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Perhaps, the question "what does it mean to be black?" is a case closed for those who champion Pan Africanism or a “melanated-people-of-the-world" fellowship.
However, people still ask: "How does a person know whether he or she is black?" "When can someone's black identity be revoked?" Or, "are black people free to renounce their blackness?"
The idea of "blackness" is not clear for many black people. In other words, does it refer to genes, phenotype, blood type, melanin, geography, or culture? Or, is there a scale of significance? Does one factor precede the rest?
It seems that black people do agree that black identity has something to do with Africa. Unfortunately, that's not enough.
First, Trevor Noah, the South African comedian host of the Daily Show, reminds us that evoking Africa is not enough to claim a black identity for some people in certain places. As a son of a black South African woman and Swiss man, he wasn't necessarily a black person in his country. He had to come to the USA. Noah said, "My dream was to come to America . . . I always came here because I wanted one thing. And that is, I always wanted to be black."
Second, many American-born "black people" reject being called a black person or even an African American--Devyn Adbullah, Zoe Saldana, and Raven Simone.
And third, some who say they are black had their melanin rejected by other black people. According to a Pew poll taken a couple of years ago, thirty-four percent of black Americans say President Obama is mixed, not black.
Thanks to colorism, biracial, multiracial, and mixed race categories, blackness is ever more complicated.
So, as you can see, the question of black identity is not simple. And if black people can't agree on blackness, how much more challenging will it be to do black politics?
So, let me get to the bottom of this identity crisis.
I understand why people are cautious about how they label themselves. Names can empower or debilitate our thinking and behavior and influence our worldview. People are rightfully mistrustful of a word's author and language and a word's transmitted meanings and messages. And, people are understandably concerned about those a particular label associates them with.
How we choose to label or categorize ourselves or how we permit people to identify us is a big deal. We have to admit that there are different attitudes towards the black identity.
In any case, I suggested above being black has something to do with Africa. But not everything.
Before moving forward, we should keep in mind three points: 1) the African continent is full of diverse cultures, languages and religions. Sure, we can pluck out some underlying commonalities. Nonetheless, "Africa" refers to roughly 54 countries, approximately 3000 tribes and languages. 2) African slaves were distributed throughout the world and have consequently developed unique cultures and interracial relationships. 3) The Africans that remained in the motherland endured the political torment of European colonialism and American economic exploitation.
So, what binds together Africans and their descendants and makes them black? An imposed political-economic domination, justified by a racial hierarchy.
W.E.B. Du Bois reminded us that someone drew a line to separate people in our politico-economic world. Du Bois writes, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." (Souls of Black Folk)
The "relation" Du Bois speaks of is essentially a political and economic scale first. We must keep in mind that the color-line was drawn well before the twentieth century. It was started in the fifteenth century, more or less, when European countries (particularly Portugal, Spain and England) began to explore and consistently exploit foreign people and monopolize their resources. It took a few centuries and a lot of effort for the color-line to be completely drawn. And, it took even longer and a lot of myths, propaganda, blood, sweat, and tears for the ink to be cemented as a racial hierarchy throughout the world, particularly in America. In this way, color became significant overtime.
In other words, the color-line deprived dark-skinned people "related" to Africa of their freedom, preventing them from exercising their inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
That is the origin of the black community, black identity and black politics.
Now we are ready to talk about the black identity. It is not merely a forced condition. It's also a choice. It did not take long for Africans and the African diaspora to realize that they suffered similarly in the valleys of oppression on both sides of the Atlantic. They soon began to identify with others in their plight.
This brings us to the proper and most effective understanding of what it means to be black.
First, broadly speaking, "black" is a social label that emerged when Africans were subjected to European political, economic, social and cultural invasions and oppression in the fifteenth century.
Second, and most important, "black" is above all a political category that has economic consequences. To be black means that one was targeted to be relegated to the bottom of a politico-economic racial hierarchy in a European or Western society. It is important to note that we cannot rely on melanin alone or facial features.
"Blackness" or the black identity originated in politics, because it started with political deprivation, which was later calcified in white supremacy, to psychologically, emotionally, and morally justify the exploitation of other human beings for economic gain.
So what does it mean to be black?
People who accept their black identity are making a political choice to resist and correct political injustices and economic segregation imposed on them and others.
To be black is to be a part of a political race. Being black means you rebuke the color-line.
Lani Guinier, "the first tenured women of color Harvard Law School," and Gerald Torres, notable scholar of critical race theory at Cornell Law School, explain a political race as the following: "By 'political race' we mean a group of people who ultimately are defined by their politics rather than by their physiognomy. Race, however, is neither lost nor hidden. Political race uses politics to forge an identity that ultimately resists conventional categories and supports democratic renewal. Political race acknowledges racial unfairness but does not rely on an individual's phenotypic identity as the reason to capture social goods or fixed political resources. Instead race becomes a political space for organized resistance around a more transformative vision of the good society. Simply stated, political race is a metaphor that captures the idea of race as a site of emotional connection and political engagement." ("Political Race and The New Black," in The New Black)
(Interestingly, Guiner and Torres' take the concept to another level, which I can appreciate. They envision a "new black" identity that embraces various ethnicities and constituencies that are challenging the skewed status quo.)
In conclusion, understanding blackness as a political race is far more accurate, inclusive, and effective. It clarifies our common humanity, which is obscured by our appearances and cultures, and it calls attention to the root causes of the disparities in resources in American society.
This vantage point also helps black people to do black politics better. Black people who like to gerrymander and police black culture and the black experience in order to authorize who is black or not will no longer be able to obstruct black people of various camps from finding more opportunities to work with each other and with non-black freedom fighters. And, this increases the success in achieving specific black agendas and joining initiatives with other disenfranchised constituents.
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