The painful familiar. It is the concept that I discuss in the introduction of my book Conscious, a description of the racialized life and specifically, for me socially defined blackness. Accepting a black identity creates more questions than answers and brings more uncertainty than assurance. There is no confidence in being black as the identity is not constant but changes according to the cultural and political climate. Race allows human beings to be in or out, minor or major, center or marginal. But, strangely, we accept its positions because it gives us a place to belong.
Being black/white/red/yellow/brown/ beige provides a sense of membership while ensuring that we do not feel that we belong– at least not outside of our color-coded groups. I have watched others try to live in and by this social darkness. They try to redefine it, readjust it because it is the only way that they know how to see themselves. They may not be able to see themselves completely but it’s better than not seeing at all.
But, saying that I am black is a self- muting recitation. To repeat the word is to lose my voice, to choose the tryanny of race over the democracy of personhood. When I say that I am black, I halt the search for individual identity and sacrifice my distinctiveness for the pseudo- comforts and ease of social belonging. The need to fit (in), to conform no matter what of myself cannot continue or remain is of no consequence. When I say that I am black, I become but another character in the tale of race with the same beginning, middle and ending, protagonist and antagonist, script and costume, climaxes and denouements. In saying that I am black, I join the chorus of voices that sing loud and proud though confused as to the joy of blackness and cynical due to the defeatist mentality that accompanies it. These voices include not only my ancestors but harbingers of inequality who actually composed the song, which leads me to question why I am even singing it. Is this the only word that I can be? Do I have to say that I am black?
Blackness is a baffling lesson that I have been taught. My teachers, varying from professional educators to family members to preachers and the stranger on the street corner, instructed me through history books and understood looks, personal stories and resultant life lessons. It seemed that they were all an authority on race but none of them had authority over it.
They told me that if I understood my identity as a “black” person that everything else would make sense: America’s history of race and subsequent racism, the social positions of white and black people, the imbalance of the law and its practice, the social, geographical and economic inequities, white privilege and power, the ghetto, “black” on “black” crime, the high rate of prison recidivism among young African American males, the absence of the father and the resultant single parent households, high unemployment rates and job dissatisfaction, domestic and substance abuse, high teenage pregnancy and infant mortality rates, poor heath and the disproportionately diseased… It would all make sense once I understood that I am “black.”
And they told me rather matter of factly that “This is the white man’s world. We just live in it.” In effect, they were saying, “There’s nothing that you can do about your life or experience in American society. It’s already spoken for.” But, this message and others like it were teaching me to feel helpless, to believe that I could do nothing of my own volition and consequently, to see myself as a dependent of socially defined “white” people. Their words taught me that I was valueless and thus, vulnerable to the measurements of any person that I came across.
If I was to be “black,” then I didn’t want to learn much more about myself and I began to despise my life. I didn’t want to be a member of society if this was my standing or a participant if I was to be restricted in my actions and pursuits. And if the world only belonged to them, then why am I here?
Consequently, the more that I was instructed, the less I understood or cared to know. The more examples I was given, the less explanation I desired to have. Was this the only manner of existence, the only story that I could tell, the only song that I could sing? Were there no other teachers?
Though blackness was familiar to me, it had become a painful identity. It hurt to live this way. Blackness caused more detachment than intimacy, more lies than truths about me. Still, it was all that I could see but was I really looking or repeating the visions of others? Had I looked for myself? Had I looked at my self? And if not, what was really being seen, what was really being said, what was really being taught about me?