Penny For Your Thoughts: What Does It Mean To Be Black?

June 29, 2015  |  

Is blackness something you can “learn”?

That’s what I asked myself after reading Nyasha Junior’s great Buzzfeed essay, “Black Church Taught Me How to Be Black”. In it, she outlines the ways that being raised in an African Methodist Episcopal church shaped her identity as a Black woman.

Who knows if Junior came up with the essay title on her own, or if it was an attempt by her editors to create click bait. But the phrase “taught me how to be black” seemed quite timely. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard people talk about race–and about blackness in particular–with more frequency and fervor than ever. For a minute, the national conversation about race even turned into a defiant sing-along when President Obama led a Charleston, South Carolina congregation in what might as well be called the Black version (runs and all) of “Amazing Grace.” He did so at the funeral for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney of Emanuel AME Church where nine people were slain by racist gunman, Dylann Roof.

Ask a Black person, “Who taught you how to be Black?” and you might get an answer like “My mama” or Martin. Ask people, “What makes you Black?” and they might point to the generous size of their butt, the wideness of their nose, the tightly coiled texture of their hair, or their experiences. Or, maybe they would just look at you like you’re crazy and say “You do see me, right?”

Then, ask yourself, “Who or what taught me how to be Black?” (I wondered this about the origin of my blackness: Am I Black simply because looking in the mirror showed me that I’m brown-skinned? Am I Black because I went to a Black college? Am I Black because I say, “I know that’s right!” in conversation? Am I Black because I know at what points to say, “Take your time!” and “Make it plain!” during a Black preacher’s sermon?)

If Rachel Dolezal did nothing else (besides enrage a bunch of folks and become a divisive symbol for racial identity), she at least raised this question: “What does it mean to be Black?” And, well, that question came up again last week. People magazine reported that 72-year-old Verda Byrd, who had been raised as a Black woman, was actually a White woman whose Black parents adopted her as a baby.

If you’re anything like me, when you read Byrd’s story, you likely noticed some holes and details that left you with a few something-about-this-ain’t-right questions. If you’re anything like me, you may have also noticed that your friends on social media didn’t seem to mind Byrd saying that she will continue to be Black despite the revelation that it’s not her true race. The article was circulated on my Facebook feed with what sounded like true endorsements for Byrd’s decision to continue identifying as a Black woman. While the overwhelming reaction to Dolezal seemed to be an angry, “You can’t just be Black because you say you are!” The reaction to Byrd has been a compassionate, “Leave that woman alone and let her go about her business!”

The reaction to Byrd’s story added another brain teaser to the maze of racial identity. Why did Byrd get to be Black, so to speak, and Dolezal did not? Was it because Byrd didn’t knowingly deceive people? Is it because she is indeed 72 years old? We all know not to question our elders, so did Byrd’s age alone give her a pass? 

Maybe if we had an equation for figuring out how to calculate blackness, it would be easier to come to a consensus at times like this. (I’m joking of course, but still.) I think we can all agree that blackness isn’t exclusively a matter of skin color. So if there’s more to blackness than skin color, then can we vote on what percentage skin color accounts for in the equation? Seriously, what would you say the percentage is? Is it 95 percent? Is it 30 percent? What about 50 percent? What are the other factors? What behaviors or traditions or rituals do you think make you Black–or where did you “learn” how to be Black, so to speak?

The other day, a friend shared a Facebook post about sitting in a Chinese restaurant near a Black family who appeared to be celebrating the birthday of an aunt. Just as the family started singing “Happy Birthday to You,” a young woman, who was presumably one of the woman’s nieces, “emerges from the bathroom” carrying a foil pan with a homemade cake. For my friend, that was a moment rife with racial significance. “You can’t outdo Black people,” she said at the end of her post.

While I can’t exactly pinpoint what accounts for blackness, know this: The next time you bring your own foil pan homemade cake and serve it in a public restaurant, especially a Chinese restaurant, you just might be teaching someone how to be Black.

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