Each year as America toggles from Black History Month to March Madness, I find myself thinking of the Nigerian student who walked into my college office some years ago at around this time. This brilliant young man and aspiring academic told me of his discomfort with Black History Month, and his annual relief when it ended. He said he felt no kinship with the ancestry memorialized in the month-long fete, and not just because his African heritage diverged from the uniquely American tradition.
The larger issue for him was tonal, almost anthropological. While the month is nominally celebratory, its “American vision of blackness,” as he put it, is replete with a canonical litany of shared suffering and despair. Each day in February, once the media get their bas-relief salutes to an inventor or scholar or civil-rights icon out of the way, the attendant punditry unfolds as a nonstop handwringing exercise, the overarching message of which is that people with brown skin require sympathy, understanding, and constant reinforcement in order to survive, let alone thrive. “We desperately need your help,” was how my former student described it.
In his view, the observance—the apotheosis of the modern American view on blackness—was an inverted kind of humblebrag; exceptional achievements intended to prove the rule are purposefully juxtaposed with the everyday bleakness of the black experience. “There’s always all that talk about how far we still have to go,” he said, lending the final phrase a parodic emphasis. He was embarrassed by the fanfare and the sudden and disproportionate surfeit of black faces paraded across TV screens, all of which he said he found patronizing, “like an extended pat on the butt for the losing team.”
“I was not raised to see myself that way,” he lamented. “I frankly don’t see why anyone should be.” And yet, each February, he felt conscripted into that ethos by his skin color, which led new acquaintances to assume he’s part of American blackness (that is, until he spoke and they heard his sonorous cadences and clipped continental diction).
I recall that young man in the context of a second student, a young American black woman. A year or two earlier, she had expressed her displeasure with my presentation of the media’s handling of systemic racism, which I framed as out of touch with demonstrable facts. She actually half-stood in her chair during class and told me I was speaking “through the lens of white privilege.” “I insist,” she announced as an awkward silence fell over the room, “that people see my blackness.” This clearly meant something to her quite beyond the color of her skin.
This rebuke occurred during my rookie season at UNLV, and I was disinclined to make waves at a sensitive moment. The grim Philando Castile video had just emerged, not two years after the viral (albeit mistaken) “hands up, don’t shoot” outrage erupted over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. So, I just heard her out and told her I’d think about what she’d said. She came and spoke to me after class, still visibly agitated. She told me that I’d “dishonored [her] lived experience,” and concluded by instructing me to “address the blackness” of my students of color in future class discussions.
Given those two polar views, I was moved to wonder: What exactly is blackness, taxonomically speaking? What assumptions am I to make about the next person of color who walks into my class—or my wider life, for that matter?
Here are some thoughts from a third student, who attends Indiana University where I held my first teaching appointment in 1997. His message appears to be that blackness is some inchoate thing to which I, by virtue of my own skin color, am not privy. Blackness is not answerable to white scrutiny. But the essay provides some clues, touching on the familiar tropes about exclusion, police brutality, and so on. It would seem that the qualities that circumscribe blackness are neither desirable nor salutary.
Writing in Time in 2020, Eddie Glaude contemplated the present and future of his race in a way that seemed to affirm that (a) blackness is very much a proprietary understanding, and (b) disappointment and even tragedy are inescapable facts of black life. Glaude imposes this “experience” on all people who share his skin color, just as my Nigerian student felt that a particular idea of blackness was being foisted upon him.
Here’s an even more pointed take by author and professor Donald Earl Collins that evokes the same kind of celebration-amid-sorrow that my Nigerian student identified in Black History Month. Collins remarks on the irony of enjoying a black entertainment event in “a nation seemingly dedicated to Black suffering and death.” Here we have the unhappiest view yet. In this conception, the hardships endured by black Americans are not just some passive occupational hazard, if you will, but an expression of America’s very raison d’être. America seems to be dedicated to black suffering and death.
This is what so disturbed me about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-lauded book, Between the World and Me, an unsparing anthem to racial paranoia. The content of the book was bad enough, but worse was that Coates wrote it in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. “You must always remember,” Coates counseled the boy, “that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Setting everything else aside, as a father myself, I was astonished that Coates would want Samori to see himself that way—adrift in a hostile society that was forever devising expedient pretexts for visiting mayhem on his “black body,” a phrase that appears, like an incantation, throughout the book.
This, according to Coates, is blackness? An inevitable birthright of permanent second-class citizenship and terror? Could this be what my female student would have me “address” and even “honor”? And yet, in recent years, one hears similar refrains from even our most temperate black voices.
During the opening phase of the Derek Chauvin trial, CNN’s since-deposed anchorman Chris Cuomo gave over a significant chunk of screen time to his colleague, Van Jones, who delivered a grim accounting of the plight of latter-day black America. Choking back tears, Jones touched on all the usual themes, from deprivation to mass incarceration to disparities in COVID outcomes to, of course, George Floyd, whom Jones presented as an avatar for spiritedly bigoted policing. Jones characterized this punishing vision as a kind of race memory that resides in the very soul of “people who look like me.”
Days later, chatting with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jones reprised his account of American blackness, which he punctuated with much solemn head-shaking and descriptions of people of color as perpetual “members of the losing side.” The very imagery, in other words, that so dismayed my Nigerian student.
And so, it must be asked: Can we ascertain, in some epistemically useful sense, the unifying characteristics of black life that constitute the essential elements of American blackness? What would its entrance requirements be?
One expected condition is surely poverty. However, the most recent census reports that 81.2 percent of black Americans live above the federally defined poverty threshold. That was pre-COVID, which doubtless will have something to say about the figures for the past two years. Nevertheless, by this single criterion, over four-fifths of black America fails to qualify for blackness.
Furthermore, poverty in America does not necessarily preclude ownership of cars, TVs, video-game consoles, or even (in some cases) private homes. Before COVID-19 put the American economy on a respirator, black unemployment stood at 5.5 percent, an all-time low; 94.5 percent of black Americans who wanted to hold a job held one.
The incarceration rate for black Americans is 1.1 percent (two percent for black males). In any given year, nearly 99 percent of black Americans are not in prison, so this cannot be a key component of blackness either. (Generally, it’s the same cohort of repeat offenders who are locked up, released, rearrested for a new crime, and then locked up again.)
There is no appreciable difference between the frequency with which police shoot white suspects and black suspects. As has been amply chronicled, unarmed black suspects are have a less than a one-in-a-million chance of being killed by cops. So, the idea that men like Freddie Gray or George Floyd epitomize American blackness is as absurd as proposing that men like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates epitomize American whiteness.
None of this is meant to deny the existence of racial disparities or problems, but clearly the image of the typical black experience in America as an unending cyclical slog from jail to the welfare rolls and back is a fiction. If blackness exists as a coherent category, it now broadly comprises few if any of the most high-profile indignities ascribed to it.
But surely, one might object, blackness is a cultural reality, the constituent parts of which any of us could catalog: the music, the dance, the dress, the argot. Perhaps—but the existence of such recognizable characteristics amounts to less than meets the eye (or ear).
First, and most obviously, cultural blackness of the sort celebrated during Black History Month is a product of nurture, not nature. It has been communicated from person to person or generation to generation, much as Coates communicated his anguished view of blackness to his son. Nothing in an infant’s genetics predisposes cultural preferences, and there is no reason for the next black child to emerge from the womb craving Kendrick Lamar over Travis Tritt (even if I am tempted to argue that we should all embrace that musical preference).
There is only a mythology built around a set of conditioned habits and preferences that have nothing to do with the next black (or white, or Asian) baby. Were a black infant to be raised by an Italian American family in the 1950s Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up, that child would likely grow up throwing baseballs instead of buzzer beaters.
Even if we accept that everybody knows what black culture is, it is manifestly exclusionary to make that culture synonymous with blackness in a defining way. For what do we then say of non-conforming black Americans who share the skin color but not the cultural tastes and affinities? In my quarter-century of teaching college, I’ve had black students who played cello in the university orchestra and disliked (or were even embarrassed by) hip-hop. And I’ve had black writing students who worked diligently to distance their speech and writing from the vernacular of their black peers. If there is indeed such a thing as blackness, is there a place in it for them? If the answer is “no,” that simply paves the way for the loathsome “cooning” and “Tom-ing” that we see too much already in social and political settings.
Which brings me to the most insidious problem with the acknowledgment of a culture of blackness. What we conceive as black culture is hopelessly, tragically infused with the narrative of woe that my Nigerian student found so off-putting about Black History Month, and that I find so upsetting about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. It celebrates a sensationalized, often anachronistic heartache.
My first career was in jazz, a historically black idiom that I pursued throughout school and later as a short-lived career. I loved the music but always hated the apparently obligatory immersion in its painful genesis. Why did I have to acknowledge the pain of Muddy Waters in order to enjoy his blues riffs? Did John Coltrane’s soaring glissandos need to be marinated in some extraneous racial meaning beyond the inventive beauty of the notes?
To this day, however, that is how jazz is formally taught—from a Black Studies perspective, in the context of its sociological underpinnings. This, presumably, is why iconic jazzman Wynton Marsalis titled his landmark 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. And why he feels he can’t talk about “the roots of jazz” without also talking about “the history of race in America.” We’re not just bolting culture onto people, we’re bolting historical misery onto them as well.
The same can be said about the output of so-called Black Hollywood. A downbeat vision of blackness has become a characteristic of black film-making, preoccupied as it is with the ordeal and the struggle. Almost without exception, black movies explore the injustices visited upon black people. You do not see many black films in which race is irrelevant or plays an incidental role. (You do not see, for instance, a black Tootsie.) In black film, even the simplest of storylines about friendship between women, such as Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film Passing, are layered with racial anxiety.
When Halle Berry accepted a lifetime achievement gong at the Critics Choice Awards, she made several references to the importance of her art in showcasing the “pain” of black life. Academics and activists demand more of the same: they want antiracism to be front-and-center in every shot; they recommend lists of movies that can serve as “jumping-off points for conversations about injustice.” Then, of course, we have the ever-expanding pantheon of black literature, which invariably looks at life through an unforgiving racial lens.
So, in black culture we again find an inescapable sense that honoring blackness means recognizing it as an oppressive burden—and for the very reasons that I rejected earlier. It becomes a circular assault on the black psyche, with black culture animated by, and then reinforcing, perversely fashionable canards about black life.
If the young black woman who admonished me in class were to confront me today, I would ask her: What is it that you want me to see when I look at you? And what do you want to see when you look at yourself? A walking legacy of heartbreak?
It is hardly controversial to acknowledge that the history of black people in America was, for centuries, fraught with grief. But there is no reason for that history to attach itself to any young black person born today or even at the millennium (like most of my students). The student born in Detroit in 2000 has no greater connection to American slavery than the student born in Lagos that same year. Or the student born in Copenhagen, for that matter.
The grim history of black Americans is not a biological inheritance, nor is it destiny. It enters the brain through the senses. When people speak to me about black America, I see 29 million individuals with diverse lives who enjoy varying degrees of success and failure. Just like everyone else. Nothing chains us to history. And nothing chains black Americans to the chains of their tragic past. To believe otherwise is profoundly disempowering.
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