Performing Blackness: Are You Really Down?
It wasn’t until I entered college that I truly began to understand how complex blackness and black culture are. On Twitter, there are people often referred to as “Blavity” blacks. The black folks that force AAVE, the strained phonology sounding completely foreign to their natural speech. The black folks that swear A Different World is God’s greatest gift to earth, after getting into the series during their freshman year. The “woker than thou” black folks, who you could just recall complaining that they were “too white for the black kids, and too black for the white kids” during their early school years.
I had to do a lot of soul searching, and looking back to see if I was a “Blavity” black. From my understanding these individuals most often come from middle class homes. They grew up around mostly white folks, accepting their status as the token Negro, and experienced a sort of black awakening during their years of higher education. These “Blavity” black are said to be lacking the actual black experience. And even though I fit the middle class criteria, my early years of education were spent surrounded by diverse faces, and I’ve always understood that I was black. From the moment I came out of the wound my parents fed me blackness and black culture. Ezra Jack Keates books were read to me nightly. Peter’s Chair was one of my favorites, as I owned a pair of similar overalls. The brown faces in a majority of the literary works on my shelf led me to believe that I wasn’t a minority. Reading Rainbow will always be on my list of the greatest shows off all time. The half-hour educational series, hosted by a dark-skinned black man, played a role in fostering my love for literature. Growing up on shows like Static Shock, That’s So Raven, The Proud Family, and re-runs of Kenan & Kel, I was never without black faces in the media I consumed. Black art surrounded me at home, paintings of African woman in colorful garb with baskets atop their heads like crowns, and biblical figures depicted with dark skin hung on the walls in every room. My mother was always telling us that “Jesus wasn’t white” and criticizing the black folks she knew who hung up pictures of a blond hair blue eyed Christ in their home.
(Side note: Despite what people say these days, anime was apart of the black childhood experience. Most of us late 90’s babies can recall trading Yu-Gi-Oh cards on the black top, and watching Dragon Ball Z — imagining that we could go Super Saiyan)
I went through a slight hotep phase during my younger years. Sparked by the February 2008 issue of National Geographic “The Black Pharaohs”, I insisted on telling everyone I met that Egyptians were brown, contrary to popular depictions. This could possibly be why The Prince of Egypt is one of my favorite movie, along with its immaculate soundtrack. I lived and breathed everything related to Egypt, praying that my family lineage traced back to the kings and queens (more recently finding out that Cameroon is likely our place of origin).
While it seems like I’m trying to prove just how black I am, this is a thought process I’m sure many have gone through. While I did have moments where I was insecure about the size of my ears and nose, and those inevitable comments about how dark my skin got during the summer never felt good, I never had a desire to be white. Forgetting just how old I was at the time, I recall my mother calling me into her room to talk about my younger brother. He had started elementary school, and she worried that he was beginning to develop self-esteem issues. He had always been darker than me and my older brother, though I had never thought much of it, and he had made a questionable comment about the color of his skin. So my mother dug up a statue that I had always seen at my grandmother’s house. Sitting the small statue on the shelf by his pillow, he would be able to see a little brown boy with a dog every night before he closed his eyes. Painted at the base were the words “Black is beautiful”.
As I grew into my teenage years, I began to see how far removed I was from many cultural trends. But, I had grown up in the church. Of course John P. Kee was more familiar than the sounds of UGK. And I was jamming to ‘Hiya’ by Twinkie Clark before JAY Z sampled it. I wasn’t as in tune with “secular” culture, spending my weeknights at Bible Study, and not being allowed to go to friends parties that were inconveniently always on Sunday. But this was every black child whose parents were faithful practitioners. My blackness was tied to the deep roots of the Pentecostal church. Even to this day, as my feelings towards organized religion have changed, that culture still runs through my veins. I can barely listen to most of the Top 40 because of the lack of soul and authenticity. Seeing artists try to sample the sound of the church, without having truly experienced it aggravates me. But that’s a conversation for another day.
I knew God as the flailing of black hands during Sunday morning service. I knew motherhood as the brown hands resting on my forehead, praying for protection every morning before school. I knew fatherhood as the deep hue of a man floating in the water, ensuring that I wouldn’t drown during swimming lessons. I saw the creative side of blackness every time the community would put on of theatrical performance. The joyful side of blackness at those Saturday cookouts in the park. The mourning of lost black life translated into a three-part harmonies.
During the peak of my adolescence I was truly beginning to explore who I was. And that was a journey with no trusted role models who would understand what I was going through. At the intersection of queerness and blackness, I had found an entirely new culture. A space and language that felt completely comfortable for me. Something that my straight black counterparts couldn't relate to or understand. My sophomore year of high school a girl asked me what "shade" meant, and that speaks for itself.
I’ve never felt like I needed to compete with anyone on how many times I’ve seen Baby Boy played on BET, or defensive when for the longest I was stumped by who was “taking over for the '99 & the 2000”. We all have a special place in the house for grocery bags, and grew up knowing that the Country Crock container in the fridge had leftovers. And these sort of universal life experiences bring so many black people together. While with those who have finally found of love for their blackness, and make it loud and clear every time they scream WAKANDA FOREVER — or react to every soulful sample in pop music as meaning the revolution is coming — I’m reminded that our experiences are also diverse, which is what makes our people so beautiful, right?