What is blackness? 

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
–Ralph Ellison

Gordon Parks, The Invisible Man, 1952 

Blackness is not merely the hue of my skin. In Cheikh Dipo’s, The Origin of the Black World, he argues that “Black African culture set for the whole world an example of extraordinary vitality and vigor” (Dipo, 208). I would agree, there is immense beauty that comes with being black. Blackness looks different for everyone. Blackness involves the instinctive way my eyebrows raise when a person not black asks me: “how come you don’t act like other black people?” A question I ignorantly used to answer with glee until I recognized it was a device to destroy my dignity. Blackness is Murray’s hair pomade, mixtapes sold in the barber shop parking lot, and the tears that arrive while watching Cooley High. 

Blackness is the natural way my feet move in harmony with my hands while I dance, whether it is to Beyonce or The Migos. It is a distinct joy while reading Toni Morrison, Sister Souljah and W.E.B. Du Bois. Blackness is even so slight, it appears in the eye contact and smile I create for people who see my tall, black stature and refer to me not as human, but as a situation. Because of blackness, I have been able to not only survive, but also thrive and genuinely love in a country that was built without me in mind. I would argue that the definition of blackness looked different for people throughout history, moreover, the definition of freedom began to change and shift for different people in this time. 

In W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, he coined the term, double consciousness. Du Bois was well educated and one of the most prolific writers of our time. In the Black Letters on The Sign, the author makes the assertion that, “the novelty of Du Bois’ place in the black tradition is that he wrote himself to power, rather than spoke himself to power.” What some could do with their speech, Du Bois was able to convey it on the page. Having a mix of great orators as well as writers was an effective tactic to use. Up until this semester, I’d been introduced to great orators, but never anyone that seemed to have the impact that Sojourner Truth had. Frances Gage, a pioneer in the Women’s Rights Movement, had this to say about Sojourner Truth, “I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day… hundreds gathered to shake her hand, and congratulate the old mother” (Gage, 331). Frances went on to say, “amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude” (Gage, 331). Sojourner Truth was able to move the room with a powerful speech. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note here is that “Du Bois was fearless in the face of genre—even when some genres didn’t embrace him.” Du Bois wanted to make impressions and spark conversation regardless of whether his works were well received or not. 

W.E.B. Du Bois defines double consciousness as being, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder” (DuBois). As an African American, there will always be this sense of “other” that you must deal with. There is this war that’s always happening on the inside, whether people can see that on the outside. Through lecture notes, I discovered that DuBois felt that “the problem of the 21st century is the color line” (Du Bois). For Du Bois, this relation was characterized in terms of white domination and exploitation that denied more than half of the world’s population the rights of full citizenship and status as human beings, informing what he referred to as the double consciousness of being African American. Du Bois would go on to say that, “this notion was an affliction.” (DuBois). I would agree, it is an affliction. Growing up as an African American male, I could not help but feel that I often performed more than my peers from other races. Performance in both a literal and physical sense. Could you imagine what it would be like to always feel that you must put on a show, or perform in a way to conceal certain parts of your identity

Du Bois goes on to argue that, “the worst feature of this double consciousness is that the two lives we live… really show very little relation to the other” (Du Bois). How crazy is that? You’re trapped in this state of being caught between two separate conflicting identities. The most compelling argument Du Bois made in the chapter was when he made the assertion that it is out of this double consciousness, “we get double words, and double ideas… which tense the mind to revolt and pretend” (Du Bois). I would argue that this idea helped lead to a rise in gangs and gang violence in the United States

In the film, Crips and Bloods: Made in America, Kumasi, one of the principal characters in the film says this, “Part of the mechanics of oppressing people is to pervert them to the extent that they become their own oppressors.” Essentially, Kumasi felt that one of the greatest tools of the oppressor is to sow seeds of hate and further try to create division. To try to dehumanize a group of people so much that we become our own oppressors. Since the beginning of time, there have been negative stereotypes perpetuated in the media to continue to flame the fires of racism. 

W.E.B. Du Bois makes the statement that, “sadly, the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as an American, leads inevitably to a painful self- consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence” (Du Bois). While African Americans lead these double lives, there is a huge mental toll that’s taken on them as well. I thought that in the film, Shaka, member of the Family Swan Bloods, beautifully articulated his feelings with the same moral hesitancy Du Bois wrote about. Shaka said, “So, a lotta times, man, I know morally I’m a good individual, but sometimes I gotta put that moral state of mind behind me and become an animal.” Society has treated African Americans as animals for so long, it’s no wonder why we have issues with gang violence so prevalent in communities today. It led me to wonder if as a society we would find a solution to this problem if instead of poor African American teenagers it was affluent white teenagers who were killing each other? 

Blackness can hold different meanings to different people. There is no right or wrong way to be Black. One of the classic texts in African American studies is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Her playful yet profound articulation resonates for me now. She wrote, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. Like Hurston, I refuse to see my blackness and the story of who I am as a tragedy.



On Key

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