What does it even mean to be black in a cultural sense?
Am I black enough?
It’s a question I’ve been struggling with since middle school. I thought I had answered it and moved on last year, but recently, though, it’s popped back into my head.
Blackness is an interesting concept, especially in the United States. Black culture is appropriated and commodified for the white majority so often it’s hard to even know what’s not black anymore. Our music, our hairstyles, our slang…practically everything that Black America creates for ourselves is taken away and made for White America. This article isn’t going to discuss that, however. This article is going to discuss the question that plagues me: am I doing enough to claim my blackness?
Sure, knowing history and the social implications of my skin color are great and all, but when it comes to middle school, what really matters is music and clothing.
A few weeks ago in my article “How My Relationship With My Blackness Has Changed,” I talk heavily on my journey to self-love. In that article, I briefly discuss the dynamics of my elementary and middle school and how my view on blackness was heavily influenced by the school’s emphasis on culture. Through that school, I guess you can say that I was very “black,” as in I knew my history (as much as you can teach someone between the ages of 5 and 14) and I was beginning to understand the social and political context of being black in America.
I’d like to clarify: I was very intellectually black. Socially, however, I would have gotten an F- if it were a class.
Sure, knowing history and the social implications of my skin color are great and all, but when it comes to middle school, what really matters is music and clothing. I’m not going to even touch on my style in middle school because, well, yeah, nope. Not happening. In terms of music, however, I was so behind. I knew none of the popular songs, and the songs from pop culture that I did know were like two years old by the time I became privy to them. And as we all know, people in elementary and middle school are cruel. So, in true elementary/middle school fashion, my classmates would “test” me on my pop culture knowledge by pulling up pictures of famous singers and rappers and asking if I knew them. 10% of the time I did, which meant that 90% of the time I didn’t. -_- And you know what that means…I was laughed at and made fun of.
No one had to tell me that I wasn’t black enough in this context. I just knew. And before you say, “But, Ahtiya, why do you say that? Maybe you just made it all up?” To that, I say, “Um, excuse me, but did I ask for your commentary?” Also, let’s just use our sixth grade common sense for a second. These pop culture icons (I’m talking like Ludacris, Chris Brown, Kelly Rowland, etc.) they were bringing up were ALL BLACK. Also, if you remember from the aforementioned article, my elementary and middle school was all black. So here I was, this little black girl with these little black classmates who all knew these black icons by facial recognition when I didn’t. I felt inadequate, like I wasn’t doing something correctly. Like I wasn’t being black correctly. When I finally did start listening to current music, my music taste veered into alternative rock and alternative music…also known as white music. Even when I was listening to current stuff, I still couldn’t relate on a musical level with most of my classmates.
Fast forward to high school where I went from a sea of black people to a sea of white people, and I was just plain conflicted. It’s not even like I tried to distance myself from R&B and Rap because I just didn’t have much knowledge about those genres. In terms of academics, I was kept pretty busy reading academic materials, and most of these materials were by white authors and for white audiences. My reading of black works was already low coming out middle school because most of the novels this society tells us are classics and should be read by a certain age are by white authors (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, etc.), plus there weren’t too many well-known literary books for kids by black authors. It’s also not like I was flaunting my blackness around loud and proud, so maybe I didn’t really want to be seen reading books by obviously black authors and with black characters on the cover. Who really knows?
The point is, I’m a junior in college, and I feel seriously behind on my readings of black works. I mean, how much do I really know about being black and black history? About the school to prison pipeline? About red-lining? About Malcolm X? Or The Black Panthers? Or really anything to be honest?
And it’s strange because I think the black community has moved on from defining blackness based on the clothing you wear, the neighborhood you live in, and the music you listen to.
We are now defining our blackness by how “woke” a person is.
For those who do not know what woke is, here is my own personal definition: A woke person is a black person, or even a non-black person, who is attune to the social, economic, and political realities of being black in America and, in some cases, how these realities are related to gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class. So, basically, a socially conscious person.
I like to think I’m pretty woke. I can hold my own in a conversaion about how systemic racism and red-lining were basically fuel for the school to prison pipeline and how black on black crime is a damn myth used by racist to perpetuate the validation of hate crimes against black bodies. Sure. But then I started feeling a new pressure to know beyond that. At first, I just felt plain dumb. Like, sure, there are some iconic black works that I’ve read, but there are many, many more that I have not. Was my lack of knowledge and the ability to recall certain passages from certain iconic black literature a testament to the fact that I was not so smart at being black? Why was I drawn to mostly books that focused around white characters (this is probably because my favorite genre in a broad sense is fiction and the default race in this genre just so happens to be white)?
So, I started making a list (thank you, Goodreads!), and now I’m obsessed. I’ve moved on from this insecurity, thankfully, and now I’m reading black works because I have a genuine interest, and I can relate. I’m ashamed of the reason why my interest was piqued, of course, but I realize that we all have our own way of finding our path. The stories of black people are interesting to me, and they are becoming more interesting than the stories of the white characters I always read about. The tricky thing is, however, that representation is important, and I don’t feel completely represented when it comes to literature, so my options can be somewhat limited to a few of the same authors.
Blackness is tricky, and there is no one way to be black. So, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Let me know how you’ve defined your blackness in the comments section below!