Whether I’m poor or rich, or rich or poor
Though it’s all the same *@%$
These words are excerpted from a song by rap artist Styles P entitled “I’m Black” that focuses on what it means to be black and the notion of connection that is often present between black people. The other day while listening to it, I started to think “What does it mean to be ‘black’?”
It means that somewhere along the line an individual is of African descent. But beyond that, does it mean one walks a certain way? Talks a certain way? Has a certain religion? Has certain political views?
Stereotypes exist about every group of people under the sun, but given a united sense of historical struggle that blacks worldwide have often shared, there seems to be an effort to make blacks appear united and monolithic in all ways—not only from outside but from blacks as well. Much of this notion stems from the way blacks will inevitably be identified by others—whether one is Haitian or Ghanaian, from West Virginia or Westminster, when walking down the street you are still simply black in the eyes of most, with all of the assumptions that often come with that.
Because of these factors, it is easy to overlook the fact that black people represent a variety of things, and there is not, and should not, be an “authentic” way to be black. While this may seem obvious, there are many circumstances in which a common “black experience” is taken for granted.
One thing often overlooked in an age where blacks are increasingly reaching the upper echelons of the workforce is class differences among blacks. When I first came to Duke, the biggest culture shock I encountered was probably among my black peers. I’d always known there were many different types of black people out there—not just the middle and working class ones I was surrounded by in my New Jersey neighborhood, but somehow characters like designer addict and socialite Hilary Banks nonchalantly asking her father for $500 to go to the mall on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had always remained in a semi-fictional realm for me.
Despite desires by black leaders to claim a unified struggle on all fronts, the truth is that black people come from all different walks of life when it comes to class. Yet Carlton Banks does not represent a “real” black person to most people. Efforts to remain identifiable with struggle or “the street” can often be observed. Admittedly, most blacks, no matter their income, are not far removed from struggle generationally, and part of this reflects a desire to remain grounded and not forget where one came from.
But it also implies a need for an “authentic” blackness that still represents “the streets.” Even rap artists, after selling 10 platinum albums, still feel the need to tell elaborate stories of how they hustle for money and claim that they are still “’hood.” When your income bracket skyrockets, at what point can you no longer claim financial struggle as a part of your “black” identity? at what point do you become “the man” that people work “night and day” for?
A recent infamous event that has implications of class differences and differences of values among black people is Bill Cosby’s rant on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education about what black people “need” to do. “Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal,” Cosby said. “They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’.... Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads.... You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!”
While some of Cosby’s comments about high crime and pregnancy rates in black communities had some merit, hearing comments like this one makes one wonder at what point cultural or class differences can be acknowledged among different sectors of the black community. I am 100-percent sure that you’d find some alternate interpretations of the English language in America’s trailer parks as well, but because of the nature of race in this nation, this is not seen as a problem endangering the reputation of an entire race. Cosby doesn’t seem to consider the fact that being a doctor may not be on the agenda for all blacks and not all blacks have aspirations to be like the Huxtable family. Sometimes critiques of black America from members of the “talented tenth” can take on a rather paternalistic nature in scolding lower economic sectors of blacks to act like they do.
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There are many other ways in which a false uniformity is often expected of blacks. Sexuality, specifically among black males, is one example. The idea of a black, gay male becomes oxymoronic in a context where being black implies heterosexual prowess. Even discussions of the alternative sexual lives of famous black icons like Langston Hughes or James Baldwin are looked down upon as somehow detrimental to their legacy as outstanding black men.
When people talk about the “black church” in the United States, it is also easy to imagine that blacks do not also represent multiple religious affiliations outside of the Methodist and Baptist tradition. There are many regions of the U.S. that have always had strong populations of black Catholics and Episcopalians. The Islamic faith also has strong a black following.
It is often assumed that blacks always identify together politically. While blacks have often had to work together toward certain political ends, they represent a wide spectrum of views. During the civil rights movement, for example, communists worked side by side with Democrats, and revolutionaries marched alongside pacifists.
Because of this history of struggling for things that were radical when placed among the backdrop of a racist nation, and because of the legacy of people like the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, it is often assumed that being black automatically means being “radical.” In discussion about specific issues like the death penalty and abortion, many of my peers who are self-reported “liberals” express views that are traditionally conservative. While part of this stems from the problematic dichotomy and limited choice of conservative/liberal in American politics, it often seems many do not stop to actually consider whether their views on actual issues align with the label they use, as if “black” were itself a political viewpoint.
Being a black person, there are often pressures to conduct oneself in a certain way and have specific tastes in music, food, sports, etc. Turning on the TV, opening a magazine or watching a movie, and seeing standard representations of what “black” signifies simply adds to these notions.
While pointing out differences among blacks may seem divisive in some senses, my purpose in doing do is quite the opposite. Acknowledging the many things that black can be can allow for a more inclusive approach, one that leaves behind discussions of who is authentically black and who’s not. Can we acknowledge a common struggle and legacy without also placing boundaries around what is “black?” Can we share a sense of unity without limiting what we can become? Can I be “black and proud” while still welcoming the fact that not all blacks are “black” like me?
Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior. Her column usually runs every other Thursday.