What is Blackness?

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent post on The Root, “What Obama and Drake Have To Do With Being Black,” attempts to explore what he refers to as the “vexed zeitgeist in which, for African Americans, racial integrity overwhelmingly equates to embracing the narrow values of the black street culture of the past three decades: hip-hop culture.”  To do so, Williams compares and contrasts President Barack Obama and the rapper Drake. 

Williams theorizes that “the shadowy figure of the mulatto” is the most poignant illumination of blackness.  This theory assumes all biracial people have the same experiences with race and are forced to choose an identity from a finite set of options, a proposition that is easily refuted.  In fact, apart from being biracial and male, President Obama and Drake appear to have very little in common.  As a result, Williams’s attempts to find similarities in the two men’s backgrounds often feels forced.  For instance, Williams says that both men were raised in “staggeringly un-black settings,” even though Drake’s hometown, Toronto, has a sizeable Afro-Caribbean population, unlike Obama’s hometown of Honolulu.

It is clear that Williams views Drake as a poser.  This mostly seems to be because Drake is half-Jewish: “he had a bar mitzvah!,”  Williams amusingly notes.  Apparently one cannot be both Jewish and black.  Somebody better tell Omar Wasow.

Williams scolds Drake for choosing an identity that Williams finds inauthentic:  “Drake, in his professional choices and his public demeanor–and most certainly not in his inherent physical attributes or ethnic background–has packaged himself to fit neatly into the contemporary vision of what blackness must be–or, at the very least, must worship….[H]is presence on the black scene, unlike Obama’s, has done next to nothing to challenge the ingrained prejudices of a culture that consistently prizes street knowledge over book learning, being cool over being disciplined, and elevates hustlers and criminals to the highest positions of cultural importance.” 

But why should Drake be expected to challenge anything?  Just because he’s biracial–and half-Jewish, at that?  Drake is a rapper.  It stands to reason that, regardless of his ethnicity, his public image and stage persona would embrace hip-hop culture.   There’s no more reason to expect Drake to “challenge the ingrained prejudices of a culture that consistently prizes street knowledge over book learning” than, say, Lil Wayne.

Writer Danielle Belton, on her blog The Black Snob, says that Williams is really talking more about American anti-intellectualism than blackness.  Perhaps his arguments would have been more coherent if he had focused on anti-intellectualism.  But Williams, who is himself biracial, mistakenly assumes his own Imitation of Life racial and cultural identity crisis illustrates a universal experience.  He writes that “mixed-race blacks–while occupying a position in the culture that is at once privileged and cursed–are the physical incarnation of a racial dilemma that all blacks inevitably must confront: To sell out or keep it real? That is the question.”

Williams’s narrow definition of blackness undermines whatever point he is trying to make.  “To sell out or keep it real” is not a universal black dilemma.   Williams conflates blackness with hip-hop, and whiteness with education and upward mobility.  The fatal flaw in his reasoning is that he frames his arguments using the same false dichotomies he attempts to deconstruct. 

Blackness and hip-hop are not, of course, one and the same.  Hip-hop is only a part of the black experience, and a relatively small one at that.  Therefore, the notion that all black people are forced to choose whether to identify with hip-hop and remain authentic, or “sell out” and thereby become less black, is ludicrous.  Moreover, associating education and upward mobility with “whiteness” is dangerous and offensive. 

It is true that young, middle-class black males often gravitate to and imitate images from hip-hop culture that bear no resemblance to their day-to-day lives.  I’ve seen it within my own family, and it’s one of many aspects of black American culture that Aaron McGruder spoofs in The Boondocks.  And yet, many of these same young men also go to college, take jobs with Fortune 1000 companies, and live otherwise unremarkable, upwardly mobile lifestyles.  Indeed, it is entirely possible to be black and embrace hip-hop, while also being middle class, educated, suburban, and well-read, all at the same time.

Williams has fallen into the trap of what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie eloquently refers to as the danger of the single story.  In a speech recorded at TEDGlobal, July 2009, Oxford, UK, she said: “That is how you create a single story: show a people as one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” 

There is no single story of blackness, no single concept of the black experience.  Throughout history, persons of African descent have struggled to tell stories that reflect the richness, uniquenes and variety of our experiences.  In doing so, we must also avoid the trap of the single story ourselves, by not insisting that those stories fit solely within the framework of the largely negative mainstream vision of “blackness” and black culture.

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9 Responses to “What is Blackness?”

  1. OneChele Says:

    How exhausting is it to constantly have to gauge blackness – something we each have to define for ourselves? I doubt there is a single one of us that can directly trace our roots back to the Zulu Nation or whichever tribe we might have been kissed by 500 years ago. And yet this argument persists.

    I also read where some people are mad that Obama identified himself as “black” on the Census. They felt he should have “diversified his answer” – let the man be whatever he wants. Le Sigh…

    Great article.

  2. Jay Smooth Says:

    Excellent, and I would only add that there’s just as surely no single story of Hip-Hop.

    To tie it back to your Boondocks reference, Williams speaks of hip-hop as if it has never spawned any Hueys, only 10 million Rileys. But it has inspired lots of Hueys too, and you need look no further than Aaron McGruder himself to verify that.

  3. ibster Says:

    I watched an episode of The Fresh Prince last night that tackled this exact issue. Carlton went to Compton to prove to Will he could be “black”. Will gets scared for him and calls Phillip & Vivian. They all agree that being black isn’t just about hip hop and street violence. Will tells Uncle Phil he’s fat.

    How long ago was that episode made?

  4. Lisa Says:

    Great post! I guess this issue will never go away. There’s always someone telling someone else that they are not living “the real” black experience. I just wrote a post about this recently. It appears that Magic Johnson has announced that black people don’t like scones. Since I bake them all the time, I found the statement quite interesting and had to comment.

  5. harry Says:

    Williams comment about Toronto is downright silly. I almost can’t believe someone would be so ignorant!

  6. Mark R Says:

    As someone who came of age before the birth of hip hop, I can only wonder what I was then.

    Awesome erudition, Carolyn.

    “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

  7. Tarana Says:

    You my friend, have said all that needs to be said about that. I LOVE your response to this. I so need to pick up a pen and stop getting angry and hitting random white people (jks) when I read dumb ish like that article.
    well said.

  8. Sister Toldja Says:

    Excellent post! I am disappointed with this latest work from Chatterton, as my first exposure to him was an interview he did in which he said some really insightful stuff about Hip-Hop and the question of authentic Blackness. Now it seems that he is demanding. It’s ironic that he resents limiting Black life to “ghetto” culture, but has no problem demanding that biracial people or middle class Blacks have a lane in which they stay in. Basically, if the portrayal is “positive”, archetypes are okay? I take issues with Hip-Hop and authentic Blackness too, but this dude is all off this time.

  9. CorineMM Says:

    Obama has been decent president. Certainly better than the previous!

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