the other day I went to a talk by David Austen- a Jamaican-English-Canadian academic who I believe is quite brilliant.
His talk was about his new book Fear of a Black Planet, and during the question and answer section several questions were raised concerning blackness, the fear of blackness and of not being ‘just black’.
The term struck me, as something I have said myself ‘I am not just black you know’
Another version I had used myself – “i am not just Jamaican you know”
as a recent export to the land of the mape leaf in search of higher education, my own blackness has taken up more space in my life than it has ever before. When I was in Jamaica, i was uptown or downtown, from country or town, rich or poor. I was defined by many things, but never by my blackness. Here whether I am a rich/poor uptown/downtown countrified/city dweller or even Jamaican matters not. I have been distilled down to my one defining feature- black
And not just black as I understand it, but black as a set of assumptions that have been spread far and wide.
As the conversation went on and the term ‘not just black’ was bandied about it began to worry me, this seeming need to get away from being ‘just black’. And what part of blackness were we trying to skip? And would you hear a white person say they are not just white or for that matter would any other racial/ethnic group feel the need to assert that they were not ‘just’ themselves.
I realised that the term black was being used interchangeably to refer to black skin and the experience of being black or associating oneself with ‘black’ lifestyle and culture. The thing is (and we already know this) there is no one black lifestyle. There is no one black experience. Haitian experiences and Jamaican experiences and experiences in Harlem and experiences in Atlanta and experiences in Brixton and experiences in Ghana and experiences in South Africa and experiences in Toronto differ greately. And while i have listed a few ‘black places’ what about the experiences of black people living in Iowa and Iceland and Kingston Ontario? Are they not black experiences too? There is no such thing as a black experience, but there are certain similarities, I believe, in the experiences of black people. I think of us as a diaspora of struggle. If we were not linked by the varying hues of brown in our skin then a shared understanding of hardship and unfairness would bind us (again I say, this is my opinion)
It is also my opinion that this shared history of struggle has led to certain similarities in our cultural and creative products. Compare NWA’s Fuck the Police and Baby Cham’s Babylon Bwoy, Will Smith’s Summertime and Ding Dong and Chevaughn’s Holiday- there is a way in which people who are identified as black encounter pain. There is a way in which we rejoice and find enjoyment in the moments when we are free from that pain. A shared way coming from a shared understanding of the systems we inhabit and the ways in which these systems oppress us. These expressions evolve along similar lines across generations and time. While the types and levels of oppression may vary, its presence as a (usually) defining part of the lives of black folks persists.
You may be wondering why I am going on about music. It is because I love music (big ups to my ipod and various mix tapes that are keeping my company in the cold). But also because my own experience with trying to divorce myself from my blackness and Jamaicanness centres around music, specifically black music.
When I came to the land of the maple leaf I happened upon a wonderful group of friends. One of them shared a song with me one day and while sharing voiced the presumption that I did not know the band….because it was a white band, and not a very popular white band at that. I knew the song, which shocked the person (they later apologised for being shocked and chastised them self for assuming i would not know it in the first place)
I should have chastised myself for my response, which was something along the lines of “i’m not just black you know or i’m not that black you know’ or perhaps ‘i’m not just Jamaican you know’
What i didn’t realise I was doing at the time was conntributing to the notion that being black is bad. But more importantly that mixing something else in with the ‘blackness’ would make me better as a person. Please understand what I am saying, i recognise the need for diversity in experience and for persons of different races/ethnicities to not close themselves off from other races/ethnicities. But when one has to wave one’s assocation with a race other than their own like a flag signifying their human-ness; when one has to prove that they are not just themselves or the place that made them to show that they are valuable, when one CHOOSES to do that, not even being required, you choose to do it, to try to legitimse yourself. that’s a problem. And that is what i found myself doing, There was a period when I made quite the production of associating myself with any indie-rock-folk band out there, posting them all over my facebook wall (i always post these bands, but for the first time i was posting them to prove that i knew them, that the jamaican girl had ‘first world’ musical tastes, that i wasn’t so ‘third world’ after all)
I was proving my not-blackness my not-jamaicanness, to prove my worthiness. my worth.
And then i started thinking, about all my friends who had been to school abroad and the evolution of their expression of self (with particular emphasis on the musical taste) coming out of that experience, and more importantly their changing views on blackness and black people and jamaicans in particular when they returned home.
Now, I am aware that when one is outside of one’s own culture one will assimilate to the new culture and also that exposure to new things will reveal new things that you like. It is a given that you will change. But I have to ponder…how much did the people around you change for knowing you? And how would it have reflected on you if you did not change?
a black student in a primarily white university chooses not to attend a show by a popular (underground popular) white band. The student immediately wonders what is thought about them. Am i too black? should i be open to these new experiences? Though the things they sing about may be completely outside of my context, will it look bad for me to not go? And what about my friends, they are all going, shouldn’t i accompany them?
It is also possibly thought that the student is too bound up in their blackness and pain and does not want to explore other cultures. Only wants to think about their situation.
a white student, however, who chooses not to attend a show by a popular (underground popular) black band, does not go through the same dilemma
It is automatically understood that black music is not for everyone and that perhaps the white student just isn’t into that. Even if the black friend is into that band, there is less pressure to accompany the friend for the sake of solidarity.
At the base of this double standard seems to be the notion that blackness and its products are very specific, possibly loud jarring or difficult to consume and palatable to only a certian set of people. White cultural products on the other hand are more universally acceptable. Additionally, a white person who attempts to associate with blackness (big up to di allies) is making a considerable effort, while a black person associating with whiteness is either expanding their mind/worldview or possibly selling out
What I want you to keep in mind is that this is in the mind of the black person. I thought I was legitimizing myself by proving I was not just black or Jamaican/’third world’.
I was not ‘just black’. I was more than black. I was more than Jamaican
There is a hierarchy, Jamaican and black is somewhere lower down, North American and not-black is somewhere higher up, i could climb the ladder by being more than myself, more of somebody else.
I took a moment to think about the fact that what i was combatting was not my own experience of blackess/Jamaicanness but certain assumptions. I as a black Jamaican listen to all kinds of music, so the assumptions were not true. Yes, I understand that. But then I said to myself, what am I saying about the Jamaicans of who it is true?
What is wrong with being ‘Just Jamaican’?
What is wrong with being ‘Just Black’?
If a white person from Nashville listens to country music exclusively, and cites the fact that their momma and daddy listened to country music so thats what they listen to, we might whisper the term ‘red neck’ but chalk it up to regional charm.
If a black person listens to hip hop, rap and r and b only. chooses to fraternise in only ‘black spaces’ and says their daddy listened to the blues, and their momma listened to jazz and so this is their blues, what is thought of them?
If a white man goes walking across campus in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, he’s carrying his culture with him
If a black man goes walking across campus in baggy jeans and a big chain he’s a displaced hoodlum
Now, i know, I am referring to one particular permuation of ‘blackness’ the urban black male. And i know that we are not all that particular person, i also know that not all urban black males choose this kind of expression,but I am using this as the most identifiable example of ‘blackness’ we possibly have today (especially in a north american context)
No one would tell the white person to look less country but they would tell the black man to look less ‘street’ <=–the fact that he is assumed to be from the streets is another issue all together. why must he necessarily be associated with the streets? This particular style of dress is available from many fashion houses, may of them owned by white members of the skate culture. IN fact it is a style of dress that has been co-opted by the skate culture in many ways.
But to reel it back in, let us forget what a non-black person would think about these two people, what would black people think?
Would they perhaps advise him/wish him to look less ‘black’
to prove he was not just black
to model, on his body, his assimilation of a culture not his own
to prove his value?
Is there no value to blackness? is there no value to jamaican-ness?
Would I be so lacking as a person if i chose only to consume the cultural products of Jamaicans?
Is there not enough there to sustain and build a human? Stop thinking Jamaica is just dancehall. Dancehall is an important part of Jamaica, but please look at the country as a whole. Is there not value there? And what is so wrong with dancehall? Yes, there are some players there that would give a warped understanding of the place and the people within it. But look at the dancehall overall, is there not value to the points of view there? Is that not a legitimate worldview? It is real. It is lived. So is Jamaica real and lived. So is ‘blackness’ real and lived. So why does it need to be peppered with other things to be legitimised?
When you go to school abroad and you come home, what does your ipod look like? Who is there? And what happened to the people you used to listen to? When did they become problematic? Possibly the first time you played Spice and felt you had to close the door because it was too raunchy. But what about her context? How did she come to have the experiences to write these songs? and what about Khago- you could probably play him with the door open. What is so different about Kartel** singing ‘tun up the fuck’ and Nine Inch Nails singing ‘i want to fuck you like an animal’?
But who would go to these concerts?
and what would they be trying to prove?
backness it seems is a thing you can combat with whiteness. but more importantly it is a thing you NEED to combat to prove yourself worthy of being entitled to a place in a non-black space.
I did it, I caught myself doing it. And i am going vigilante on myself, because I will never do it again.
I am just Jamaican. There is no value judgment there. Neither up nor down. I am just a woman from a country. I am neither above nor below anyone. And no one is above nor below me. Utopian, I know, and possibly difficult to live. But in the sovereign state of my own mind, this is how it will be. a Jamaican mongrel in the land of the maple leaf.
**- i have my own personal issues with Kartel but will not bother discussing them in this post