This past summer, in a room full of black millennials, my mother called me on my cell phone. Her ringtone is the theme song of the “Seinfeld” show. As most of the room quieted, I felt the inevitable roast session descending on me.
I silenced my phone while a friend gave me a quizzical face. “Really?” he asked. “There are so many black theme songs out there…but you chose Seinfeld?” “He’s one of my favorites,” I explained. But my friend didn’t hear me while he listed off the many other ringtones I should have gone with. This was the first instance when I asked myself if being pro-black meant being anti-everyone else.
Jay-Z prompted me to revisit the question some months later. In his video, Moonlight, he featured a shot-by-shot remake* of a scene from “Friends.” Social media exploded as it often does. The song, actors and actresses, and nod towards “Friends” had people pretty excited.
I want to highlight the black men and women who used the moment to declare with pomp that they never watched “Friends” in the first place. They stated that the black people who did were probably white-washed. I wondered at the dichotomy. Does it have to be either/or? Does being black mean not enjoying “non-black” things?
The Question of Blackness
I won’t even attempt to answer what it means to be black for you but I do know it means being free. Maybe a better question would be what it means to be human.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, the author of “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria”, observes that black children start asking themselves what it means to be black at an early age. I am sure the answer to that question changes depending on your environment. We can all agree that being black in Capetown, South Africa has different meaning and ramifications than being black in Harlem in 2018. Though some elements of life experience may be the same, growing up black in Chicago looks different from growing up black in Hartford.
To have a uniform definition of black would not work because black people are not uniform.
Some will argue that black people need to use our finances, resources, and support to advance our art, causes, and people. I would agree. Others may observe that we’ve been oppressed for so long that to be pro-black is the only way to be. I also wholeheartedly hold to that idea. But if pro-black means there are preset likes, dislikes, and lifestyles to adhere to, then let’s pause to think about that. If being pro-black means to shun everything else, then I take exception to that.
There are countless facets of blackness. If you grew up with Kool and the Gang reverberating through the house while another black person lip-synced NSYNC songs across town, that doesn’t give you the monopoly to dish out the ultimate meaning of black. Black people aren’t monolithic, and we are quick to tell anyone of the majority culture or another race that very same thing. Why say one thing and do the other?
To be black in any part of the world brings so many constraints with it already. Do not add to the burden of your brothers and sisters. Our personhoods are skewed into caricatures on a daily basis. Why heap another obstacle?
When you reduce blackness to mere checklist items, you diminish something so robust and beautiful to shallow, fleeting things. Leave room for individuality. Let humans be humans. God made black people in his image, not yours.
Take care not to buckle under the weight of someone else’s perception of what black should be. I recently saw someone tweet that if a black person could quote “The Office” more than they can quote “Martin”, then their black card should be revoked. I’m sure my scoff was heard around the world. I don’t know about you but I’m not interested in hiding or depreciating my delights and who I am.
To define blackness just to dictate it is to essentially dehumanize. You’re no longer seen as a person with original thoughts, feelings, and interests. You’re merely a cookie cutter version of black. If you let someone else define that identity for you, you will never be enough. You will never measure up. You’ll be a disingenuous chameleon, changing shades of blackness to fit into the appropriate environment. Beloved, be free.
Many have brought these empty standards of blackness along from childhood. A dear black friend detailed her school years in Arizona to me once. The white girls wouldn’t talk to her because she was black. The black girls wouldn’t play with her because they categorized her loose curly hair as white and thus not black enough. She was in a perpetual state of purgatory, waiting in vain to be accepted by black people who weren’t her family.
She, of course, is not alone. Issa Rae, an overall amazing human, had a similar struggle in childhood until she resolved to just be.
To tie one’s identity to transient interests is fruitless. How can you explain the plethora of black men who are avid Dragonball Super fans?* I also have a few cherished friends who love Korean pop music. I don’t understand it (not even a little bit) but I love my friends just the same. I don’t tear them down or diminish their personhood because of it. I simply delight in who they are.
Being pro-black ultimately means being pro-you. You can like “Living Single” and “Friends.” You can vibe to Migos and Phil Collins. To those who find themselves imposing their reductionist standards of blackness on others, I’d implore you to consider that this practice marginalizes and causes harm to those already burdened with identity issues.In a world full of various dictating voices, depicting black people as this and that, make up your mind not to be found alongside the oppressors.
*Language may offend.