Working for Senator Obama and having to hear all this bullshit about him being alternately – or sometimes all at once – “too black”, “not black enough” and “a foreign other” has put me in mind of two things. In all honesty it’s far more than two, but the other things generally revolve around sadistic things I’d like to do to 95% of the MSM punditry not named Rachel Maddow. The first is SNL’s hilarious take on the whole bit from early on during the primary race, which is linked hurr.

The second is an essay (after the break) I wrote for a lil’ class called Uni Writing way back. Embarassing as it is (and it is very embarassing what one has to write for UW), it kind of fits with the thoughts I’ve been having, so why not. It’s all love here, right?……
o.O Right?!

UPDATE: Be forewarned. This bitch is long.

My “Africanness”: From Malcolm X to Gerald Early to Reality

“Seriously though, J-Walk, you are the whitest black dude I’ve ever met”. “Nigga, I know you smart and all that but you need to chill with them big words”. “Jared, you’re awesome and everything, but you’re such an Oreo”. “What you reading that Shakespeare shit for? Don’t you know youse a nigga?” Ever since I began junior high my blackness has been questioned by my friends, my peers and even my teachers. I found that most people did not believe, as I did, that the word black was merely an adjective that described one with specific physical attributes. For these people, being black included everything from the way one dressed to the way that he spoke to his taste in music. It is this universalist concept of blackness, this belief that each and every aspect of one’s life determines the degree of his or her ‘blackness’, that I have had to deal with since adolescence. Naturally, a reading in which the author finds that his legitimacy as a black man is being questioned, sparked my interest. In his essay Their Malcolm, My Problem, Professor Gerald Early examines how Malcolm X affected his concept of blackness, or in his words “Africanness” (Early 89), and how X in turn affected how blacks in general view themselves. Through my essay I hope to modify Early’s insights on Africanness to address the reality of blackness today, particularly as it has affected my life.

Early, citing childhood experiences, explains to the reader how Malcolm X influenced his life. He explains how Malcolm’s intelligence, oratory skills and “brand of youthfulness” (92) made him aware of and proud of his Africanness. Early also speaks of Malcolm’s immortality in the black mind, his martyrdom and how these things have contributed to his legendary stature in the black community today. Yet despite all the praise that Early has for X, his criticism of the core of Malcolm’s ideas is relentless. Malcolm X is to Early unoriginal, self-contradicting, “uncomfortably rigid and finally false” (98). According to Early, Malcolm X’s back-to-Africa romanticism and his wholesale denial of blacks as part of the American community made blacks feel more anxious, more inadequate and more-self hating. Early believes this to be the source of our society’s concept of Africanness. Early argues blacks must embrace our “tangled, strange, yet poignant” (100) history as Americans, and he is right – somewhat.

Early’s characterization of Malcolm is excellent, even if it misses the target at times. Malcolm’s fearlessness, his intelligence and his legend have had an immeasurable impact on the black community. Malcolm X is a towering figure in the black mind: impossibly manly, impossibly “black”, impossibly brilliant. However, at the same time I believe that Early vastly overemphasizes Malcolm X’s impact on the black identity crisis today. In fact, Early fails in exactly the same place that he claims Malcolm X failed – in his exclusive devotion to the past. Although Malcolm X may have greatly altered the black mindset with his Africanist teachings in Early’s day, most American blacks today do not see themselves the way Malcolm would have wanted them to. The identity crisis facing American blacks today has far more to do with contemporary pop culture and the misconceptions that it breeds than it has to do with a man who most black youth see as mythical, a long-gone figure in a misty past. Early’s students did not think he was insufficiently “black” because he does not adhere to Malcolm X’s belief that all blacks are Africans. Early’s students, in my opinion, question his blackness for the same reason people question mine.

The idea of blackness or Africanness that is espoused by people today is based on what they see blacks doing in their everyday lives. In her essay Looking at War, Susan Sontag attempts to convey the extent to which people are bombarded with images in the media. This bombardment of media images is in my view the source of our society’s concept of blackness. In Early’s youth, public figures like Malcolm X set the bar for Africanness. Malcolm X spoke of black pride, of African unity and due to his exposure, the ideal of blackness in that time period changed accordingly. Today, people, primarily youth, spend vast amounts of time watching television, surfing the net and reading magazines. Thus, these images shape their world view, just as “images” of Malcolm shaped Early’s. One of Early’s failures is that he does not reference the affect that the media’s portrayal of blacks today has on the concept of Africanness. Sadly, Malcolm X’s influence is infinitesimal compared to the affect of the Kobe Bryants of the world, the 50 Cents of the world and the charicactures of blacks seen on the evening news.

From dusk till dawn we are bombarded with images of blacks in certain roles. Blacks are seen as athletes, having almost completely monopolized the arena of sport. In the words of comedian Chris Rock during his HBO TV Special Never Scared, “Black people dominate every physical activity in the United States of America. Basketball, Baseball, Football, Boxing, Track, even Golf and Tennis. As soon as they make a heated hockey rink, we gonna take that shit too”. Blacks are seen as musicians. However, it is the type of black musicians that are popular in the media that has had such a profound affect on the idea of “Africanness” in North America. The worldwide popularity of hip hop, particularly its gangster rap offshoot, has had an immeasurable influence on our society’s concept of blackness. We constantly see blacks in the media as physically strong, but mentally weak, as in the case of many professional athletes. When listening to music and watching music videos, we see blacks as violent, angry people who are involved in illegal activities and who dress and speak a certain way. Lastly, when we look for a dose of reality we see blacks portrayed as a menace to society on our evening news programs and in our newspapers. Early fails in his understanding of Africanness in today’s world because he does not let go of the world of his childhood where Malcolm X was seen, heard and read often.

Why did Early’s students think he was “not black enough” (89)? Why did my peers liken me to a cookie that is black on the outside and white on the inside? The answer is that neither of us fit the criteria for blackness that is endorsed by the modern media. I read Shakespeare instead of salivating over King Magazine. I watch The Daily Show instead of 106th and Park. I like sports, particularly basketball, but generally devote more time to schoolwork than to practicing my game. Even though I am an avid hip hop fan and often dress “black” often enough, my failure to fit into the box that the media has created for black men has caused some of my peers to believe that I fail the litmus test for blackness. It is the pervasiveness of the modern media and the way it affects popular conceptions of identity that Early fails to see when he speaks about Africanness.

However, Early’s understanding of blackness falls short in another way that is far more important and damaging than his attachment to his own time. It is a failure that we as a society are guilty of. We all fail with Early in our classification of race. We fail because we see race as something more than a physical characteristic. In his famous speech entitled By Any Means Necessary Malcolm X touches on this point. “In Asia or the Arab world or Africa…if you find one who says he is white all he is doing is using an adjective to describe something that is incidental about him…But when you get the white man over here in America…he means he’s boss”. This addition of other meanings to a word that should be purely a physical description is patently dangerous. The racist stereotypes that are popular in our society all stem from this notion of Africanness, whiteness or membership in any other racial group being something more than physical. In Malcolm’s day being white meant having light skin, but it also was associated with “being boss”. In Early’s day blackness was identified with black skin and, in his opinion, an allegiance to Malcolm’s ideals. Today, blackness or Africanness is linked with physical characteristics as well as to a disproportionate involvement in the entertainment (of white folks) industry, violent tendencies, ignorance and a certain type of dress and speech. The idea that being black means being anything other than being a person with dark skin and curly hair destroys individuality. No two people are the same, nor should they be.

I have brown skin and curly black hair. I love to read and treasure my copies of The Odyssey, Richard III and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy like they were written in gold. I love basketball, but I am an average player at very best. I am a hockey fiend. I love music, whether it is the music of Bob Marley, Jay-Z or Billy Joel. I wear polo shirts, skinny ties and the occasional hockey jersey. I am a black man, but more importantly I am Jared Alexi Walker and I am an individual.