My family used to celebrate Kwanzaa. There’s no reason why we stopped, other than sheer laziness and a feeling of inappropriateness. Each day, we would light a candle and gather around the kinara, reading over a little pamphlet outlining the principles of the day, butchering the Swahili in the process (I pronounced Kujichagulia as Coochikajalia for the first ten years of my life, I shit you not) in ways which depicted our essential Americanness. We never bothered to celebrate Kwanzaa as a distinct holiday with its own composite traditions, did not do the individual activities which were called for for each corresponding day, and NEVER celebrate Kwanzaa in place of the good, wholesome day of our Lord and Savior’s birth. As the years went by, the kinara remained on the windowsill in the dining-room where it stood complicit while my mother killed pothos after pothos plant in its environs, gathering dust, the green and red candles losing their color with each year of neglect until everything was a sort of gray. One year it fell while we were cleaning, shattering on the ground, only to be replaced by a new one, its novelty sparking us to celebrate half-assedly once again. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since.
I have been asking myself the same question for two years now: “How is identity performed?” I guess the word perform here makes identity seem like a sort of role, or mask, insofar that is not necessarily lived, which can be seen as the operative opposite of performance. Nonetheless, I think the word perform has specific uses, primarily when we are dealing with often homogenous understandings of our identities, commonly produced and propagated through consumable and shareable media. It is the desire to perform identity, as oppose to living it, which makes cultural politics and coalition-building so difficult, for the means by which identity is interpreted and realized is often determined at the axes of political cultures. I will attempt in this post (my first post in a while about race!) to explain what I mean.
Swarthmore’s Black community is relatively small, comprised really of concentric and/or adjacent rings of friend groups. I suppose the entire community itself is one cluster, with a few outliers who have decided, for some reason or another, to completely disassociate or limit their contact with other Black students. This, however, does not delegitimize their experiences as Black people at Swarthmore, or as Black people in general. These students, who have their own lives, have their own perspectives wrought by their own experiences, have their own crucibles of existence in which their identities were forged, tried and tested, are free to come and go from the community, or to completely disengage from it, and this do not mean they are any less Black, that they bear a self-hatred towards their Black skin or their Black forbearers, that they do not hate micro- or macroaggressive racism any less than the community insiders do. Those who belong to SASS, Swarthmore’s BSU, are not legitimized in their blackness, neither are individuals in SASA, the African student group, or SOCA, the Caribbean student group, or anyone who frequents the Black Cultural Center, or students majoring in Black studies, or students who attend summer research programs at the Schomburg Center, etc. Nonetheless, we were always trying to answer the question of “why do they isolate themselves?” wondering what it was about our community which makes it unwelcoming to these students. I will not try to list our conjectures, but it is a question I ask myself often as I attempt to conceptualize my own blackness.
But what is blackness? Is it cultural (eg: Africana culture; what does Africana even mean outside of a purely sociohistorical context in or relating to American (continental) slavery)? Is it biological (eg: pigmentation, hair texture, etc.)? Is it sociological (eg: race as social construct)? Or an uneven mix of all three? Even if we were to define blackness as a sort of lived experience, there are always exceptions, always outliers, which statistically we are prone to eschew as “those who do not belong,” but who nonetheless should always serve as the new margins from which we conceptualize a global, as opposed to exclusive, experience. It is also totalizing for me to give an inevitably faulty working definition for what blackness means, for my experience is not the universal experience, nor is/are the experience(s) of the person or cluster of people at the “center” of Swarthmore’s black student “solar system,” or those of any Black person. The way we experience, understand, internalize and engage with our blackness is different, for the paths of our lives as Black people take meandering paths and it is not the destination which makes us who we are, but the people we become along the way.
alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.
I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.
The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.
token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”