“Talking about race is difficult.” A statement which is so easily and often repeated that it has lost its integral meaning, has become really just a slurry of syllables. Behind it, a person hides, suddenly unsure of how to broach a conversation which is in its nature unspeakable, the unfortunate coincidence of time, the advent of national tensions, of a gradual disillusionment we must all endure. How can we talk about an institution which is both incredibly visible and completely untraceable, which cannot be understood as a rational entity which can be empirically touched, understood, observed, experimented with – how do we talk about an idea, or a system of ideas? “These things are hard to talk about.” And every brown person in the room rolls their eyes because it is not so difficult to think about race as superstructure, as idea-system, as ideology, as existence. For the Black person in the room, the weight of their race has forced them to think of racialization as their very ontology, as their bare life. Race becomes one’s ontology, the inescapable categorization in which the spirit is bound. And of course the Brown person, the Black person, is aware of the cage which shackles them, even if the non-raced, the White person, cannot see the cage, can only see the illusion which is superimposed over the brown body, cannot fathom that what lies beneath that shroud, the threadbare image the racialized are forced to adorn, is far more recognizable, far more familiar, than they could have ever imagined. Talking about race is not difficult if you are willing to listen to the testimonies of others, to not fall prey to the conspiratorial desire to disenfranchise and to disavow the marginalized for what is ostensibly an invisible institution.
Talking about race is not difficult once you realize that racism is inside of you.
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.
African-American [n/adj] – an ethnic group of Americans (citizens or residents of the United States) who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.
This will likely be the most controversial post in the define series, likely because there is no real consensus as to how the term African-American should be used. Depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, the term is either readily used as an umbrella for Black people in the New World, which I will attempt to prove prejudicial, or that the term is a politically correct way of referring to Black people, which is also, in a way, incorrect. A search on Wiktionary will reveal that the word African-American is typically used to refer to people who are 1) American and black 2) Black 3) Black American, all of which ignore the history which slavery has played in creating our experience and solidifying our unique ethnic identity.
I was against the term African-American when I was younger because I saw something in that word to which I could not connect — Africa. To me, Africa was a mythical place, like Aztlan, from which my ancestors were pulled by the millions in order to cross the edge of the world to work on plantations in North and South Carolina. Africa, like most Americans believed, was a continent of wilderness and alleged savagery and I was pushed away from the concept, seeing my Americanness somehow as being a more reformed — perhaps even evolved — form of that which my ancestors once were. I used the word Black because of the political implications of such a word. It means ugly, hated, sickly and rotten; how apt a word to describe our condition as what seems to be the world’s most detested, mocked, and imitated people?
respectability [n] – the state or quality of being respectable; social standing, character and reputation deserving of respect and decent treatment.
So as I mentioned in Desire, I’ve been watching my sister’s panel show The Grapevine lately. Today they released the final part of their four-episode conversation on Bill Cosby, with this episode concerning the issue of Cosby’s infamous respectability politics. I have wanted to write a piece on this issue for a while now, but have been either too busy or too motivated by other projects to truly dedicate a couple of hours to put my thoughts down on the page. Now, after having my catalyst, I can lay my thoughts bare for the world to see.
The Pound Cake speech is but one facet of Bill Cosby’s long-lasting legacy. Renowned for his comedic genius, his prolific image and his philanthropy, Bill Cosby is without a doubt an important figure in African-American culture, regardless of his political leanings or recent sexual assault allegations. After having taught an episode of the Cosby Show to a class of sixteen-year-old high school students last summer to demonstrate how African-Americans have attempted to use media to demonstrate counter-narratives of the ways which White Americans imagine our existence, I for one must acknowledge how important Bill Cosby has been towards introducing Black faces into the white spaces of American media.
That aside, I am not obligated at all, as a Black person, as a fledgling scholar of Black studies or as someone who avidly consumes and analyzes Black media, to like or even agree with Bill Cosby’s politics or messages, and the Pound Cake speech is the reason why.
My generation is angry.
We have a lot on our plates, and the true size of the mountain we must climb is heartbreaking. Perhaps what makes this obligation so exhausting is the perception of those around us that our conflict, our burden is but an amalgamation of non-issues. Coming from the outside and the inside, there is this notion which claims that our concerns aren’t significant and that we are fighting for nothing. In being told we have so little to worry about, what persists only grows in its immensity.
I had the opportunity of attending a demonstration to show Swarthmore’s solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri. The past two weeks have made their Columbia, Missouri home into a hellhole as the secret racism which so many Americans bear surreptitiously and unknowingly exposed itself in social media, in terror-inducing comments and in gut-wrenching “expressions” of hatred. How poignant that this comes in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France and Beirut, Lebanon. White Americans are the first ones to decry the very brand of explicit fearmongering which has sustained this country for centuries when exercised by a different, browner people. I will not talk about Paris and Beirut, for those discussions deserve a far more intimate and detailed description of my feelings, the likes of which are evolving as the issue is further discussed. I will however talk about Mizzou, Yale and the incident which happened last week at Dartmouth.
I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.
You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours.
It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.
When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.
I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.
Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.
Du Boisian double-consciousness applied to writing narratives.
I have been reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone for the past three days now. I’ve been absorbing such heavy doses of the stuff that my mind is spinning around literary questions. In this book, Baldwin is actually speaking from the perspective of a Black narrator, unlike Giovanni’s Room, where the narrator is a white man. Yet, I wonder if there are any Baldwin books – I have not read them all, sadly – where the narrator is not a Black or White man. A Latina woman? A Black woman? An Asian man?
It is striking to me to think of the various first-person narrators throughout literary history and to see how closely their race reflects the race of their writers. Nick from The Great Gatsby, Yunior from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jim from My Ántonia – all of these characters belong to a specific racial narrative, the likes of which is hardly crossed… and perhaps for good reason.
What does it mean for a white man to write from the experiences of a Black man? Of a Black woman?
Reflections on blackness, class and privilege.
Anyone who sees me around campus is likely to see me in this navy “Pace University Alumni” t-shirt. This t-shirt is one of my favorites, not only because its comfortable and well-worn (that is, it fits my body well from me stretching it out just enough so that it doesn’t lose its shape or look sprayed-on) but because of the symbolism behind it. I never really paid attention to the fact that my parents had both graduated from college until I arrived at Swarthmore. It was an unspoken part of my reality, an unseen privilege which was only made apparent to me when I realized that other people didn’t have it as well. And I suppose it may have been due to the fact that I was embarrassingly naive in high school or simply out-of-touch with the world around me, suspended in the little bubble that is my town.
And it didn’t really mean all of this to me when I started wearing the shirt around the house, at that time during this weird weight loss journey of mine when the shirt was still too tight for me to wear it in public. It didn’t even dawn on me when I noticed for the first time that I really liked the way I looked in that shirt, or when I realized how upset I was when I found a hole in the armpit. It wasn’t until this summer that I sort of became cognizant of it all, to be honest.
Continue reading “the middle”