I’ve been thinking about authenticity a great deal lately. Perhaps it is a by-product of getting older; I am not so much impatient, as I am short on time. The older I get, I realize that I don’t have as much time for other people’s agendas because I’m trying to complete the items on my own bucket list. I want to make the difference clear because I could, if I wanted to, tolerate or indulge other people’s issues but I no longer have time to waste. Not if I am to do what I feel I was put on the planet to do. So instead of the usual equivocation, I’m going for the jugular - not out of malice, but out of necessity. I tell people what I think, how I feel and what I intend because it is expedient. How much time do we waste when we don’t tell the truth? And how much time passes while we get frustrated when our needs are not met? How much aggravation do we endure trying to discover the truth from one another, when a little honesty, up front is all that was needed? I can tell you, personally, that the difference in my life now and the way it was before is profound. The difference has been frightening and freeing because in coming to my own, I recognize that there are so many people who have not.
In my own life, I have had my authenticity called into question by my own family because I have a college education. How many of us have endured questioning the likes of a Congressional confirmation because our people suspected that education somehow changed us? We are forced to prove our authenticity by speaking Ebonics, sporting a dashiki or overpriced athletic shoes or watching an episode of Meet the Browns -- until we leave the family reunion and retreat to the privacy of our own homes, free to be ourselves. However, some of us, in the secret recesses of our consciousness are wondering ourselves – What does it mean to be black?
I ask myself – how should we define black (or any other) authenticity? Cornel West has written:
…blackness has no meaning outside of a system of race-conscious people and practices. After centuries of racist degradation, exploitation, and oppression in America, blackness means being minimally subject to white supremacist abuse and being part of a rich culture and community that has struggled against such abuse. All people with black skin and African phenotype are subject to potential white-supremacist abuse. Hence, all black Americans have some interest in resisting racism – even if their interest is confined solely to themselves as individuals rather than to larger black communities. Yet how this "interest is defined and how individuals and communities are understood vary. So any claim to black authenticity – beyond being the potential object of racist abuse and heir to a grand tradition of black struggle – is contingent on one’s political definition of black interest and one’s ethical understanding of how this interest relates to individuals and communities in and outside black America. In short, blackness is a political and ethical construct.
Blackness is a political and ethical construct. I understand this. Based upon our hundreds year history in these United States, people of African descent shared a social condition, which sought to control their individual and collective destiny. This social condition bound people of African descent regard of class, education and culture of origin. Then that condition seemingly disappeared. The mechanism of legal segregation and Jim Crow is dismantled and some members of a once united community begin to prosper. Without the social condition that once bound us together, what do we become? Who are we? What does it mean to be black now? I cannot disagree with Mr. West but blackness, not only, is a historical, political and social construct -- but also a cultural one.
Cul ture: [n] the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.
But what about those of us who have defined not only identified it politically and ethically, but culturally? What if what I define as blackness has something do with a common history but also a common language, common habits, customs and worldview? The question then becomes what is or more specifically, which black culture? Urban, inner city? Rural south? Upper middle class? West Indian? West African? Which is more genuine? More black? Because all of these have a shared interest in eliminating racism but the cultures are different, aren't they? If that is the case, which is black?
Co opt: [v] To take or assume for one's own use; appropriate
ALSO To neutralize or win over (an independent minority, for example) through assimilation into an established group or culture
I’d like to believe that there is more that holds black people together than a common phenotype and a history of violently sustained racism and attempted genocide. I’d like to believe that what holds us together is deeper than that. Because the truth is, if that is all there is, then that really isn't enough to sustain us. We will continue to trivialize our history, allow others to define us and our identity will continue to co opted, regurgitated and sold back to us in bright shiny little packages by those who have no investment in either social justice or sustaining and nurturing our culture, however you may define it.
It is time to finally have a serious discussion about what it means to be black in America beyond the impact of racism. Understand that this in no way, means that we should abandon the fight against the institution of racism nor do I champion the argument in a post-racial society, the a discussion of race is no longer relevant What I am saying is that in our increasingly multi-racial, poly-lingual, it becomes increasingly important to understand who we are. As we live culture, we also create it. The continued creation of black should be deliberate, thoughtful, nurturing, not left to chance or in the hands of those with their own agendas. So what is it, people? Tell me, who are we?