50 Shades of Black: The Impossibility of Defining Blackness

My first interaction with an African American person was while I was still in diapers. I waddled up to a black army sergeant and tried to wipe his face. Being from a town with a predominantly white population I had never met an African American person before, and it would be another 16 years before I would engage with another person of color. It wasn’t until I moved into my undergraduate dorm in Rochester, NY when I began the attempt to grasp what “diversity” actually meant, but even now I don’t pretend to fully comprehend the term. So unpacking the literature by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Touré, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, is overwhelming. However, I have been inspired by these readings to think more about my past exposure to “blackness.” My undergraduate roommate was of Puerto Rican descent. She would always tell me about how she was “talking to Dominican’s,” like it was some sort of dirty secret. She explained to me that her parents did not like the fact that she, a pretty, light-skinned woman, might end up in a relationship with a “dark-skinned Dominican.”  When I heard her say these things I thought about how terrible it would have sounded coming from someone else, someone white; but because she was a person of color I dismissed it then. Thinking back now, the flagrant racism of this conversation was clearly influenced by the history of slavery, the fluidity of the definition of “blackness,” and the generational divide focusing on individuality in a post-black society.

Touré explains that each generation’s opinion on blackness is influenced by the previous one’s, just as my roommate’s family was stubborn about their definition of acceptable “blackness.” Opinions and influences of elder generations greatly influenced Richard Wright’s encounters with white people in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crowe.” Wright forged his way through society based on his experiences and the lessons he was taught by earlier generations.[1]  The readings from this week encapsulate a paradigm shift from desiring to be white, to not acting black, and to the post-blackness idea that Touré suggests is all about individuality. A person of color has to abide by rules, says Toure,  about how “to live, who you’re supposed to date, how you’re supposed to operate, what kind of job you’re supposed to have, how you wear your hair,” and these rules constantly changed.[2]   Bert, from The Ways of Whtie Folks, by Langston Hughes. Bert experiences these pressures from earlier generations about how he should, act, look and talk as well; he was always told to “act right:”

“Why didn’t you act right, son? Oh-o-o!” Cora moaned. “You can’t get nothin’ from white folks if you don’t act right.”

“Act like Willie, you mean, and the rest of these cotton pickers?”[3]

Another example from this week’s readings was John from “Of the Coming of John.” John was infuriated by the color-line, by the Jim Crow cars, for example. When he returned home to educate his community, he was forced by a white community leader to “accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers.”[4]  The message was that this was all he should teach since black people could not “reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women.”[5]  But today’s black generation, argues Touré, has no perfect memory of this generation. He writes that they’re tired of “wearing all that trauma” from “the warlike conditions that previous generations lived under,” and that current generations can now “use something that produced all that trauma and do something else with it,” instead of bearing it as a cross.[6] Touré believes that the definition of “post-blackness” is directly associated with the term individualism. Touré argues that how people define themselves as black has drastically changed, and that this newfound individualism has been influenced by a shift in the “emotional distance from the past struggles.”[7] This paradigm shift to focus on individuality is a slow process, and it may be a very long time before it influences my old roommate’s family and other families still bearing that trauma.

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (Pymble, Australia: HarperCollins e-books, 1993) 4.

[2] Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness (NY: Free Press, 2011) 24.

[3] Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (NY: Vintage Classics, 1962) 237.

[4] W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994) 115.

[5] Ibid, 115.

[6] Touré. 21-22.

[7] Ibid, 37.

8 thoughts on “50 Shades of Black: The Impossibility of Defining Blackness

  1. Finding ones place seems to be an important theme in this weeks readings and more importantly, a part of what it means to be human. It is essential to feel at home in the “place” of your choice. But that’s just it…the choice must be yours. Well done!

  2. With so many different cultural backgrounds people may have, how does one pick just one avenue and say that is what if means to be black?

  3. One of the interesting threads that I saw through this week’s readings is the way that black identity has so often had to be a direct response to whiteness – whether that means “acting white,” or “not acting white” or acting subservient to whites. It goes right back to Du Bois’ idea about double-consciousness, of always having to be aware of who you are and what you do. That’s what so new about Toure’s idea of post-blackness. Suddenly, people are defining themselves based on themselves, not as a reaction to or at the bidding of white people. The fact that that still seems so strange and new (to whites and people of color) says a lot about how far our society still has to go.

    1. Toure’s explanation of post-blackness is very much tied to identity as an artist and the kind of art one produces. How much does “post-blackness” extend beyond the artistic sphere?

    2. Becca, that reminds me the first time I learned of the concept of “whiteness” as an undergrad. Many scholars claim that blackness was not originally a thing in and off itself, but was simply a response to the invention of “whiteness.” Whiteness was something to be earned, won, and preserved, by various ethnic groups and socio-economic classes. Blackness (or color-ness, I suppose) was a lack of that earning, winning, and preserving. I agree that the “blackness” of the late 20th and early 21st century seems to be more about defining identity individually, and not in relation to other groups. Whether this is called post-blackness or not, Toure seems to be on to something.

  4. While Toure’s idea of Post Blackness is interesting, I do not fully agree with his analysis and I think the term “Post-Black” is problematic. There were several parts of the article that were frustrating to me, but one I will share here is the author’s thought that blacks need not “hit whites over the head” with the “race conversation”. My question is, why not? Racism is still very alive, and we need to keep talking about it. Same with classism. Same with sexism. Same with homophobia. In this case, why should blacks feel like they have to appease white comfort levels when talking about race? Isn’t doing so merely falling victim to what Toure calls “the fear of the white gaze”?

    1. I agree with you Georgie, I know I certainly needed to be “hit over the head” with the “race conversation.” Once I was, I was amazed (but I guess not surprised) that the race conversation (and the sexism, classism, homophobia conversations) was not something that I’d gotten in high school or earlier. We learn all these buzzwords like tolerance, diversity, and acceptance, but not what they really mean or how to confront our own assumptions and prejudices.

  5. Georgie, that is exactly how I felt while reading Toure. I kept thinking about all of those people who I have met that truly think racism does not exist and how “hitting whites over the head” with the “race conversation” is needed. However, in some ways I wonder if the tactic of “hitting whites over the head” is the best way to do it. Some people (who are ignorant and I’m not denying that) would actually revert from learning about it because they are being hit over the head with the conversation. Often it has to be their decision to learn about this, if we hit them over the head with it they ignore it or worse – form the adverse opinion. But I’m certainly not agreeing with Toure by far.

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