The Language of Blackness


Alternately, I could have named this post “On How America Taught the World to ‘be Black’ ” and not be too far off from either sentiment. Of course, it’s about more than simply language as spoken communication, but the specifically unarticulated as well. A language of knowing and understanding in a plethora of ways. As I was reading through the real time tweets of those epic #AskRachel memes, I kept thinking about this, how a kind of blackness becomes codified through popular culture and all the rest of us, black people from elsewhere — know the answers too.

It’s knowing that even though I have never been to a family reunion before,* replete with matching t-shirts and a rounds of the Cupid Shuffle, I feel as though I know what it might be like. And even what I think I know probably pales in comparison to the real experience. I understand also, that black Americans are not always singularly in control of or ultimately responsible for the way those cultural images of themselves are reproduced and disseminated. I’m not going to delve into whether all the images are nuanced enough or multifaceted enough. But I will say in many parts of the world where black people reside, seeing glamorous black people in daytime soaps or movies — in fact, kinds of reflections of ourselves in any form on screen — took place in American movies.

I grew up primarily on American pop culture and occasionally, British. When I was younger, we paid one price to see double features from Hollywood, sometimes Bollywood. Every wave of fashion and music rooted in African American culture made its way to the West Indies. Though the boys in my secondary school worshipped at the altar of dancehall, with original songs, “dollar discos,” and chanting sessions accompanied by poundings on the desks mimicking riveting basslines — at my graduation dance, someone also breakdanced. Although breaking was no longer in vogue then, unexpected dexterous dancing was always cool. We got in a circle like we’d all seen on TV, and we whooped and cheered him on.

That the cultural blackness of the Rachel memes was instantaneously recognizable for segments of the English speaking black diaspora should come as no surprise. We all greased and sprayed with African Pride and coated strands slick with Pink moisturiser at some point, because it was being done in black American culture. And the ways in which capitalism spun blackness into products and encoded blackness into branding found markets far beyond the United States for those who had access to them.

While this has always been happening, the fact was this was a public moment where signifiers of understandings of blackness became central to the unfolding Dolezal saga. With social media following new angles, it was a unique experience connecting variants of blackness into this swirling concentric mass. And there was an undeniable celebratory cool factor thrumming through it all as folks rallied around those shared ideas of what it means to be black. Really be black. Blackness and coolness is nothing new. Black people have long embodied Black Cool, in a range of ways; many without even explicitly trying to do so.

And there can be benefits to that: when you come from a little island somewhere in the world that a lot of people haven’t heard of, your familiarity with and understanding of black American pop culture and wider pop cultural references can be helpful. The knowledge might even surprise some folks. I’ve said before on social media that I didn’t feel as though Dolezal was appropriating me and my culture per se. But many of my black American friends rightfully felt so, and I could understand their pain.

However, inside of the memes, I simultaneously felt curiously enveloped and at home as I chortled my way through (re)affirmations of collective blackness. (Fun fact: I still haven’t ever watched the whole of Friday, but I’ve seen the salient parts and can successfully pass a meme quiz.) As with most things, there are levels to blackness, metaphorical and actual. When some Trinidadians make fun of the blackness of Tobagonians, it’s not unlike the maligning of Haitians, overtly or subconsciously, as “that kind of Black” — too black.

In considering blackness levels, outside of the country, especially, Trinis never have to worry about being considered too black irrespective of how dark one might happen to be because of the narrative of mixedness that is well attached to our cultural identities. Especially in foreign, Trinis crow about how we are a racial democracy where no one is of any one race and deliciously, ‘we’re all mixed,’ and this is endlessly used to counteract U.S. framed discussions or experiences of race and racism. You might look pure black but you could be hiding a fair skinned Auntie or two for all anyone knew.

And while for some people, aunties and uncles and parents of varying ethnicities really exist, the supposition of mixedness — the clamoring over and heralding of it and supplication to it —  is always cloaked in anti-blackness. And there is plenty of unexamined anti-blackness spread all around the place, both in and out of the Caribbean. While racial purists on one side may wring hands over the inferior tainting of ethnic bloodlines, for Afro-descendants in many parts of the African Diaspora, there is generally the belief that through mixing, the race has been tweaked if not outright improved. Someone told me once that douglas are “always very pretty,” the belief being that an Indian mix improves upon blackness, softens and lengthens the hair and results in a phenotype marginally advancing (if at all) one side but always vastly superior to pure blackness.

In Trinidad, anti-blackness might take several forms: seeing light “red” skin as the highest standard of beauty in both men and women, the presentation and commodification of Carnival into beauty and body aesthetics that privilege certain looks over others (buyers are also not encouraged to think about where some costumes are mass produced, at what raw cost, and who produces them for their good time), unduly blaming crime on one section of society with no equal examination of structural issues, referring to one group of people over and over as “lazy” while everyone else is industrious, police brutalizing poor black and brown bodies with impunity, disdain for daily paid work schemes and day labourers who are black and black immigrants from other islands.

As Saidiya Hartman has reminded me, the issues of diaspora and diasporic blackness are an incredibly tangled, messy and beautiful business. The apogee of which is surely dependant on one’s purview and where and how your dark-skinned ancestors ended up whereever they did.

Hartman elucidates how:

Ghanaians wanted an escape from the impoverishment of the present, and the road to freedom, which they most often imagined, was migration to the United States. African Americans entertained fantasies of return and Ghanaians of departure. From where we each were standing, we did not see the same past, nor did we share a common vision of the Promised Land. The ghost of slavery was being conjured to very different ends.

I live in the U.S. now, conscious of and ever curious about my examinations of blackness and the way that happens to me here in ways it doesn’t — and cannot, at home. How I feel like a stranger some days but really, like a cousin with a different accent on some others. The cousin who knew way more about you, than you about me. Still, I never felt landlocked into my pop cultural images of African Americans; I always knew on some level, possibilities for a wide range of blackness existed and have always existed because I existed, and black people existed in so many places that I knew of.

A lot has changed, from me wearing my hair in plaits (which I always did at home) and having to tirelessly explain to confused black Americans that they weren’t dreads. Just plaits. Like my regular hair, but plaited up. No Trini of any ethnicity would ever make that mistake. Nowadays, my mother in Trinidad, enthusiastically follows South African soap operas along with Scandal. Generations is also shown and popular in Jamaica. There is a thriving and growing indie Caribbean film scene adding to the stream of U.S. made films.

1901488_380659825407722_1611620222_n And The Black Uncle sandals? Well my Dad wears them. Along with a whole host of items straight out of the black American uncle handbook evidently. (Seriously, memes taught me this.) I don’t know whether this was some intrinsic taste borne out of black men over a certain age or what. Maybe they hold conventions about it and no one else knows. Who knows? Find me a man over a certain age in uncle sandals, in linen, or a shirt jack over three-quarter pants, or a two-piece set of both; with a thick gold bracelet, or still using Afro Sheen or Blue Magic, and he might be a certain kind of black man, possibly from anywhere inside the African diaspora.

References and notes:

Quote is from Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Memoir

* On my mother’s side, there actually is a family reunion held in Guyana — though I’ve never been. One day I will go and see if it’s anything like this.

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