Rev David Shosanya explores the concept of Blackness, and why it’s important that Black people aren’t always projected as living in poverty, being in need and always wanting to be rescued with money raised for charity
I’m proud to be Black! How that statement is received is determined by one’s view of Blackness. However, sadly, the fact that I need to make such an assertion is hugely problematic in itself, and should not be easily or conveniently overlooked. Being proud to be Black is not an assertion that my White colleagues, friends or contemporaries have to make about their Whiteness.
The unspoken and assertive assumption is that one should be proud to be White, because Whiteness is normal, and if Whiteness is normal then there is no need to explain, apologise or assert anything about its characteristics, manifestations or even its existence. It is normal and therefore does not need to be interrogated. Blackness does and should!
Having to assert that I am Black and proud conveys and carries an intrinsic recognition and assumption about Blackness itself. Blackness and pride are not words that are readily twinned in our minds or vocabulary. This is surprising, as we have much to be proud about! As Black communities, we come from and belong to a group of people whose existence and history were savagely attacked and severely distorted, and yet we retain within ourselves the inherent dignity of being human in the face of historical and contemporary assaults on our person. Having to assert that I am Black and proud implies in some way that there is something or someone – possibly a group of people – that see Blackness as problematic. There is!
I recently read an article by an American academic that used a Supreme Court case, where residents were appealing to the law to retain a state judgment reserving their right to prohibit and prevent traffic from passing through their private, residential neighbourhood. The writer appropriated the metaphor of ‘unwanted traffic’ to describe or capture the spoken and unspoken sentiment of Blackness co-existing or passing through White communities/White spaces. The metaphor is extremely powerful, and carries a number of sub-themes which can easily be explored to highlight the pernicious, corrosive and dehumanising fact of racial prejudice.
Given the frequency with which being Black (or Blackness) is correlated to underdevelopment, being in need and uncivilised, compared with the perceived kindness, generosity and benevolence of White people (or Whiteness), one could be easily excised for quickly drawing the conclusion that a Black person has never, is currently failing to, and possibly could not in the future, have made, be making or continue to possibly make a positive contribution to the human race or civilisation.
One can bring this home and highlight the manner in which some Christian charities portray and reinforce representations of Black people and Blackness in their literature, in an attempt to raise funds. When challenged, their replies go something like this: “But that is the reality, what can we do?” A lot, I suggest! For a start, they must ask themselves if this is the only reality, and what effect it has on how individuals perceive Black people and Blackness.
My contention is that such representations are not just exploitative; they have the detrimental effect of consciously or subconsciously juxtaposing racialised notions and conceptions of Blackness (uncivilised and regressive) with Whiteness (civilised and progressive). In other words, they pathologise who we are to the wider world, and reinforce subconscious assumptions and beliefs about Blackness.
The corollary to Black poverty is White exploitation through structural inequalities mediated through unjust financial systems, and an indifference to the plight of Black people. Another answer to the assertion “But that is the reality, what can we do?” is to tell the full story, and show the complete picture of Blackness, without reducing it to representations of chronic need!
One would be mistaken to reduce the content of an article such as this to mere grumbling, politicking and misguided or manipulative racial politics. That would be the easy and the cowardly way out. In fact, the foundational basis of this article is fundamentally theological, and locates its moral authority on the basis that all humanity is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). In other words, the reason why individuals – irrespective of colour or culture – should be handled with care and ‘represented’ as authentically as possible is because they are God’s creation, and caricatures dishonour that fact. In truth, the capacity to look oneself/one’s culture in the eye – individually or collectively, as a community or society – is one of the hallmarks of cultural maturity, and a movement away from blind and misplaced defensiveness. The ability to go further and beyond that, and to affirm and embrace the positive difference in others, is the highest ideal of the human state.
There is no room for discrimination of any sort in that space.