As we leave Black History Month and enter Black History Every Month I am thinking about what it means to be black. Lately, it seems to be a question on the tongues of many.
In the last six months about a half-dozen books have been released discussing or touching on black identity. Also in that time I've attended a handful of panel discussions, listened to a few presentations, attended numerous exhibitions and have read several articles exploring exactly what it means to be black. It appears that we have come to a place, again, where it is necessary to examine, possibly redefine and reclaim our identity.
This makes me wonder, are we in the midst of a Neo-Harlem Renaissance? Only, instead of being limited to an uptown neighborhood in New York City during the early 20th century, this new exploration in the form of literature, music, and visual arts now reaches far and wide and faster because of the democratic access to technology. And instead of fighting the brutal representations imposed on us by the institution of slavery, which during that time we had just emerged from, we are currently taking advantage of self-authorship to create what we want to see.
Most of this does stem from those horrible stereotypes created centuries ago, but it's also about owning the responsibility and the opportunity to showcase diversity within the black community. Today it's about "my perspective" and "my opinion" of who I am versus adopting an existing social status to fit in (like the Harlem Renaissance), or gaining basic rights or convincing black folks to love themselves as they are (like during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements).
From all this I have gathered two thoughts:
One, these different perspectives clearly show how diverse and rich we are as a people, that although we may be connected by skin tones and history the way we use or don't use that information defines us as individuals. Yet, and this brings me to my second thought; the one thing that seems consistent throughout those many conversations, exhibitions, and articles is that this very history (our story of struggle and triumph) is the single thing that allows us, the newer generation, to be the authors of our own story and share it in the various ways that we do.
The best encounter over these last few months with the question about black identity is a discussion I had with my father. Considering all the most recent chatter has been from my peers I wanted to hear the perspective of someone who's actually been through the fire. He was a child of the south who migrated with his family up north, a young man in the 60's, and a Marine in the Vietnam War — I was certain he had a lot to say.
We discussed generational differences in how black identity has been defined and how he learned about his own identity as a black man. He then shared his thoughts about our identity crisis over the years just in the names that reference who we are: nigger, nigga, black, Black, negro, Negro, colored, Afro-American, African-American. He's been called them all — and he talked through them sharing his experiences with each term. But to really sum up the conversation, my father said you can't put black people into a single picture frame; and that being black means respecting and honoring a history that binds us all.
That made me think about a conversation I had a few years ago in grad school. I was sharing with six classmates and my professor about my experiences as the only black student in the graduate program. It was a really great discussion. Prior to that dialogue I had never spoken to non-black people about some of the things I encountered or felt as a black person. I shared a lot of things including how important it was for me to do my best to be a positive representative of black folk.
"But you should just be you that's enough. You can't carry that burden," my colleagues said. I agreed but here's how I processed that conversation since then.
Yes I should live for me without the burden of representing an entire race — but I don't see it as representing a race — as in my peers, or the folks I encounter on a daily basis but my ancestors. Nor do I consider it a burden.
You see, I can not take for granted anything that has been made available to me. When I think about my sharecropper grandmother who barely had a grade school education, and my Brazilian grandmother who had never been to school and had been cleaning houses since she was a young girl, I can not do anything just for myself.
When I think about all the sacrifices made by many so that my path could be a little easier I have to remember and represent. That history and struggle, triumph and glory is the reason why I can go where I want to go and say what I want to say today (for the most part).
That history is why my father could serve this country proudly as a Marine and provide for his family, and why my mother was able to come to this country and start her own business. That fight is why President Obama is in fact President Obama and how it is even possible that the National Museum of African American History and Culture is now being built just steps away from where black people were once enslaved.
So no it's not a burden, it's an honor, and I will wear that badge of honor everyday.
With all that said, what is black identity to me? It is not only acknowledging the history that has been carved into my soul but also about being a projection of the dreams that my predecessors could not have ever imagined for themselves. It's living in the space where I have the opportunity to define Andrea Pippins while representing the hard work and sacrifice of the amazing people who came before me.
So cheers to living Black History Month every month and always.