African Americans and whites alike tackle this question, often in attempts to cancel out each other’s interpretations. There have been documentaries about what it means to be black in America. Movies directed. Songs sung. Countless books written about it. One common recurrence in our ongoing contemplation of what it means to be black, however, is the reflection of the cultural moment at hand.
For past generations of blacks, kernels of racial identity were often embedded in Jim Crow and the struggle to be acknowledged as human.
Here are a few manifestations of blackness from the Black Identity family tree:
–Nigger Black existed during slavery.
–Reconstruction and Turn of the 20th Century Black lived when African American bodies were mercilessly lynched out of desperation to maintain a white supremacist social structure.
–Renaissance Black dominated the late teens up to the 1930s. African American and Afro-Caribbean people retaliated against Jim Crow through writing and music to shape an independent definition of blackness in America.
–Existential black was around in the 1940s and 1950s because authors like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin questioned the invisibility of black bodies in a racially prejudiced world.
–Raise your fist in honor of Nationalist Black. He pummeled his way into the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s because activists like
Huey P. Newton, Charles Hamilton (not the rapper), and Stokely Carmichael chopped Jim Crow in the throat. Nationalist Black advocated that being Black in a White America that sees us as inferior can kick rocks.
Now that those visible obstacles of racial prejudice are dissolving, how do we as African Americans gauge an authentic black experience?
Well, returning to the family tree, we’re currently shaking hands with Obama Black, who suggests that blackness is optional instead of definite.
I would wager that blackness is now synonymous with profitability. The link between capitalism and the black body is not a new occurrence. Slave traders sold black bodies for white profit (or, if you’re interested in a remix of that story, peep Edward P. Jones’ The Known World where slaves are owned by African Americans).
The charge to chase the American dream—whatever the hell THAT may be—has different implications for minorities. Lived experience is often fabricated for a dollar. This is especially true for mainstream rappers.
Artists like Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and T.I. hint at their realities as an artist and the consequences of being restricted to that manufactured space. B.I.G.’s catalog, for example, includes dark tracks that illustrate his struggle to balance fame and life. Tip’s T.I. vs. T.I.P. was a ticking time bomb of emotional distress that exploded with the confrontation between his split personalities.
The downfall of paper chasing for African Americans is that there is no outlet to talk about what had to be sacrificed in order to get paid. The only visual is the glittery finished product. Fake or not.
If, indeed, money is the new black, where does that leave African Americans? Capitalistic pursuit should not be a scapegoat for confronting issues that are detrimental to African Americans. Conversations about image and identity politics should not be avoided because of someone’s wallet or purse size.
As I found out with my Nicki Minaj piece from last week, many folks feel she is exempt from analysis because she is believed to be making bank. The more money black Americans seem to make, the less necessary aligning with anyone else’s sense of blackness becomes. Is there some some “get out of black” card that blacks obtain once a certain economic threshold is reached?
If so, a balance needs to be struck between retaining consciousness and financial betterment. Or bounce the check because our asses can’t cash it.
Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She blogs about identity politics, African American Humor, and popular culture at her site Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com). Contact her via Twitter: @redclayscholar.