Black, Personal Narrative, Racism, Scholarship, Terms and Definitions, White Supremacy

What Is ‘Black’? Or, Why Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

Ok. This is where things are gonna start to get, let’s say, a little tricky. I’m an interdisciplinary researcher which, to me, means that I contextualize my inquiry relative to the identifiable influences on/in my life. Moreover, I recognize that these influences are primarily white supremacy and maleness which extend towards racism and heteropatriarchy. This recognition was not an easy encounter; it forced me to see just how under siege all of our lives are by white supremacy. This recognition and the seeming futility of attempting an escape, meaning the inescapable vulnerability, prompted me to test the futility, search for a way out from under white supremacy’s and genital supremacy’s constant prodding and manipulation. In other words, what’s the deal with maleness and whiteness?

I set about this inquiry upon birth in terms of having a Black body. However, formally, my inquiry was as an undergraduate at a HWI, and, further, pledging a traditional Greek fraternity. I formulated and tested more questions at graduate school in a MFA program as the only male Black person (I fear that this may be the case fourteen years later.) Then, I endured the question of myself in an interdisciplinary PhD program with more nonwhite people than I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering in academia, a program that brought together many of my interests: philosophy, art, aesthetics, history, creativity, embodiment, and social justice.

I’m definitely not going to try to present my dissertation in a blog post. However, there are key ideas that inform how I move through the world, my life and context, that I feel are beneficial to put forth as part of my work. My process in dealing with these terms like ‘black’, ‘male’, ‘human’, etc. was to attack them, discursively obliterate them by any means necessary. More on that process later. Although I have technically presented these ideas publicly as the dissertation process is public, the reality is that these ideas are just now ready for air.

I remember being struck by something as a child, by like third grade: People, including we about ourselves, say that we’re black, but most of the “black” people in my family aren’t black, some are actually closer to white. Also, “white” people aren’t white either. So, why do we do this? Or, like I used to say as a kid, “Why come . . .?”

I think on some level we suspect/know that this absurdity—of (mis)identifying people by skin color—is technically wrong, weird, and compelling us to perpetuate it. Seemingly, withstanding the overt, subtle, and almost invisible assault by white supremacy (meaning white supremacists, the people) requires such perpetuation because, under such domination, the constant withstanding becomes life.

I remember a graduate seminar professor’s reaction when I first began footnoting my evolving ‘black’ definition. It was kind of funny because it was long (it got longer!) and almost impossible to hold in your mind as you read the text. I knew that. However, that ‘black’ definition was more than just an academic, linguistic exercise: it was my life. Interestingly, Dictionary.com moved to capitalize ‘B’ in ‘Black’ in September 2020 and others such as The Associated Press and New York Times thereafter. I imagine my graduate professor smiling.

Black (definition includes notions of slavery, Slavery, black, white, White) – It is necessary that I discuss W. D. Wright’s The Crisis of the Black Intellectual and quote his definition of the term ‘black’ (Author’s Notes) because I refer to and elaborate upon his definition by incorporating dimensions of the term ‘slave,’ the evolving identity aboard slave ships (black), and aesthetic notions related to the habituated responses to color. Wright’s definition of ‘Black’ is, for the most part, relative to ethnicity versus race, what I had known myself to be, and what I would demand to be called if I were to embrace any label. Moreover, relative to my recognition of my privilege as a male American, meaning locating myself in post-Slavery subjectivity, ‘Black’ as iteration of ‘Slave’ as iteration of vulnerable body is available for all, and, in my view, expresses the “loving [of] blackness” proffered by bell hooks in “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” that, in acknowledging the Slave body’s (in this case, primarily the male Slave body’s) relationships of power, discourses, and corporeality (vulnerability), Slavery and post-Slavery subjectivity are no longer able to remain disembodied, and emerge despite the neurotic ramifications of dislodging this discourse from one’s nation and body.

Wright’s definition in the Author’s Notes:

Black people are an ethnic group and ethnic community of the black race in the United States. They are indigenous to the country, descendants of the African slaves and their progeny on American soil. There are numerous ethnic groups and ethnic communities of the black race in this country, such as Jamaicans, Barbadians, Nigerians, and others. These people, unless referred to by their ethnicity, are referred to simply as black in this work to distinguish them from Black people in America. Thus a Black intellectual is not a black intellectual. This book is primarily about Black intellectuals, but it also touches on the subject of black intellectuals. The word “white” in the lower case in this book is a reference to race. The capitalized words White and Whites are references to a large ethnic group in the United States, and to an even larger ethnic group of Western civilization. (Author’s Notes)

My definition does not detail a specific “racial” concern as does Wright’s definition because I do not believe that ‘Black’ as explicated in my definition necessarily requires the distinction. In other words, Black people per my definition are the descendants of Slaves who may or may not be black. Further, some of these people do not know or refuse to admit that they are Black, meaning, in a sense, that they are passing for w/White, impostors awaiting (self) discovery. Moreover, this passing exposes the visual realm of race related to phenotypical qualities such as skin color, meaning corporeality. The anxiety of being discovered (did not know) or exposed (refused to admit) points to relationships of power related to White privilege fueling psychohistorical responses to bodies, and blackness per my aesthetic-related definition.

My definition:

‘Slavery’ with an ‘s’ refers to the general practice of forced labor and servitude that has been globally manifesting and shaping our lands, cultures, notions of identity and self-worth. ‘Slavery’ with an ‘S’ refers to the legacy and practice of forced labor and servitude, distorted by white supremacy, that became the chattel system of slavery in the USA related to skin color and maternal heritability, and, specifically, made black Africans ‘Slaves.’ ‘black’ with a ‘b’ is relative to the aesthetic realm, color—specifically skin color—and psychohistorical matrixes that inform ‘Black.’ It is also related to ‘non-white.’ ‘black’ refers to the identity evolving aboard slave ships, and with a ‘B’ refers specifically to black USA citizens of black African Slave descent. This ‘B’ distinction is put forth by W.D. Wright in Crisis of the Black Intellectual (Author’s Notes), and is essential to the notion of Black ethnicity, Slaves, and the conceptualization of this research. This distinction does not discount that there are citizens who are not black and are of black African Slave descent. ‘White,’ with a ‘w’ refers to the aesthetic realm, color—specifically skin color—and psychohistorical matrixes that inform ‘White,’ and with a ‘W’ refers to white USA citizens. This ‘W’ distinction does not discount that there are citizens who are White and are of black African Slave descent. ‘African-American’ refers to USA citizens of African, non-Slave ancestry who may be black; however, ‘black’ is not constitutive of ‘African-American.’ These definitions are essential because ‘black,’ ‘black,’ ‘Black,’ and ‘African-American’ (not to mention the pejoratives) are too often used interchangeably in all levels of discourse, which does a disservice to the identity-defining aspects of individuals and groups. This is an evolving definition.

Ok, so, it’s taken me a lifetime to get to and through this definition. I don’t mind if you read it again, and again, and . . . 😉 S|F Blog*


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