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.”
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.
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!”
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.