Friday, September 6, 2013

Defining Black Pride for Self

I began thinking about this in earnest yesterday, after several discussions (see: Facebook) on race and race politics in America.  The seed for this was planted in my mind after reading this spectacular article written by my friend Mo the Educator regarding race politics and "proper blackness".  After reading this article and leaving my comments on it, I began thinking: What does it mean to me to be a Black American and to have Black Pride? I ask these questions and, in what follows, hope that I have found the beginnings of an answer.  As always, please chime in on the comments (or contact me by other means) if you have an opinion.  Twenty-seven years of life as a Black American doesn't qualify me as some supreme expert on the subject, and I welcome all feedback; anything that makes me think is worth considering.

Starting broadly, I think that being a Black American means that your ancestry is traceable back to any one of the millions of slaves that inhabited this country. Whether you can actually trace it back yourself is irrelevant. Whether your skin color shows your heritage or not is also irrelevant, though it does make it harder for you to assert your "blackness" where applicable.  If you share blood with one of those that was enslaved here in the United States, you're a Black American.  That means, to me, that Black Canadians, Caribbeans, Central Americans, and South Americans that come to the United States are not Black Americans. They're still Black, as they share that same slave descent, but they're not Black Americans. That also means that, again to me, Africans (immigrant and otherwise) are not Black— they're African (and since Africa is not a country, they're Nigerian, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Senegalese, etc).   This is not to say that being a Black American is any better (or worse) than being Black Dominican, Black Brazilian, or Congolese; it's simply just not the same category.

That said, I think that the essence of "Blackness", whether you're in America or not, lies in that shared history of pain coming from slavery.  That's the common thread that binds all of us lost children in the Western Hemisphere.  We're lost because much of our history has been scrambled and/or lost by the slave trade, so much so that we might as well have sprouted randomly from American soil.  Our ancestors lost their music, their gods, their dances, their food, their names—their identities were lost in the beatings, the killings, and the suicides that characterized those difficult times.  In this oppressive alien land, Blacks as a people have had to reboot their culture from the ground up.  Thus, when I think on Black Pride and try to define it in my own mind, this is where I start.  I hesitate to use "African American", for these very reasons.  Yes, we're of African descent and we never can nor should we ever deny that.  However, we're so disconnected from that root that to call ourselves African-Americans similar to the way in which others refer to themselves as Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Norwegian-Americans is disingenuous, as it pertains to our actual connection to anything in Africa.  There is no "old country" for us.  Our pre-slavery history is black as our skin (ooh wee, that was clever! Wasn't that clever?  I thought that was clever.).

Black Pride means first acknowledging and owning that slave ancestry, and very simply being proud that you managed to come out of that. It means remembering their struggle and honoring the values that they fought for. It means keeping in mind that, above all else, our forebears bled, suffered, and died for the opportunity to choose who we wanted to be, and be acknowledged as human. It means honoring our skin color, our typical common tracer (though not always obvious, as my own grandmother could've passed for a tanned white lady), and the rainbow of shades in which we can appear.

It means being proud of our hair in its natural state, in the bouquet of different curls in which it can come. It also means knowing and acknowledging with honesty the historical roots of hairstyles like relaxed hair, weaves, and extensions. The reason for a style is as important as, if not more than, the style itself. If you relax or otherwise disguise/alter the nature of your hair, know that women and men use to do it because our hair was thought of as disgusting and deplorable in its natural state. Know that women and men burned themselves with lye and hot combs in order to get hair that looked "white". Know that "goodness" of one's hair is still a raw wound amongst people of color.  And if you're on the flip side of that and are judging those with hair appearing different than yours, cut that nonsense and know that everyone has different preferences and may not be the "lost child" that you think they are.  Check yourself accordingly, then move on with your life knowing that the style you choose is the style YOU choose that makes you happy, and not the product of any residual self hate or a misguided need to rebel. 

It means honoring others like us that share our history and working to bring them up in ways that respect their individual struggles, as they're the descendants of our own ancestors' partners in struggle. It means honoring the music our people make, the steps that our people take when they dance, and calling out either one when they dishonor us. It also means honoring the fact that we are of African origin, and paying homage to the cultures that have sprouted up and lived there over time, though I caution against generic African reverence because it carries a similar ignorance of the individual peoples of Africa that is shared by those that have oppressed those people.

Black pride means honoring our food and cooking styles, while taking strides to find healthier alternatives to classic "soul food" which will annihilate your body over time.  It means honoring our bodies and all of the different ways in which they can appear.  Because of centuries of selective breeding, convolved with basic characteristics of our African ancestry and some mixture of native American and European (from both legitimate and illegitimate relationships), our body types follow certain trends.  Honor your musculature, your curves, and your other physical characteristics, but also honor your health.  Don't write off poor (or nonexistent) eating and exercise habits.  There's a big difference between a genetic big butt and a McDonald's big butt.  Own it.

Bet you didn't know Black
Jesus had dreads! Haha!
It means honoring Black religious practices, whether you believe or don't (like myself). That in particular means not only revering your Muhammad or Black Jesus, but respecting practitioners of Vodou, Candomblé, Santeria, and other religions that have sprouted from Black mouths and minds, as well as respecting those who have chosen not to subscribe to a religion. You don't have to believe the way that someone else does to pay respect.

It also means honoring the style with which we speak, and not denigrating the slang that comes out of our neighborhoods just because it's different from the "proper English" that we've all learned. It's its own English dialect and should be viewed as such, and not looked down upon simply because it has grown out of the ghettos. It should also be allowed to be analyzed and critiqued like any other dialect, especially when parts of it put prison, pimp, and drug culture on a pedestal. The same goes for our fashion.

To me, Black Pride means all of these things and more, much of which I'm still fleshing out for myself. At the last, Black Pride means honoring yourself because you are who you are, and not dishonoring other cultures because they're different, or because individuals in those cultures resemble (and let's face it, sometimes actively emulate) those that once beat, raped, swindled, and lynched our ancestors. Acknowledge the pain, the anger, and the resentment, but don't transfer it to those who exist today. Unless they deserve it. 

I apologize in advance if I rambled a little. I just like to define my terms for clarity before starting a discussion of this type. Blame my desire to write in my speaking voice and my speech training as an astronomer. 


  1. Insightful and interesting, thanks for sharing Nick.

    I like your sentiments about acknowledging and understanding the origins of things (such as religion/language/dialect).

    A serious question: The "American culture" is one that takes aspects from all its constituent peoples and their roots. Our language borrows words, our food style takes from dozens of countries, our mannerisms are the result of many waves of immigration (not all voluntary, granted). Black culture has always been a cornerstone of American culture, yet there seems to be push-back about this. How can other people in America (whites, asians, Africans, etc) assimilate or coopt pieces of black culture in a respectful manner?

    1. Hey Jim. First and foremost thanks enormously for commenting. I understand that it's not easy to feel comfortable commenting on things like this from the outside looking in, and I appreciate your gumption.

      That said, your serious question is a lot more serious than you may seriously know. Seriously. It makes me wish that I was better-versed in Black history so that I could cite concrete examples of what I'm about to go into, and give you the response you deserve, but I hope you won't fault me too hard for putting a big "from what I understand" in front of everything that follows.

      American culture as it stands is most definitely an amalgamation of other cultures, that much is undeniable. However, there's parts that are given and parts that are just straight up taken (as you've noted), from every constituent culture. The latter has historically been the trend when it comes to Black culture. Often times, achievements by Black people (in the arts, sciences, whatever) have been taken and used without credit given or paid (e.g. Elvis), so cultural "assimilation" or "co-opting" is touchy with alot of black people. What's worse is that even more often, parts of are culture are taken and exalted, while black people in general continued to be disrespected and caricatured en masse. Hence the push-back. Many people are going to see it as "those mfers trying to take our shit again", simply because that's the reality of it. It leaves a sour taste in a people's mouth when those that talk about how broken and dysfunctional your culture is are the same people taking your stuff without credit and monetizing it. So that's the setting.

      As for how to do it respectfully? Shoot, I don't really know offhand, but I don't expect that it's in much the same way one might adapt elements from other cultures. I guess one way is to leave the caricatures aside. That means no fake Afros, black face, or fake thug/ho costumes on Halloween. If you want to adapt music, give credit where credit is due and make it known that that's where the credit is due. Same for dance, spoken word, food, fashion, and other arts. Don't act like you just had a flash of uninfluenced inspiration. Don't try to put a white face on a black "thing" and call it new. Ask for permission to take things. Learn the historical roots of what you're delving into and honor those roots. And ultimately understand that sometimes you're just not going to be given the privilege of adoption. Learn to respect that and maintain the given distance.

      I think the road to healthy cohesion starts and ends with respecting a people as people. You wouldn't shave your head and enter a shaolin temple hoping to be accepted as a monk. You have to earn that with respect to and acknowledgement from the people in charge. Same thing here.

      I hope I've answered the question, because it feels like I just rambled for a couple paragraphs.