You know what has been top of mind during my recent road trips from Austin to Charleston, SC, and then Greenville, SC to Salt Lake City, Utah?
One of my 2014 literary resolutions to stomp out the dialogue about who is and isn’t “Black”. I’m going to do this by pointing out how stupid this conversation has become.
In short, I think it’s one of the most fucked up things for one Black person to say or think that they get to determine if someone is Black or not. It’s actually been so prevalent that even white people I know say things like, “oh, but he’s not really Black” or “he’s like us though, ya know…”
This is something I’ve faced my entire life, it’s shaped a lot of the thinking I’ll share here today, and it’s going to fuel several diatribes (or missives if you are an easily offended person of which there are many in this world) from me over the coming months until I feel like the people who think this way either begin to change the way they think (progress), shut the hell up (silence) or stop acting like someone with any good sense or intentions (unfriend).
So where do I begin? Well, I’ll start with two of my favorite rappers. One is Jay Z and the other is Childish Gambino. Both put out new albums this year, and if you are a hip-hop fan I think it’ll be pretty obvious that Childish Gambino’s is better. No offense to the King, Jay Z, but Magna Carta is like a recycled Watch the Throne minus the healthy (and much-needed) dose of Kanye.
On one hand, you have a former drug dealer who has transformed into the biggest pop culture influencer in Black culture over the last 15 years. He earned his Black card, so to speak, because of his drug dealing past, his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn roots (“where Biggie is from!”) and the criminal-minded or brag-heavy subject matter of his raps (pre-Kingdom Come).
Childish Gambino, meanwhile, isn’t deemed Black enough because he went to college at New York University, writes and acts in NBC sitcoms like Parks & Recreation (with a mostly-white cast), and the subject matter of his raps involve dating Asian women and having life ambitions beyond having a “bad b*tch”. Both men are rappers, but one – based on popular opinion – is Black while the other has dark skin complexion but isn’t “Black”.
So who makes up the public opinion? That is an important question because up until the late 1980s the argument about who was Black and who wasn’t was largely based on skin tone. This dates back, in the US at least, to slavery and the perception that the light-skinned slaves were in the house doing less painful tasks whereas the dark-skinned slaves were in the field doing the harder work. From there, it went into the Jim Crow era where light-skinned folks were more likely to pass off as white thus giving them a leg up on things like employment, home ownership and avoiding lynching. This is much of where historians build their case.
The darker the skin, the Blacker the person, so it went on through the 1900s almost until the end of the century. If you ever watched the show A Different World (a spinoff of The Cosby Show with Lisa Bonet) you saw this played out on a regular basis with the character Whitley (played by Jasmine Guy) who was viewed as less authentic and therefore less Black than characters like Kimberly (played by Chamele Brown). Yes, somehow a TV show made a character named Kimberly the essence of Blackness while her counter character’s name (Whitley) almost seemed to have the word “white” built into it. This routine didn’t really switch until well into the ‘90s and ‘00s particularly thanks to the popularization of hip-hop with light-skinned guys ranging from Nas and Jay-Z (though I feel like he’s darker now, must be the trips to St. Tropez) to Nelly and, presently the mixed, Drake. Making fun of light-skinned guys used to be a thing in Black culture, no joke.
Ultimately, I believe the real decider of public and popular opinion on the subject of Blackness is the very people who were perhaps most affected (and hurt) by the slavery-induced discussion of Blackness in the 18th and 19th centuries: Black women. Those decades and centuries of strife have now given them the power to decide Blackness in America.
In fact, I’ll go a step further to say in 2014 it’s actually college-educated Black women exclusively who will have more say over who or who isn’t Black than any other demographic. Why? Because they are best equipped to lead the way for all of Blacks in America (as vocal leaders, as powerful movers and shakers, and as mothers) rather than rooting themselves in outdated, misinformed or uneducated ways of thinking that have hindered the Black community by deeming things like the pursuit of a good education as “acting white”.
I remember a girl named Ronise in elementary school who said I acted white because I made straight As. In middle and high school other Black girls contributed, but by then it was because I was in pre-AP or AP courses, I attended rock concerts by acts like Green Day and Dave Matthews Band and I even dated the one girl in the entire band who liked me in 10th grade (a white girl). These aren’t experiences that are unique to me as an ambitious, educated Black male who’s never been arrested or to jail as I’ve come to hear of similar statements from other Black men who’ve earned college degrees and gone on to have flourishing careers away from rap music or sports.
I’ve also realized in the past 10 to 12 years that even educated Black women are far less likely to date outside their race and judge the Black men who do date outside their race. It’s not just the way you talk or the way you present yourself (see: Gumbel, Bryant) that can lead to diminishing Blackness, it’s also who you date. What I am still trying to figure out is if you are more or less Black if you’re a gay Black man who only dates Black men or if you’re a straight Black man who dates non-Black women. Someone clue me in on this one, please.
Thus, Childish Gambino is not Black because he is an equal opportunist – having casual sex or relationships with women of all ethnicities - whereas the perception of guys like Jay-Z is that they would NEVER date a non-Black woman. To go further, you can put Kanye somewhere in the middle of Childish Gambino and Jay-Z on the Blackness scale because he’s had a history with mixed women whom are loved by Black men (see: Kardashian, Kim or Rose, Amber). If you were to build the scale out all the way, you’d have guys like Seal (once married to Heidi Klum) and Kobe Bryant (married to a Latina) on the less Black side and guys like Nas (once married to Kelis) and Carmelo Anthony (married to LaLa) on the more Black side.
So what this speaks to is the amplification of duality and inauthenticity, which is the very thing Black people are supposed to be avoiding. On the duality front, you have Black men – even the educated, successful ones who probably spend 90% of their working hours around non-Blacks - trying to show how hard they are either through braggadachio (fancy cars and jewelry) or excess (gambling, strip clubs) or the threat of violence (see light-skin guys such as: Winslow, Kellen or Brown, Chris) because this establishes your Blackness. A lot of these guys weren’t the popular basketball and football players that got all the pretty Black girls in high school or college so now it’s like a reverse is happening where these Black men almost want to hide how academic and put-together they are to appear more authentic. You should watch the movie Strictly Business. It’s literally a movie about a guy not being Black enough until he meets Halle Berry and becomes homies with Tommy Davidson (of In Living Color fame) and does some mega-real estate transaction with the one big Black-owned bank in town. Great concept, guys.
Keep in mind, Jay-Z’s drug-dealing past which certainly involved violence earned him a lifetime Black card whereas things like education (college), goals (outside of fashion, music, sports and entertainment) and influence (again, outside of fashion, music, sports and entertainment) are not considered things that merit Blackness. Light-skinned or mixed guys like Colin Powell and Tiger Woods, despite their unprecedented political, athletic or commercial influence, are not completely “owned” by the Black community due to the way they present themselves and who they date. They appear far too polished, eloquent or buttoned-up to be “a brother” despite the fact that they too have faced countless and public displays of racism (do you remember Fuzzy Zoeller?).
Barack Obama, even, is getting flack from guys like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (themselves trying to over-assert their Blackness by playing to the Black Left of Obama) for not being Black enough. Why? Because he isn’t 100 percent and exclusively focused on reminding America that he is, in fact, the first Black U.S. President by recommending a bunch of legislation to a Tea Party-manipulated Congress already hell-bent on making sure even his most bi-partisan legislation doesn’t become law. Don’t even get me started on whether or not Obama would have gotten as much of the Black vote in 2008 had he not had Michelle Obama, an educated, church-going, dark-skinned lady from Chicago, at his side instead of a woman of mixed ethnicity like his own.
All this arguing or dismissing of Blackness does is make it harder for America to have a real conversation about race. Instead, we’re left taking sides on issues like Duck Dynasty or George Zimmerman because there’s too little time to talk about how these racist tendencies actually start in elementary school or in church or in our childhood communities when we judge our very own people.
Case in point: Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, perhaps the most educated Black city in America due to its ties to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That should mean the city that gave us Outkast and T.I. should love him dearly. He then went on to earn a college degree from NYU, which – in theory – should earn him praise from educated Blacks and non-Blacks alike who understand the importance of education. He then used his dramatic writing degree to get a job with NBC as a writer. Pursuing his dreams through a legal channel should earn him a big checkmark considering how many Black men end up in jail. Meanwhile, no one is ever questioning the Blackness of the 1 million (out of 2.3 million total) Blacks in incarceration. And if there’s one thing I was trying to address with my book Real Role Models is that too many young Black males are trying to be famous rappers or athletes instead of pursuing college educations and other professions. So Glover is a writer for one of the biggest networks in TV and what does he do? Becomes a rapper.
Now, typically becoming a rapper would seem like an easy path for a Black man to seem more Black. Sort of like going to the NBA. But no, instead it’s almost amplified his non-Blackness by adding a new level of proof needed to verify his Blackness: lyrics. Nowhere in rap history have lyrics been judged more severely than with Childish Gambino (a name Glover came up with in a Wu-Tang Clan name generator). If he were dumbing down his lyrics like Two Chainz or rapping about street life like Meek Mill no one would doubt his Blackness for a moment. There would be plenty of poorly conceptualized songs, bad b*tches, gunshots and cocaine scales to legitimize his Blackness. Instead, he raps about the life he’s lived and has: one in which he was raised by two parents (a retired postal worker and daycare provider) in a suburb of Atlanta before going to college (and being a broke college student like all of us have been at some point) and then coming into fame and wealth and wanting to relish in all the spoils while remaining focused on his life goals.
No wonder it seems Jay Z is losing his Blackness with every rap about Andy Warhol paintings and board meetings. But wait, isn’t this what we should all aspire to? To be educated. To evolve. To mature. To be real people. To share our life experiences instead of manufacturing fake ones like 99% of rappers. To be human?
It turns out, when it comes to Black culture in America, you must be Black and you must identify with Black, date Black, so on and so forth long before you can be human.
To make it easier for everyone going forward, I’ve made a list of questions you need to ask yourself to prepare to prove your Blackness to other Black people, especially Black women, based on my experiences traveling all over the country.
- Are you in a relationship with a Black person? If yes, you are Black. If not, you are not Black. If she is Hispanic/Latina and has certain physical features, you are Black (see: Combs, Sean when he dated J.Lo).
- You don’t usually date Black women/girls, do you? This is rhetorical. The person asking this question is not actually asking something for you to answer.
- Are you a Democrat? If yes, you are Black. If not, you are not Black.
- Where are you from? If a city where rappers and athletes live, you are Black. If you live in Atlanta, you are at the top. If you say you are from New York, I will assume Brooklyn or Harlem. If you say you are from L.A., I will assume you like Tupac and Dre. If you say you are from Chicago, I will assume the Southside. If you say you are from the Bay Area, I will assume you are from Oakland, not Palo Alto. etc. etc. If not from these cities or the Deep South, you are not Black.
- What’s your favorite movie/TV show? If it stars Black actors, you are Black. If not, you are not Black. If it’s The Wire (the default), your favorite character can’t be McNulty…it has to be Stringer Bell or Omar.
- Do you have African- or Harlem-inspired art in your apartment/home? If so, you are Black. If not, you are not Black.
- Did you grow up in Black church (e.g. AME, Baptist, Pentecostal)? If so, you are Black. If not, you are not Black. Even if you went to Catholic Church, you are not Black. Only white people are Catholics, right?
- Did you go to an HBCU? If so, you are Black. If not, were you in a Black fraternity or sorority or a scholarship athlete (in a sport besides baseball, soccer, cross country or volleyball)? If so, you are Black. If not, you are still not Black.
- Have you read a lot about Black history? If so, you are Black if you actually studied African-American history. If not, you may still not be Black.
- Did you play sports in school? If Black people have dominated the sport (e.g. boxing, basketball, football, track), you are Black. If not, you are not Black (see: tennis before Venus & Serena Williams).
- What music do you listen to? If rap or R&B with jazz, you are Black. If rock or country with jazz, you are not Black.
- What brands do you wear? If Nike, Timberland, Gucci or Sean John, you are Black. If Brooks Brothers, J.Crew or Dockers, you are not Black.
- What industry are you in? If fashion, music or sports, you are definitely Black. If the arts or tech, you are not necessarily Black (see: Burns, Ursula or Drummond, David…two people who should have already been on the covers of Black Enterprise, Essence, Ebony, Jet, etc. by now).
And, finally, on a 1 to 10 scale: here are some Blackness ratios for you.
Jay Z circa The Black Album = The new standard for Blackness post-Malcolm X.
Obama = 20% less because of background in politics and mixed race.
Jordan = 10% less because he’s not married to a Black woman.
Tiger = 80% less because he hasn’t won any Majors recently. If he wins the Grand Slam, he will get up to Obama level.
Condi = 60% less because she is in politics and isn’t best friends with Beyonce like Michelle Obama.
Oprah = 30% less because she isn’t a big hip-hop fan, isn’t *really* married to a Black man, and also isn’t great friends with Beyonce or Michelle Obama.
Bryant Gumble = 90% less because the way he talks and looks.
Tyler Perry = 30% less because his movies suck even though they star Black people.
Kanye West = 25% less because he isn’t married to a Black woman and he raps about going to Paris and stuff like that. What the hell is Margiela?
Jay Z circa Magna Carta = 10% less black than former Jay Z because he’s now married with child and rapping about art and fancy shit people in the street don’t know about.
Childish Gambino = 75% less because he isn’t married to a Black woman, hasn’t said much about being from Atlanta (he should really work on that), and he raps about stuff most Black men haven’t personally experienced or seen in a John Singleton or Spike Lee movie.
Me = somewhere in the neighborhood of Childish Gambino, but probably 10% less because I don’t rap and I’m not famous so there’s no real benefit to “claiming” me.
I'll put this on my blog later on.