Who Gets To Be “Black” In America? A Black African And A Black American Discuss

I invited my friend and fellow writer Zaron Burnett III for a dialogue on Blackness, which we conducted via email over a few weeks. Given we both have an interest in this subject matter, we thought we’d share our thoughts on this particular construction and answer some meaningful questions. Hope you all find this educational and interesting. We both certainly did!

1. What is “Blackness” to you?

Kovie: Blackness to me starts out as a construct which classifies persons whose ancestry is largely made-up of African heritage, and in particular Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, humanity is said to have come from Africa so every person is said to have a degree of “Black” in them. However, when we talk of Blackness as a global concept and in different spaces, we are often talking about a particular “race” of people. Of course we must recognize that Blackness differs in different spaces and is culturally specific too, and is therefore a complex construction because of history and socializations in different spaces. Still, Blackness is not just about “race,” being Black or Blackness is about a consciousness that links certain experiences and histories together even in all their diversity. Blackness is complex, I guess, but it is always and already a diverse and inclusive construct that identifies particular people in particular spaces.

Zaron: I agree with you that Blackness isn’t limited to heritage, nor is it defined by the cruelty of slavery and those early chapters of American history that created the notion of black people. Blackness is bigger than race. Even if we admitted race is an imaginary construct, we would still have Black people. So what is it that grants Blackness? I also agree with you that it’s a matter of consciousness. Does this mean someone like Eminem could think of themselves as a black man? Ha! No. But he is steeped in the culture and the consciousness. He knows Blackness. The difference is still in the body. As much as race is imaginary, Blackness is real. The consequences of having a black body are real. Blackness is a consciousness that’s born from a cultural history that is complicated by the peculiar predicament of possessing a black body. In other words, Black bodies hold the consciousness of Blackness. The world said we were Black. Others told us what that meant. We responded with defiance and we defined what Blackness is for us. Now, as James Brown once sang, and pop music videos prove with every white girl who wears black culture like fashion, “Black is beautiful.”

2. Who is “Black” in America?

Zaron: My father’s a Black Nationalist and he taught me that Blackness is born of the process of American slavery. This means, if you look black but your ancestors didn’t go through slavery then you’re an African living in America. Following that definition, we have yet to have a Black president since Obama’s father was Kenyan and his mother an American white woman. My opinion of Blackness is informed by my father’s but it’s different. I define Blackness as anyone who has a black body, or any person who was parented by black bodies. My nephew is blond and blue-eyed, but his mother, my sister, is black by American standards. Others would say she’s multiracial. She sees herself as a black woman and as a biracial person, half-white and half-black. Her son sees himself as white and black. Obviously, the world does not agree with him. But I agree with him: born of a black mother, he is her black son. Even if his doesn’t look black, he has a Black body and he will experience the dual-consciousness that comes with it.

Kovie: This to me is always such an interesting question. And especially having analyzed and critiqued the CNN specials “Who Is Black In America?” and “Black In Latin America.” But I will be very blunt with my response. For me there is something both disturbing and irritating that there is a slight majority or at least a vocal minority of Americans and Black Americans in particular who conclude that “Black” is an American construct, that should only apply to the Black American experience.

I am an African and I am Black. One is a label that describes a very vast ethnic identity and the other is a racial identity. And while I will be the very first person to point out the need for context and cultural contexts in particular – I am after all, a student of multiculturalism. But that “Black” is hegemonized and seen as an American construct is typical to me of a certain American intellectual arrogance in perceiving global constructs only through their eyes. Blackness is a consciousness experienced outside of the Black American experience and even those who are Black but not American have a Black experience in America. It might be different from a Black American experience but it is not be negated on the basis of national identity. And yes, this is even true for people who have experienced Blackness in places such as much of Sub-Saharan Africa where specific ethnic identities are more salient than race.

3a. Are there any perceived tensions between Black Americans and non-American Blacks?

Kovie: I think there are real and perceived tensions. I think much of it comes from socio-economic advantage of some Black immigrants who may come from other parts of the world and therefore cannot claim to have the same double consciousness that Black Americans have, a consciousness that affects socio-economic class. I remember distinctly in college where a story went around the African and Caribbean circle quickly that one Black American lady had told an African student something like, “They don’t help our people but when these people come from the jungle, the government helps them.” Of course in particular, I think she was referring to Africans. But outside of that, I often get the sense that Black Americans perceive non-Black Americans as thinking that “we” think we are “better” than them.

I think this stems from the idea that our cultures are supposed to have a strong tie and they do. But at the same time, they are a different and in a lot of ways, there is an argument to be had that middle- to upper-class Black non-Americans find it easy to assimilate into mainstream America. Also, I get the sense of closer cultural ties of Black non-Americans with each other, as opposed to with Black Americans. I think this is because non-Black Americans accept a global and “unAmerican” construction of Blackness and then also, an “immigrant” or “foreign” experience that they can bond over.
I think Black non-Americans sometimes too, distance themselves from the Black experience and from being “seen” as Black American because of the pain that may be associated with the experience in the United States. And I think it’s a shame because a lot of the time, when we get inflicted with the same microaggressions in our everyday lives, our national identities do no matter – our race does.

Zaron: You address the key points of tension. Black Americans certainly feel there is an attitude of superiority that’s expressed by non-American Blacks, specifically, sub-Saharan Africans. If you’re in a crowd of Black Americans all you have to do to act like an African is stiffen your spine and act imperious — they’ll know what you mean. I think this speaks to the tension felt on both sides. It does seem like Africans go out of their way to make sure others know that they are not Black Americans. Consequently, I’ve always presumed this was a way to indicate their ancestors never experienced the indignity of slavery, they weren’t tainted by the whip and chain. But it may be what you suggest, that they wish to avoid the present day negative connotations of blackness in America. More to the point, I think you nailed it when you said that economics play a large part in the tension. Immigrants who arrive in America, and are here, say, for college and are on the path to a middle-class life, or better, they look like they’re skipping past Black Americans and benefitting from America before those who’ve been here longer. This is not unique to Black Americans and non-American Blacks, this is the case for all well-to-do immigrants. People see them as taking advantage of the system, like, cutting in line. But if they’re not well off, an immigrant is seen as a leach. There really is no good position for an immigrant to assume that’s safe from criticism.

3b. What about specifically between Black Americans and Black Africans?

Zaron: From what I hear from others Black Americans, Africans are often seen as imperious immigrants who cut in line to get ahead, and to borrow your quote “they don’t help our people,” also they make it clear they think they’re better than Black Americans, so yeah, I’d say it’s safe to say there are tensions between the two groups. I remember from Black Studies classes thinking that the Pan-African movements had the right idea. There should be less animosity between people based on arbitrary lines drawn on maps by foreigners, and there ought to more concerted, constructive communication between cultures, so that as one race Black people around the globe see each other as brothers and sisters. Wars for resources and religion obviously get in the way of that dream. However, for those of us not in the conflict zones, I feel it’s incumbent upon us to overcome the tensions between Africans and Black Americans and all the black diaspora, like, the people of the Caribbean and South America of African descent. Because at the moment, there’s the racism of the skin game, popular in the Caribbean and South America, wherein anyone who’s lighter is assumed they’ll do better in life. And in America, there’s the inverse game of determining who has pure African blood, like their True Black, Real Black, and why that means they’re better because they’ve never been corrupted by slavery, rape, etc. Games of supremacy divide us and perpetuate racist attitudes and personal hardships. They poison the well. For me, I ignore nationalism and instead see a black face as a black face, and they’re one of my brothers or sisters, regardless of origin or class. I think that’s elementary — but sadly, very important.

Kovie: I think it’s very important at this point to mention that there is huge difference in Africans that is dependent on the region and the emerging nation-states that have only been around for the last 5, 5 and a half decades. For example while we think of slavery as a unique Black American experience, we shouldn’t forget that it occurred on the African continent too and not only inter-tribe but the same European imperialist kind that occurred throughout the globe. That is often forgotten too, even when apartheid South Africa came to an end in our lifetime.

Frankly speaking as a West African, as a Nigerian in particular, we are fiercely proud people. Americans get the global backlash of being “arrogant,” but Nigerians are right there as well. We are proud of our cultures, our history, and even as a people who were colonized, as a people who still struggle, we are very loud about who we are and so I often think that pride is sometimes mistaken for that “better than” attitude, even though the latter is also true and is observable. And it brings me much embarrassment when I witness it. Having lived outside of Nigeria and experienced other African ways of life, I have to comment that not all Africans have this fierce pride – Nigerians have a reputation for it outside of the United States too.

That said, while I personally and so very obviously admire Black Americans, I think that there are tensions between the groups, not necessarily individually, but for the very reasons that you state. I think there are games of supremacy waged between the two groups, and I think much of it has to do with class and also with blackness – whose blackness is greater than the other. But I think it’s very unique to the United States because I don’t sense that this is the case elsewhere. I also believe there is a pain that Black Americans rightly or wrongly feel of “you sold us,” when the complexity of slavery is much deeper than that. Slavery across the Atlantic was not slavery on the continent although the mainstream attitudes convolute the two; not to mention that many slaves were captured and kidnapped and not simply sold. But I agree with you – my “Africanness” has certainly not protected me from experiencing American racism. And I think when Africans realize that, they start to at the very least understand the Black American experience.

4. Do you think colorism plays a role in these race and national identity engagements? If so, how?

Kovie: I think colorism plays a role in race and it is exactly the complex way that you described earlier. In some national spaces, appearing visibly mixed with something other than Black grants you preferential treatment, while in other spaces appearing to be “untouched” and only Black grants you an aura of superiority. It’s extremely superficial especially if you are familiar with the vastness of Backness in terms of appearance. From an African Black construct for example, many people who are not “mixed” can and are light-skinned or some people have natural-born red hair tints. Our socially constructed ideas on race convoluted with appearance and color is such a complex thing, as much as humans love to simplify it.

As a dark-skinned Black African woman I can only speak of my experience which has been on one hand, I’ve gotten the usual dark-skin colorism negative experience everywhere I’ve been. It affected my self-perception for a long time as a child and teenager. To be completely sincere, there are moments it still does. Interestingly enough, on the other hand, it was my experience in Europe and my interactions with white European men that actually positively affected my perception of Blackness especially in terms of beauty. Of course there is that fetishization of dark-skinned Black women too that I learned over time. I had to learn to love my skin and not because of anyone else’s perception of it – Black, White, Brown, etc.

Does colorism affect interactions between Black people and based on identity? Yes. But the space – the regional, national, and local space often dictates the attitudes that seem to prevail among individuals. But of course I never negate agency of individuals to either adopt or resist those attitudes

Zaron: My sister is much lighter than I am. She’s often mistaken for any number of other ethnicities. People generally assume I’m either Black American, South American, and, most interestingly to me, people assume I’m English, like, a black man from Jolly Olde. More than I tend to think about it, others have thought about me in that colorized context and I’ve had to do reverse-engineering. Like, apparently, I look like I could be a West Indian, but only once I moved to London. Few people guess I’m from the Caribbean. Well, except when I had dreadlocks and then the assumption was obvious and the question asked to me daily, “What island? Are you Jamaican?” So, aside from cues like dreadlocks, I’ve noticed that people subconsciously or consciously track color in terms of groups of black people around the world. In America, when I was boy, I remember hearing people talk about certain sub-Saharan Africans as being purple black. That stayed with me because it was so ridiculous to picture. The thing about colorism is you would think it’s a result of the Atlantic slave trade but it existed prior to that. That said, it does seem like the modern values come from that portion of history. Being colorized, and exoticized, and fetishized, it’s oddly frustrating because you have no control over it. Maybe you’re”in-season” as a fetish, maybe not. Being mixed, I’ve been lucky that my color isn’t a major problem. I have friends who often hear crazy racist shit behind closed doors because they’re so light no one can tell they’re black. Which just proves that colorism fails at the most basic level as a way to define Blackness.

5. What do you think are the universal elements of “Black” culture and what are those that specific to the United States?

Zaron: Acknowledging that we’re speaking in bold strokes and generalizations, I would say some of the universal elements of “Black” culture are reverence, boisterousness and jubilation, soulful consideration, a group perspective similar to but different than the common Asian experience of a shared identity based on an inferred group perspective, also, a prideful independence balanced against that group perspective in equal measure, a tendency towards music and celebration, plus, our aversion to cold weather and it seems most black folks have little interest in swimming. (We don’t float and we have hair concerns.)

Okay, the last two are mostly jokes. But there are two places you’re super unlikely to see black people: skiing or in the water at a pool party. (I’m just sayin’.) But in all seriousness, whether it’s veneration of elders, a tendency towards religiosity, the stereotype by others that black people are a “spiritual people,” and our respect for those with a long view of history and a sense of memory, Black culture appreciates and expresses reverence. We can give anything that “black church feeling.” And carefully treading past harmful stereotypes, Black culture is one that enjoys a big family reunion, a block party, a church picnic, an office holiday party, a prom, a baby shower, or a graduation from boot camp. We don’t need much of an excuse to party. We, as a culture, seem to recognize that life is to be savored and the meaning is applied by us — basically, we pick when we should party. And we tend to pick “party” as an option a little more often than other cultures.

Separate from, but possibly informed by, our sense of reverence and religion, we clearly place a value on soulfulness. This is best exemplified in our artistic expressions. Black artists, even the atheist ones, generally acknowledge the soul as the center of them that is beyond the conception of the body, it is theirs, and it is the source of their ”voice.” This is not to say other cultures aren’t soulful, but much like Native American cultures or Aboriginal cultures of Australia and Micronesia, Black culture assumes the existence of the soul, rarely do we question it, and we seek communion with it/ourselves.

Also, there are the prideful aspects of Black culture that are evident in South American, Caribbean, African and American Blacks. They find expression in our group perspective and our personal ones — and these dual views of the self seem to balance each other. Asian cultures are known for their group perspective, this is why when you ask someone’s name you often hear their last name first (as Westerners would call it their last name, obviously, it’s their first name, if they say it first). The idea is their family or clan name comes before their individual identity. This is the flip of independent-minded American culture. However, American Blacks tend to continue their African traditions and place equal value on family, neighborhood and community, as they do themselves. You’ll hear someone say “Yeah, my people stay over near Crenshaw.” Or “…But I gotta go. You know how Mama Clara gets if you don’t come by and say hi when you’re home for the holidays.” Community and a sense of one’s people are assumed. It’s part of your life whether you like it or not. A surprising number of my white friends over the years have totally severed their ties to their family, their hometown, and their past. I don’t know a single black person who’s done that. Not one. Some have cut themselves off from their family after they came out as gay or transgender, but even they still have one aunt, or cousin they talk to. That’s not the case for some of my white friends, it’s like they’re in the witness relocation program. They ghost their whole life. Those are just a few, what I would call, essential identifying markers of Black culture around the globe.

Kovie: I don’t think I have too much to add to what you said about similarities. I think you’re spot on with regards to spirituality. It almost seems like a taboo in universal Black culture to go against the idea of a soul or negate the need for spirituality even if a person doesn’t practice anything regularly. I also think there is a reverence for family and community and older members of community that is specific to universal Black culture. As for differences, I do think that particular communities are more similar. I would say there is a huge soul connection between Black West Africans and Black people from the Caribbean and Brazil. I think some of the customs with regard to dance, food, dress, and even linguistic connections are more closely related. Of course Brazil makes a lot of sense too because they were late to the party with regard to ending slavery. I think there are varying subcultures of Blackness that are unique to the United States. This includes especially Black American urban culture that that has been exported to almost every place on earth.

6. The terms “African American” vs. Black American. How do you think these labels differ and do they make a difference to the perceptions of Blackness from Blacks outside of the American label?

Kovie: This to me is always such an interesting dialogue when the conversation comes up. Because I refer to “Black” as a race, and “African” as a continental ethnic identity, I often listen for the individual reasoning behind the terms. While they are used interchangeably by many, I think there are certain people who use them politically and ascribe meanings to each. I will admit that I have a personal preference for Black American, and often argue that “African-American” may perhaps be better used for first-generation people coming from the African continent. Because as often as we make the joke, Charlize Theron is technically speaking, an African-American.

I think some people view “Black” and it’s association with American as a hostile term or they dislike the historical connotations of Blackness so they prefer the label “African.” While others disassociate themselves from “African” given their lack of personal connection to the continent or cultures associated with it, and prefer the label “Black.” I think it does affect perceptions of Blackness but I think it also highly depends on a person’s socio-politics and how they associate those terms. I think Blackness, the construct, allows for multiple viewpoints and arguments.

Zaron: Charlize Theron is an African-American? Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I’ve always hated all the terms: African-American, Afro-American, negro, Person of Color, it all sounds like condescending bullshit. I’m not a huge fan of the implied dualism of black-and-white that comes with the label Black American, but of all the terms I like it the best and use it. Although, I often flip the order. I think American Black is a better arrangement. It subtly suggests that the black person in question is American. Could be a lot of things, but is an American. That works for me. And I find solidarity with black people from around the world, in addition to feeling that I’m an American. It expands my sense of self in a way that makes sense to me. The American part is no more a dominant trait than my blackness.

7. What do you think are the similarities and differences, if any, between Black Americans and non-American Blacks in terms of treatment, perceptions by other Americans?

Zaron: First, let me say what a pleasure it is to share the page with you, Kovie. Thank you for inviting me to have this dialog. Your work with race aways feeds my head.

Okay, what differences in perception and treatment do I detect? That depends I think more on class and where I am standing. In some communities and workspaces, an African and I would be seen and treated the same. That’s happened countless times.

However, if the community is Atlanta, where there is a majority of black citizens in the city and Africans stick out as obvious newcomers, then, we’re treated quite different. We tend to parse out the differences more easily and act upon them more readily. Sometimes to good ends and some times to regrettable ends. All in all, as far as other Americans, I’d say there is the exotic factor that any African is suggestive of just by being themselves, i.e. different. One thing I can say that I have found odd, women have shied away from African men in my presence because either the guy was too aggressive in his pursuit or they commented on how they had a fear of disease or a strange sexual something. I don’t know what that was about. This was only said about men. (In Berkeley, California, no less.) As far as African women, I’ve only noted that people don’t seem to expect them to be as angry as they often expect Black American women to be. That bias seems to be part of the shadow of slavery — the assumption of anger in black women. Do people assume you will be an angry black woman, like, do they act as though you’re liable to go off at any minute?

Kovie: Oh Zaron, you know you’re  one of my favourite gentlemen and scholars. Thank you for engaging with me always. To answer your question firstly, no, I don’t often get the “angry Black stereotype” – outside of the Internet anyway. In fact, it’s  laughable to all my friends of any color when they read my race articles and proceed to read the almost predictable commentary that follows. I certainly have a side that is assertive and my convictions on particular issues are quite clear. Notwithstanding the demeanor I sometimes carry around, most people can still tell I’m quite jovial and welcoming to almost anyone – which is assumed as part of my African upbringing and identity. So oftentimes as soon as people know I’m African, there’s almost an expectation that I will be friendly. I like to think I live up to that. That said, I have regrettably experienced this positive response to my friendliness at the expense of Black American women sometimes. For example, hearing commentary such as “I like African girls much better because they’re not as ‘difficult’ as Black American girls.” Being who I am, I don’t find this to be a compliment, even though I know there are those who do.

I think the differences in treatment largely depend on class and gender as you said. I think because I come from an intellectual home and my parents are in the professional class, my experience may be more positive than others. And in that way, class also affects gender. I can certainly say African men get the “too aggressive” label which is not surprising. But as far as dating goes, my brothers and male African friends have also benefited from the exoticizing of the “true African man.” I keep much of my personal dating life away from the Internet (no matter how many single/dating/relationship articles I write). But I have discussed the exoticization as well – which I think is something that is both similar for Black women everywhere, with the added “foreigness” exoticization if you are foreign.

In the end, the one thing that is the same – all other things being equal – is that even when particular features can give one’s national identity away, the first thing people notice about you is your skin, your color. And that is especially true if you’re Black under these American constructions. As a lady in the Dark Girls documentary said, and this is a paraphrase, “If the KKK walks in and wants to shoot every Black person in here, they’re not going to care what shade of Black you are or which country you’re from.” I think that is one thing all people who identify, or can be seen as Black, should always be aware of. But I won’t end on such a negative note. All colors are indeed beautiful. But while we are talking about Blackness, I simply have to conclude with: Black is beautiful. TC mark

Featured image – CNN

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