Category Archives: Race and Identity

Circling back

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Do you see the world through race- colored glasses?   Are you totally dependent on race to survive in the world around you?  Can’t leave  home without race?  Don’t know how you could understand the world without its prejudices and stereotypes?  If this is how you feel, then I understand.

I’ve been there and I have the Afro pick, the Kiswahili textbooks, the incense and the resistance poetry for beginners to prove it.  I used to be black, black and proud, black and angry, black and beautiful, black and conscious, a pre- cursor to being “woke.”  It was a cultural immersion or maybe a self- guided cultural exchange program, a total rejection of my Americanness and an intellectual pilgrimage back to Africa.  Blame it on my undergraduate history courses and the required readings for a concentration in African and Afro- American studies.  Before reading the slave narratives, the abolitionists’ witness and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I had a Black History month education of the African experience in America.

I feel like I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m not.  Growing up, we didn’t have many books in our home.  There was no local library.  Now with hundreds of books of my own, I cannot imagine my life without one.  Books make a house a home and I owe countless writers credit for guiding me to a place within myself that I could call the same.

After singing the spirituals and the blues, reading Olaudah Equiano’s startling testimony, the incidents in the life of Harriet Jacobs and the harrowing escape of Frederick Douglass and gaining the insights of  Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Chestnut, W.E.B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and of course, James Baldwin, I experienced a kind of conversion.  I had new eyes and ears.  There was a clarity and perspective that made me antsy.  I couldn’t get out of America and so I wanted America out of my head.  It started with my hair.

It was permed, processed, straightened out.  I cut my hair close to the scalp and learned that it curled.  Now nineteen years old, I don’t remember ever seeing my natural hair.  It had been corrected before I knew there was a problem.  Standing in front of the mirror, I liked what I saw and wondered who had a problem with my tresses.

All this time, I thought that something was wrong with my hair.

Those race- colored glasses were sliding down my nose and to my surprise, I was starting to look over them.  I had no desire to push them back into place again.  I began to see race for what it was and more importantly, for what it was not.  I realized that there was nothing wrong with my eyes either, that I could see just fine without them.  And rather than question myself, I began to question race.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the beginning of my raceless journey after reading Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others where she writes in parenthesis, “What would we be or do or become as a society if there were no ranking or theory of blackness?”  It is a necessary question for those who claim to be engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.  Do we even know how to answer it?  Or have we become so dependent on race that we dare not look at ourselves apart from it?

I’ve been there and if that is where you are, I am circling back to get you.  Race does not have a better view of our humanity and there is nothing wrong with your eyes.

James Baldwin on “America’s ‘race problem'”

Today is the birthday of writer, activist and artist, James Baldwin.  Today, I salute his courageous questioning of the social construct of race, the distance between race and human identity.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the words and witness of Mr. James Baldwin.

 

Not Enough For Me

Race does not know my name

I know that the actions committed in the name of race are real, that is makes a believer and faithful follower out of us, that we pledge allegiance to our skin and create borders around our bodies.  No race- mixing.

But, race does not have a real name for me.  Socially constructed, I don’t want this American society or any other to have a say in who I am because the revelation is only skin deep.  The social construct of race can only say so much.  Race does not know my real name and instead, pretends to know me by lumping me into a color- coded group.  “Hey, black people!”  But, what’s my name?

I know that the social construct of race orders our lives, assigning position and extending power based on the social coloring of skin.  I know that race has a place for all of us and there is not much wiggle room.  “White people have this.”  “Black people belong here.”  But, I don’t have to take the seat that race pulls out for me.  I don’t have to give up the power within me because it somehow disrespects the social construct of race.  Besides, I require more space so I will need to move on to greener pastures. Trust me, the grass is greener on the race- less side.

And the social construct of race can only go so far.  It can only take me to stereotypical places.  But, I can’t help but stop race and say, “I’ve seen these boxes before.”  I want to go somewhere else and more still, this is not the place for me.  I don’t fit in and I won’t try to.

Because race is not enough for me.  Unable to keep track of me or to tally all of my being and its expressions, race is not the sum of my existence.  The social construct of race is not the defining attribute of my life.  The color black is the not synonymous with my person and blackness does not capture my presence.

My life is bigger than the social construct of race and it could never satisfy my identity.  Because there is more to me, race will never be enough.  I dare not pretend that it can be.  So, how about you?

 

 

The Lie of Race

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“White people have not always been ‘white,’ nor will they always be ‘white.’  It is a political alliance.  Things will change.”

 {Amoja Three Rivers}

I begin with whiteness because all of the other social colors define themselves by it.  In fact, the other social colors exist for it.  Whiteness depends on blackness, for example, for it is the existence of blackness, synonymous with evil and darkness, that calls for whiteness.  Whiteness is then needed to right the wrong and to stamp out the darkness.

In order for the socially constructed white identity to be the standard of good, there must be one or more identities that are the definition of bad.  Whiteness is then seen as a necessity and then divinized.  But, you can’t have one without the other.  We cannot have whiteness without the “other.”

Or, whiteness is defined as exclusively good, permitting no other social colors to join its group.  “If you’re white, you’re right.  If you’re black, stay back.”

James Baldwin called it “the lie of whiteness.”  And I would agree but I would push us just a little bit further.  I would call blackness and with it, all the other social colors a lie.  Consequently, I declare that the social construct of race is a lie, that there is no truth it, no redeeming characteristics or qualities.

I will never understand why we believed the lie to begin with or how we traded our humanity for hue.  I join with Charles Chestnut who asked in 1889, “What is a white man? ” No, really what is a white man?  Who is a white man?

Because God’s purpose for humanity is not color- coded: “If you’re white…” No, God’s purpose is eternal, not based on physical features tied to social contracts.  “If you’re black…”

Race is a lie; don’t try to make a believer out of God.

Only Human

Image result for only human imageIt seems that we are not satisfied with our humanity, that there is always a need to be something more than human, super human, a special set of humans.  In our quest, we often attempt to reduce the value and visibility of others.  Because we cannot be more human unless we make others less human.  We get our power by taking theirs away.  And there’s really nothing super or special about that.

Instead, it is an expression of pride and selfishness.  It is childish to believe that we are the only ones that should be seen, that everyone else is in the way, that the whole earth is mine and I don’t have to share, that I am God’s only child.

It is a strange desire that we would want to be something more than those around us, that we would create categories of exclusion that would make us less common or ordinary.  It is an awkward expression of our humanity: creating differences, hoarding the earth, making up problems, burning bridges, segregating ourselves, cheating some to enrich the lives of others.  Still, we cannot get away from the truth that we are all the same.

For all of our attempts at creating differences and maintaining them, we are all obviously, plainly, nothing more than human.  No matter what we attach to or associate with ourselves, Paul was right, “There is only one flesh for human beings” (First Corinthians 15.39).  Despite the claims of the social construct of race, we are only human and always family.