Black History Month: Can Blackness be measured or defined?

Black Ya'll
This has to be one of my favorite GIFs of all time because I’m Black, Ya’ll….Image courtesy of  Universal Pictures.

In the past, I’ve joked about my “Black card” being revoked, being uninvited to the Black people cookout, and being denied access to the secret Black people meetings. I’ll likely continue to joke about those things. I do know Black people, however, who do NOT joke about that stuff. Which of us is Blacker?

 I have never watched the films Love & Basketball, The Five Heartbeats, or In the Heat of the Night. I know plenty of Black people who have. Which of us is Blacker?

I’ve sported natural hair for the past decade. My kids have African names. And I can cook up a mean pot of greens and melt-in-your-mouth cornbread. But…my favorite foods are avocados and New England Clam Chowder. I would love to see System of a Down and Cake live in concert. And I watch telenovelas and a lot of British television including the occasional British Parliamentary proceeding. How Black am I?

Blackness cannot be measured, approximated, or even achieved based on the adoption of certain practices, habits or ideas, Rachel Dolezal. Despite my month-long musing on phenomena common to and/or associated with the Black experience, I know good and darn well the Black experience is not monolithic. I also know that Blackness can’t simply be donned like a hat or a coat. So no one should ever fix their mouth to tell me or any other Black person how Black they are because of their income level or their collection of Jay Z tracks or their knowledge of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

I seriously can’t believe how many times I’ve heard this phrase: “I’m Blacker than you are.” For real?!? GTFOH.

Intellectually speaking, however, this statement begs the question: What does it mean to be Black?

It’s definitely not about color, nor is it about behavior, belief or view. I’ve had a heated discussion with an African man whose skin color rivaled midnight. According to him, he was not Black. He was Senegalese; Wolof to be exact. He told me that Black people only existed in America. Conversely, on my father’s side, I have an aunt who is the color of filo dough. If you refer to her as anything else but Black, then you’re looking for a fight. Whether African, African-American or Black, we don’t all eat or like or do the same things. We’re individuals. How is it that there is still a need to explain this?

The more I have studied the history of Blackness in America and throughout the world, the more I find that Blackness was launched as an imposed state. The concept of Blackness, like the concept of race, is a construct meant to support capitalism which is, according to this definition:

A society in which the market sets prices for the sole purpose of profits and any inefficiency or intervention that reduces profit making will be eliminated by the market.

For capitalism to work at its most efficient level, moral sacrifices must be made. Throughout history, those moral sacrifices have usually been at the expense of humanity.  In particular, it has included royally screwing over the labor force because paying people the true value of their physical and intellectual labor is a real drag on profits.

Back in the day, before the prison industrial complex, the best way to skirt profit-threatening cost is to have free labor. But since no one wanted to work for free, there had to be a reasonable and logical explanation to support the idea of slavery. That meant that a lot of someones had be devalued on every level to justify their unworthiness of life, liberty and wealth. Enter racism—which did not exist until the 18th century (1700s). Now honestly, creating race based on color was pretty friggin’ ingenious because it provided a quick, easy, and obvious way to determine class and worthiness.  But why does no one like being called a racist? Because racism is and was a truly evil idea meant to support evil institutions desired by truly evil people.

But we all know how greed works, so it had to happen.

The creation of race, and its byproduct of Blackness, was a slow and steady initiative.  And I know the following excerpt is lengthy but you’ve got to read it. As per this timeline of African Americans at Jamestown:


1619 Arrival of “20 and odd” Africans in late August 1619 aboard an English warship, White Lion, sailing with a letters of marque issued to the English Captain Jope by the Protestant Dutch Prince Maurice, son of William of Orange. The 20 and odd Africans were captives removed from the Portuguese slave ship, San Juan Bautista, following an encounter the ship had with the White Lion and her consort, the Treasurer, another English ship, while attempting to deliver its African prisoners to Mexico.
1630’s Indication by surviving wills, inventories, deeds and other documents that in some instances it was considered “customary practice to hold some Negroes in a form of life service.” It should be noted that by examining these documents it was also found that some Blacks were able to hold on to their status of being indentured servants, thus, eventually gaining their freedom.
1639 All persons except Negroes are to be with Arms and Ammunition.
1640 John Punch, a runaway indentured Servant, first documented slave for life.
1662 Slavery was recognized in the statutory law of the colony. Legislation was passed defining the status of mulatto children. Children would be considered the same status as the mother. If the child was born to a slave, the child would be considered a slave.
1667 Baptism does not bring freedom. Until the General Assembly outlawed it, baptism could be the grounds for a Black slave to obtain his/her freedom. It was considered for a period of time that it was not proper for a Christian to enslave a fellow Christian.
1670 Blacks or Indians could no longer own White indentured servants.
1680 An act was passed preventing insurrections among slaves.

Blacks could not congregate in large numbers for supposed funeral or feasts. Blacks must also obtain written authorization to leave a plantation at any given time. They could not remain at another plantation longer than 4 hours.

1691 First act prohibiting intermarriage.

No Negro or Mulatto may be set free by any person unless the pay for the transportation out of the colony within six months or forfeit ten pounds of sterling so that the church wardens might have the Negro transported.

1692 Negroes must give up ownership of horses, cattle or hogs.

Separate courts for the trial of slaves charged with a capital crime, thus depriving them of the right of a trial by jury.

1700’s Slaves composed half of Virginia’s unfree labor force.
1705 Slave laws were codified.

The idea of “Blackness”—the association of a people with a color that is supposed to represent negativity, badness, darkness, violence, wickedness—was a business move to justify slavery. It also kept pesky poor White people from uniting with enslaved Black Africans to overthrow wealthy White landowners. (Remind you of anything?) The longer slavery existed and racism was propagated, the more all people bought into the concept of Blackness, including “Black” people.

Still…what I love about myself and my people is how our spirits can’t be broken. We have repeatedly and consistently managed to affirm our humanity, and the greatness that resides within it, despite all the crap we have been dealt. When presented with Blackness, we derived from it a beautiful, brilliant, impactful, prolific culture, BLACK CULTURE. We made penicillin out of mold, Y’all. And to this day, everyone wants a taste of the healing we have to offer. So much so that digital blackface is a thing. SMH.

Can my Blackness be measured? Hell no. I’m Black. Period. Deal with it.

Can my Blackness be defined? Welp, my Blackness is my individual life experience and my decision to claim my history and ancestry as power. It is my writing. It is my approach to motherhood. It is my affinity for Chuck Taylors and my intolerance of cheesy peas. It is not to be confused with anyone else’s Blackness as their Blackness is their own. My Blackness is a singular, immeasurable, unclaimable aspect of me that is far from the totality of what or who I am.

No other can define for me something which does not define me; I define it.



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