s homegoing. Everything about that was black American culture.

        My concern though is this: “As someone who’s spent most of her life being told that she wasn’t a
        “real” Black girl, it makes one question if I want to be a part of that
        categorization anyway.” Why wouldn’t you though? You’re black, regardless of how many people have questioned it. Not being categorized as such would be a lie.

        I also have to ask, why are we so eager to be seen as American rather than Black? It’s that whole assimilation thing, wanting to prove we are human, we are “just like them.” That should be a given.

        We have some real self-hatred issues to deal with as a people. (This is not directed to anyone in particular.)

  • I feel you. We have this need to be LOVED by the mainstream (read: white) audience. What’s funny, though, for me…I’ve never really felt the need to be in Cosmo, or any other “white” pub. Give me Essence any day. But as a writer who wants to eat & make money from words, I know the world is bigger than our little corner. 

  • Anonymous

    It’s ironic to me that Puffy is highlighting that Revolt isn’t a Black network. The only reason he (and Magic Johnson) got networks was because of the Comcast – NBC merger, in which Congress requires Congress to increase minority (Black, Latino, etc)-owned TV networks.

  • Your post strikes a distinct cord in me as a writer and artist. The angst that exist between trying to establish oneself as a professional and trying to navigate external perception and reception of ones work. I’m Nigerian, I am American, I am Black, I am female…which of these labels should I adhere to in my work? There also exist the debate of who I am, what I produce and how the world brands me. I tip toe around exactly what my work represents…Nigerian, African, Black, Mainstream, American, Humanity… it is a complex stage especially when one person is simply not one thing and a race or group of people is never a product of one experience. Which experiences are we to live up? The one that best resonates with us or the one the world perceives of us? It can be an emotional dilemma for a growing artist or actually anyone who has had the opportunity to experience diverse worlds and who is trying to find his/her voice.

    However, like you, the angst in my soul leads me to question the motives behind my work and branding (if I have any yet) :).
    Is being mainstream an attempt to deny my blackness, Nigerianess or Africaness or is it just the work I produce? In the reverse, is my work when perceived as Black my attempt to submit to what is required of me based on my skin color and heritage or is it what my hearts resonates with and is it the story I want to tell?

    These are questions I wrestle with as a writer working on a book and finding herself trying to please all the pieces of me and potential audience. I have never had a desire to publish in Cosmo etc, my heart always leans towards Essence, but at the same time…I wonder if Essence is a place for some of the beautiful quirks in my work that are authentically Nigerian/African. Ironically, I question if an African magazine will work for the almost Americanized Africans stuck between two cultures that are a part of my work.

    This is a blog post on its own, i might just post on my own blog. 🙂
    Your bravery inspires me alot, Bene. You speak truth, you wrestle with different options and opinions, but you knoe where you stand whether it is right or wrong, accepted or not…it is a rare attribute and I really admire that about you.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for this comment AdeOla. You’ve so eloquently outlined the duality or the double consciousness (coined by Dubois) that we have to reconcile with daily– as women, black women, writers, artists, feminists or whatever other label we attribute to ourselves. I don’t have much to add because you’ve said it all so beautifully. I just wanted to thank you. And maybe we’ll never fully answer these questions we ask ourselves. At least we’re thinking about it. I say we should all be true to ourselves. Whatever that means to you individually.

      Link me when you write your post. Thank you for sharing this here. I appreciate you. 

      • Thanks Bene. I will definitely link you when I do post it.
        Btw, I sent you an email a few weeks ago asking a question/advice etc, but I understand you are busy. I am patient. 🙂

        Thanks again.

    •  what you wrote above is pretty much what I try to explain to my parents and pretty much anyone who will listen. i am american AND nigerian AND black. i’ve actively engaged in all of these cultures simultaneously for my entire life. some people say they live in a diverse/multicultural world, but they don’t even know what that means. they think that means going to a school with 99% of white people or having a few asian/spanish friends. NO. you’re only sharing brief moments with different people. not meaningless, but not really significant enough to make an impact on empathizing with their world and them with yours.

      i think people like you and me are in a very interesting position because we are really part of so many cultures that have such a significant influence on our entire being. so as much as we just want to be an “artist” we really can’t because we were born into a world of ridiculous segregation, poverty, discrimination, various cultural mores, and sexism. saying we’re just an artist doesn’t negate those experiences but it just doesn’t tell the whole story.

      in the news a few days ago, chicago public schools announced they would be closing a ton of schools (and/or consolidating them), many in predominantly black areas. It pains me because i’ve seen this done so many times since before i even entered high school here, and this process never works, it just makes matters worse for those affected. i expressed this to my loving immigrant father, who shared the same sentiment of the Emile character above, placing a significant amount of blame on the kids and sometimes incompetent parents. I tried to explain to him that yes, you think they should be able to perform at a greater level of proficiency, considering matters are better here than in Nigeria or other third world nations, but in Nigeria you did not grew up under the conditioning that you are inferior. That was not your battle. They are battling that, centuries of other shameful history, and institutionalized disregard to black life. I was born and raised here so I know first hand that it is real, so i feel more pressure to “prove” myself than my cousins/friends who were born and raised in Nigeria or abroad. They don’t know what that is like. they know what is like to be an immigrant in this country, who wants to return home to make things better there. they don’t know what it’s like to be a 2nd class citizen in your own home. You operate on the beliefs you learned as a kid, and you just don’t up and leave them when you’re an adult. it takes time. so these convos really hurt my feelings. not entirely optimistic.

      i apologize for the long comment and any grammatical errors 🙂

    • risingsun4995

      What is the mainstream anyway?  Those in power?  Those who control the media?  Being mainstream may not be an attempt to deny your blackness, but if being mainstream does not serve or validate the variety of the human diaspora then what good is it?  We have to become producers and draw circles that count ourselves in. 

  • Wow! The update adds a lot to this piece. Like you, I understand why many artists feel this way but, I have no problem basking in a any of the labels/titles that help make up who I am. I have no problem being pegged a black writer, woman writer, lesbian writer, etc. At the end of the day, I know who I am and I know my value. 

    This is also why I love Ava Duvernay. I’ll never forget being at BAM for the screening of “I Will Follow” and at the Q&A session she stated that she made that movie for us (black folk) and someone in the audience stated that no the movie could be relatable by all people. She re-stated that’s fine and dandy but, I made this movie for my people and will continue to do such. 

    I found that to be one of the most beautiful things ever. She’s creating for her people and she’s winning too. 

    As far as writing for mainstream publications… I contemplate it sometimes but, I honestly never have gravitated towards those magazines because they just don’t cater to who I am. I’ve written for an online publication whose audience was mainly white and I can honestly say that I did enjoy receiving feedback from that audience, mostly just because it was different. But I don’t feel like I need the approval of a mainstream audience or a mainstream pub to deem my work as great. 

    This definitely was a great thought provoking piece and “One day I hope we’re truly free. Free from trying to prove, still, that we’re good enough.” -AMEN
     

  • Rae

    I love this article.  You brought up all of the points I wrestle with as a writer and artist.  How am I accountable?  What should I write?  Should I post this because it will offend?  Constance C.R. White said in an interview, it’s about the reader (when it came down to Essence) and it makes me wonder.  I believe the main issue is why do we create? Are we creating to help others? To make a statement? For ourselves?

    Then again, many artists do exactly as they please and if people from other communities, so to speak, can recognize the beauty of it and relate, then fine.  If not, fine.  I’ve heard of a few artists who have said they are writing for black people, or about the black condition and didn’t care what others thought (Sam Greenlee comes to mind first). 

    I believe the real thing here is being able to be congruent in all we do.  That has taken me a long time to understand.  I don’t have to leave my blackness at home when I go to work.  It’s with me everywhere.  The idea that I don’t have to be less of any part of myself when I’m pretty much congruent at all times no matter where I am.  

    Let me also add Adeola’s comment was amazing!  Even though I have married the congruency piece with how I live day to day, I am working to get this element to shine through in my writing.  When something has been published, it’s there for the world to see.  So often I’m torn with how will the present?  Will I be willing to stand with what I’m publishing/writing/creating in ten years?

    Thank you again for this post & love what you’re doing!

  • ChuckWilmore

    Black people cater to mainstream for those reasons of acceptance frequently. However, I pose this question: What’s wrong with doing it for the money? These are business people right? Isn’t it common sense that tageting a mainstream market will sell more that a strictly African American market. Too many Blacks limit ourselves by trying to please other Blacks instead of doing what actually makes more sense. There are far too many “Black Rules” that we impose on ourselves. I don’t know if we’re trying to show our allience or what it is, I think sometimes this is just another way of holding ourselves back.

  • Russell D

    In response to “Who is Afraid of Blackness” I too am Haitian but speaking from experience Emile represents a segment of the Haitian diaspora that tends to think that black americans are inferior. Additionally many of Emile ilk rather talk about themselves and step on necks of those they deem to be lesser instead of trying to change the status quo. Also isn’t the ultimate metric of assimilation the chance for a minority to attend an ivy league school and brag about it at parties. I am shocked you even entertain his elitism but you were there to party so your forgiven.

    So instead of him deriding black americans what is he doing to uplift and motivate and encourage them? Is he using his Harvard connections to bring businesses and opportunities to under served neighborhoods or simply using his credentials to pick up ladies. Is he skillfully ignoring years of redlining in black neighborhoods to make his statement about assimilation? And did he not realize that much of the civil rights movement was more about integration than self reliance? Like I said you’re much better than me cause I would have lost it, especially as a Haitian. Has he visited Haiti recently and realized how NATO, the UN, and other outside forces continually disenfranchise Haitians?

    Overall keep up the good work and applaud you on another excellent article.

  • Josephesr

    Sounds like Puff is having a Clarence Thomas moment, having gotten to where is his because of his blackness, reaping the benefits of programming/legislation aimed at his blackness, now trying to deny the power thereof.