Soul Power!

Last time I talked about what constitutes Blackness, or more accurately, what doesn't constitute Blackness. Well, reading around as I do, I ran up on one brother who described what I'm calling Blackness as having three components: color, consciousness, and connection. There will probably be time for me to break that down a little later. For now, though, we're just going to suffice it to say that if you're really interested you can read the link. I may get to it, I may not. Depends on how I'm feeling. Anyway, when I left off, I was talking about Black culture and how it's intermingled with American culture. Sometimes, they're virtually indistinguishable. Depending on the context in which I'm speaking, that's not such a bad thing. One problem that raises, however, is the need to define Blackness as what "whiteness," i.e. mainstream American culture, is not. John McWhorter, in Losing The Race, describes this as a symptom of separatism. I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail about this. For a good summary, you can check out Parableman's post about that section of the book. What I will say, however, is that the whole "white=not-black" definition fails in part because we don't even have a solid definition of what Black is. It's color, but it's not just color. It's politics, but only vis-a-vis color. It's culture, but only within a certain context. So really, by the time you get down to what some people would define as Black, you're really only talking about a very small part of the Black community. But those who don't fit into that box are at best "confused," and getting worse, heading past "sellout" going to Uncle Tom-hood. And how are they supposed to be confused? Because they "don't want to be Black." Well, I'm still stuck on my original question. What the devil does 'don't want to be Black' mean if we can't even determine what it means to be Black? In other words, I could come up with this obscenely long list of "do I have to—" questions of thoughts and behaviors that some people think makes one Black. The answer to all the questions would be no. You can make up your own list, if you like. The answer is still no. But just to kick out a few, do I have to like Black music? (I'm not even gonna go into the whole discussion of rap vs. hip-hop) No. Do I have to eat soul food? No. Do I have to not-eat pork? No. Do I have to vote Democratic? No. Do I have to sound Black when I talk? No. (Now there's something I'll probably sink my teeth into at some point. Being a former English major, that's the stuff I talk about just for the sheer enjoyment.) Do I have to…No. All you have to do is be yourself. So what happens when there's a phenotypically black person who grows up around all white people? All of his "cultural" attributes will indicate whiteness. Some people would say that makes him an "oreo." (Which is still the best cookie on the face of the earth. Keebler soft bake chocolate chips are good, but Oreo is just the best cookie, bar none.) How so? It seems to me that there are two options: either deny that person his Blackness or expand the definition of Blackness to include that person. My opinion is probably obvious. The funny thing to me is that many of the Black-definers are postmodern when it comes to other thought processes. Ask them about Black people vis-à-vis white people and they'd be quick to point out the importance of naming and defining one's self and how doing so emphasizes agency as opposed to objectification. I remember talking to one sister about Lenny Kravitz and she was like, "That brother needs to find his soul." What, he ain't got no soul because he plays rock music? To quote Funkadelic, "Who says a funk band can't play rock?" Really, P-Funk is the perfect example here, because as we know, Parliament and Funkadelic were essentially the same band. The sounds of the music was very different, however. Funkadelic was a much more guitar-heavy, rock-sounding outfit while Parliament played music in the traditional R&B mold. Listen to "Maggot Brain" and tell me that's not a rock record. Ain't nobody in their right mind gon' tell me that P-Funk ain't Black! (not without gettin' stole on, at least.) Same thing applies when looking at celebrities. At the beginning of Barbershop 2, the conversation is centered around how Black people want to "claim" certain celebrities when they're doing well, and then distance themselves when that person starts to fall off. The funn thing is that for the celebrities, the process seems to be reversed. For example, remember when Tiger Woods first turned pro? Back when he was burning up the links, looking like he might win all but to or three tournaments a year, we were jumpin' out the balloon talkin' about he's Black. Then, when Tiger was like, he's "Canibalasian" or whatever, there was this big stink about how he was distancing himself from the Black community. Like, "he's Black because we say he is, nevermind what he want to call himself." Well what's that all about? How can I practice kujichagulia, or know and define myself, and deny that to somebody else? Conversely, ever notice how black celebrities who as a matter of course do not seek to embrace the Black community always seem to "find their way home" when trouble comes? Look at Michael Jackson. Back in '92, when he was still selling records in America, it didn't matter if he was Black or White. Fast forward to 2001, when his numbers aren't looking so spectacular, and he's in NY with Al Sharpton talking about how the recording industry is racist. Evidently, Al's coffee wasn't strong enough, so now when he gets in more trouble, he goes to the NOI. Not like Mike's by himself. O.J. did the same thing, even before Johnnie Cochran used it to spring him, going to restaurants in the Black community and whatnot. (And as an aside about Johnnie, how come people try to make Johnnie Cochran out to be this racially polarizing figure? Yeah, he defended O.J., but wasn't he also the attorney for Reginald Denney? I think that part gets lost in there.) While I try not to tell my self that so-and-so "doesn't want to be Black" because of some trait or action I observe that doesn't gel with my concept of what it means to be Black, some things just don't add up to me. Last week, when I linked to that Black dude who was marching through some SC town, carrying a confederate flag, I think that was my mentality, even if I didn't say it outright. But really, I can't say that he didn't want to be Black, or that he was trying to deny his Blackness. His stated goal was to educate people about the "reality" of the confederate army, which, like it or not, did include some Black soldiers. So for me, that's an easy case of "expand your definition of Blackness." On the other hand, I listened to Rev. Jesse Peterson's radio show last week. (Man, this internet is truly mind-boggling. When I think about the technological advances that have been made during my grandmother's lifetime...) Now, I've read a couple of his books and every once in a while I hike down to his website to see if he's talking about anything besides Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, so I'm pretty familiar with what he's got to say. Still, sometimes, I'm just amazed at the things that come out of people's mouths. When the show started, he was deriding the use of the term 'African-American,' saying that he was American. Okay. No harm there. But then, he jumps out and starts talking about, "Why would I want to be associated with Africa?" Like that's the worst thing somebody can say about another person. What got me was, he didn't just say it once and leave it alone. He kept on going, repeating it and embellishing it. Still, in the interest of letting people speak for themselves, I skipped to another part of the broadcast. There was a White caller on the line from Chicago, who was talking about the new Black fire chief. (The last one resigned because of the dust-up after some firemen were heard over FD radio spending the N-word, like it has some currency. At the crib? That's one thing. A public employee at work? No excuse.) J. Peterson, on hearing that the new Fire Chief is Black, is like, "Uh-oh. You better get out while you can." Now, I know all about irony and tongue-in-cheek and hyperbole and all that stuff. My natural language is hyperbolicsyllabic. The key is context. If a white conservative said that, even one who does not garner a lot of national attention, progressives would be at his door with a battering ram. And if a white liberal said the same thing, conservatives would be elbowing each other, giving knowing smiles, as if to say, "See how hypocritical they are? (Like they're doing now because of Senator Dodd) If a Black liberal said this, I think the assumption would be that it was tongue-in-cheek, but only because of how that statement would sit when juxtaposed with everything else that person said. Jesse Peterson? Having read two books and every article published on the website, I can't come up with 10 things he's said about Black people that are good. Now, I could be wrong here, but I can't come up with 10. Taken in that context, all that anti-Africa talk and the "get out while you can" comment don't come across as tongue-in-cheek, even if they are. Still, it's not my place to question that man's love for Black people. After all, he is out there working with some of the most troubled youths in his Los Angeles community. Maybe it doesn't matter what he says if he's doing what he does. But still, it makes me wonder, what would make a person say things like that? I know I'm an American. Nobody had to tell me or convince me or anything else. I don't think everything America does is right, but this is my home and I wouldn't wanna live anywhere else, even if I could. Even with all that, I don't have any animus towards Africa and I don't think it's ridiculous that people call themselves African-American. I don't use that term because I recognize the difference between myself and my friend from grade school, Aaron (who was phenotypically white), who was born in Africa. He's African-American but he ain't Black. My mom likes the term A-A, though; says it connotes a sense of culture where Black is just a skin color. Well, I think from all this typin' I've been doing, it's clearly more than just that. Still, if some people wanna use that terminology, I'm comfortable with it. (But it's funny to me that we have all these conservative Black folks who don't wanna use the term A-A and when they state their reason, it's what Farrakahn said in 15 years ago, almost verbatim.) Next time...we'll jump off that bridge when we get to it. Probably talk about Paul Mooney's toothpaste.