The Terms & Conditions of Blackness

Blackness is one of the most interesting constructs I’ve ever come across. It is second only to the socially constructed idea of race which if we take the time to think about as a categorization of humans into labels such as black or white, is hilariously inaccurate. You don’t have to look far to find a flaw in this nomenclature. I have a homie from Nigeria, for example. Technically, on paper, that man is Nigerian-American. So shouldn’t he be African-American? Right. But there’s no way he’d ever claim that title. Because apparently African-American is synonymous with “just” Black. [1]

We all come from very different places. But those differences can bring us together. It sounds corny but one of the greatest things I learned from my time living in Boston was that fact. There was a point where you could walk into the Howard Thurman Center on Boston University’s campus, see five Black people, and they’d each be distinctly different. There’d be a Haitian American, Nigerian, Cape Verdean American, Jamaican American, and a Bajan American [2]. Literally. It was great. Our walks of life were different but we weren’t defined by our differences. The only time in life I ever truly felt the idea of a melting pot was when I was at a party in Boston. At some point the DJ someone’s iPhone would go from playing Jay-Z to Vybz Kartel to Alan Cave to Nelson Freitas to Serani to Rihanna in an hour time span. And instead of there being waves of people belonging to each respective culture dominating the dance floor and the rest of us departing until our song came back, we stuck around and drunkenly attempted to learn how to pasada or how to zouk or how to bachata or maybe how to twerk. And that’s fantastic.

But, outside of the bubble of Boston campus parties, Blackness clearly matters. Take the now twitter-infamous Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone situation [3] .  Ignoring all other complaints people have about this film (e.g. The entire plot being fabricated) apparently Blackness also has a melanin requirement. You must be this tall to ride. You must be this dark to be real. Zoe Saldana has said several times that she is a Black actress. “Yo soy una mujer negra’ (I’ve seen this quote everywhere but never with a source attached so here’s to hoping it’s real. But even if its not she’s done plenty of covers with “Black & Latina” as the caption) But Black women immediately reacted negatively.  Before anyone brings up The Picture, even BEFORE they darkened her skin, everyone was mad.

Now, there’s a history here that we should acknowledge. Hollywood does love to whitewash its films. I mean Jake Gyllenhaal did play the Prince of Persia. The mostly Asian MIT crew was portrayed by white kids in 21, and Jim Caviezel played Jesus Christ. [4] So yeah. It’s no secret that Hollywood has this thing for white people.

Given that information, when an actress self-identifies as Black and wants to honor a Black woman’s legacy, why not? Personally I wish we’d learn to acknowledge a win and move forward. This animosity amongst our own just shows other people weakness. I’m not for that.  I also don’t understand it. We’re supposed to be upset that a good Black actress is honoring an amazing Black woman but we’re supposed to enjoy Basketball Wives?  And yeah. Basketball Wives is my example of poor representation of Black women on television. Fight me.  But stop being hypocritical. Decide how much you REALLY care about the media’s portrayal of a Black woman and who is controlling our image.

The point? This is awkward. I don’t have one. I want to start a discussion though. Does blackness exist? Are there true distinct characteristics that define blackness? If so, what are they? Basically, what are the Terms & Conditions of Blackness?

 

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1.  We’ll get to you people who use the term “just” Black at a different date. Do better.
  2.  funny thing is nobody referred to themselves as “Jamaican American”. They just said, “Oh yeah I’m Jamaican”.
  3. Zoe Saldana is going to play Nina Simone in an upcoming film. Some people seem to believe she’s not black enough to play the role.
  4. Jesus is Black.

Michelle Huxtable

A little Michelle Obama, a little Claire Huxtable.

4 Comments

  1. I do not believe that Zoe looks like Nina, but Angela Basset doesn’t look like Tina Turner and she KILT that role. I will reserve judgement until the movie is released. Based off “the picture” my heart was broken.

    The idea of blackness will always be a struggle for us, for we are stuck in the middle. Stolen from our land only to prop up another land and be rejected. What then do we cling to as a culture? We’re not African and most days we’re not even considered American. So from this point on how would we even begin to define ourselves? Maybe we don’t have to, but that’s a tough lot when you look at the Jewish community and see them thrive. Or the Cuban community, or the Chinese community, etc. It’s so hard for us to have a community because we can’t all agree on who “we” are.

    Love ya spec.

    You da best.

  2. I think it’s also interesting that so many closet Nina “fans” have jumped out of the woodwork since Zoe was picked as the lead. Are they truly mad that Nina’s legacy might be tainted or are they more upset that a light(er) skinned woman is playing a darker skinned one? And as a light(er) skinned woman, do I even get to have an opinion? So many questions.

    Hmmm I also never thought about the Tina Turner/Angela Bassett comparison. So true.

    Gaaahh well. I have Grey’s Anatomy to watch.

    Peace!

  3. I think we put too much weight on categorizing what it is to be Black that we end up limiting our scope of how awesome we are.

  4. Mary J. Blige was set to play Ms. Simone, but had to back out because of scheduling issues, so there goes that popular theory of colorism. I could see it being an issue if this was just typical whitewashing by mainstream (read: White) media, but we have no idea went on behind closed doors, who else stepped up to do the role, etc.

    Like you said, at the end of the day the story of a legend is being told and I’ll save my skepticism for the final product. I’m hoping that Ms. Saldana will give the best performance ever just so she can channel her inner Oprah and hit everyone with the “And you sir?”

    And regarding these “Terms & Conditions of Blackness” – let me know when you find out what they are. I didn’t get the pamphlet in my “Welcome to the world” gift basket back in ’89 and have been lost ever since.

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