Colorism: ‘Black’ defines our beauty, art, history, solidarity — me
As the song says, it is so great to be young, gifted and black
I can still remember the first time I felt like I needed to defend my blackness.
In high school, our heavily ambitious theater teacher launched a multiracial production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Based on Fats Waller’s 1929 hit song, the production was a beautiful tribute to the mood and attitude of the Harlem Renaissance.
It was a celebration of black life in varying keys – and the lowest point is represented by a song called (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue. In the twilight of the roaring twenties, Waller’s plaintive refrain made total sense: What did I do to be so black and blue? To be marked as white was to be free. And many people now classified as white didn’t make the cut then, so you can imagine what it felt like to be black in that era.
But in 1999? Singing in a racially integrated suburb to an audience of mostly wealthy white parents? I felt the sort of conflict that I couldn’t quite articulate as a teenager. And the lyrics, each time I had to open my mouth to sing them, caused a minicrisis around one line:
I’m white inside but that don’t help my case/ ‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face
I’m not white inside, I kept thinking to myself, why do I have to want to be white? Every time I sang the lines, I felt like a traitor to my race. But the idea that black is beautiful, the Black Power movement, the revolution of the color line would fully blossom three decades after the song was written. Yet, it still filled me with a sense of unease.
Even back then, as I carefully pieced together my identity, I would realize my blackness is far more than just the color of my paper-bag-test-failing skin.
The word represents a political affiliation shared by millions of people in the diaspora. Paul Gilroy pioneered the idea of the Black Atlantic, a framework designed to unite the various cultures and histories of Americans (North and South), Brits, the Caribbean, and Africa through the sea and not land. Our experiences are different. But our blackness is the same.
We drift toward each other’s beautiful darkness, creating those moments that lead the world to realize that darkness is to be embraced, not feared, loved, not loathed. We claim ourselves as black in defiance of borders, in defiance of history, a spit in the eye of those who would posit that blackness is anything but a compliment.
The calls for a thought revolution away from black and toward less impactful terms like melenated is ultimately a fool’s errand. The reason for the struggle isn’t an elementary school-level misunderstanding of skin colors. The issue is racism, prejudice, and the kind of internal and external bias that promises that anything, any term, any name is better than black.
To fail to embrace our blackness is to leave so much beauty, so much art, so much history, and so much solidarity behind. We would have no need for Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Janelle Monae or Kendrick Lamar. Our experiences are shaped by our birthright.
We know that we contain multitudes. And we all know any simplistic racial framework can’t encapsulate all of the nuances of blackness. The concept of race, as we know it, is a social construct – one only needs to check Racebox.org to see how blackness and whiteness (and all of states of being in between) change depending on the era.
And yet, we continue to find each other under this banner of blackness, this known cultural shorthand that makes space for the Ivy League and historically black colleges, works on July Fourth and Juneteenth, that wears church hats and kufis, that hears jazz and hip-hop and rock. Black is the color of the galaxy. And we’ve always looked to the stars (be it the drinking gourd or Sun-Ra’s space ship or Octavia’s Patternmasters), the kind darkness providing cover on our way to freedom.
Embracing the term black, loving something you are taught to fear, is the most powerful form of resistance there is. Articulating your blackness is a powerful statement of self into an environment that prefers to push everything that isn’t white out of the frame.
To embrace oneself, and one’s own negritude, is a key part of growing up. But once we learn to see ourselves as part of this amazing resistance in progress, how can we feel anything but pride to be associated with our blackness?
And I love feeling so blessedly whole, so five-fifths of a person. And to paraphrase the great Nina Simone, it is so great to be young, gifted, and black.