On blackness and being American

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Black identity in the United States has always been complex, but it has become even more layered in the last few decades because of the gains of black freedom struggles. These gains gave a small group of black Americans access to integrated middle-class status while so many remain  impoverished and some incarcerated.

Yet, whenever a high-profile person seeks to redefine themselves, controversy ensues — and for good reason.

Like many others, when I heard actress Raven-Symone tell Oprah Winfrey in an interview recently that she rejects labels such as black and gay, I rolled my eyes and thought, “here we go again.”

Much digital ink was spilled over Raven’s words, just as occurred when “Happy” singer Pharrell Williams, also in conversation with Oprah, claimed to be “new black.” Far less has been said about her refusal of the label gay, which she also explained on OWN TV.

The struggle with racial identity in the post-integration era can currently be seen on the highly successful television sitcom “black-ish,” which features an upper middle-class black couple that is struggling to keep cultural influences for their children.

Writer and Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper rightly points out that proclamations such as Raven’s by black public figures are hardly new or unique. In fact, we can go back almost 100 years to Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen stating he wished to be considered just an artist and not a black artist.

I think we too easily dismiss statements such as Raven’s as black “bougie” delusions of free-for-all multicultural grandeur.  Why do we keep getting to this point?  Why do we care so much?  Why can’t we just let the Pharrells and Ravens of the world skip along their post-racial brick road?

I didn’t take Raven to be saying that she was not black (and she later felt compelled to clarify her declaration just to make sure that everyone knew that she was not denying her blackness). Rather, she was attempting to express a different way of thinking about black identity, another way to live her blackness and queerness.

The sad fact is, however, there is no way to do so in our world given that both the language we have to talk about racial identity and the underlying social structures that create these identities have not changed as much as we’d like to think. Raven cannot be simply an American because being black does not so much modify “American identity” as completely negate it, in much the same way blackness is incompatible with being German or French.

The promise of racial integration since the 1960s for the black middle-class minority, which has been chronicled in Black literary texts since the 1980s, depends on requiring assimilation into the white mainstream by any means necessary.  Yet, as has become evident, even if Black people completely assimilate, they cannot reap the political, economic and cultural benefits of whiteness. Raven is indicative of these developments — she’s done everything right so why can’t she exist as just an American?

Although Raven’s statement is problematic, it is just a symptom of the ongoing struggles over the enduring significance of blackness in the post-integration era.

Things should be different and better, but they are not, because the racial order that clearly distinguishes between black folks and the rest still remains in place. So it does not matter whether they are the president, a popular entertainer or Michael Brown, they are still, above all, black. Why else would President Barack Obama’s Americanness be denied repeatedly, to say nothing of the challenge to his and the first lady’s humanity in their depiction as apes?

And, as we learned from the testimony of police officer Darren Wilson in the Ferguson, Mo. case, he believed his victim, Michael Brown, looked like a “demon,” not an 18-year-old youth. Furthermore, as the killings of Islan Nettles, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Aniya Parker, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Vonderrit Myers, to name only a few, have shown, being black continues to function as a state-sanctioned death sentence, which is why we still need to proclaim in 2014 that #BlackLivesMatter.

Dr. Alexander G. Weheliye teaches black literature and culture, social technologies and popular culture. He is the author of “Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.”

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