Defining Black


I went to the National Black Writer's Conference at Medgar Evers College on Friday. Sat in on an address by Haki Madhubuti, poet, publisher and founder of Third World Press in Chicago. This guy is bad. He spoke about how Barack Obama used to be a man of the people, but now he's taking corporate jets and not phone calls. Talked about how the Civil Rights Movement left an unfinished agenda for black people. And how today men and women are leaving competitive colleges with strong educations and skills, but lacking consciousness -- a political and cultural concept of themselves as people of black descent -- that ends up slapping them in the face in the workplace.

My favorite quote was, "Anybody can rap reality. What separates the artist from the rapper is that the artist can see beyond Bedford and Crown [Street, in Brooklyn]. The artist is able to see what our tomorrow might be."

After Madhubuti's keynote address, I attended a workshop showcasing works by elder black writers. Many of the women, some of whom were over 80, read hairstories about their struggles to tame, accept, and love their hair in their youth. It was beautiful up until the Q&A segment, which deteriorated into a 20-minute discussion about how mainstream society and black cultural attitudes contribute to hair self-hate.

Sometimes I wish black women would just stop talking about their hair and find another topic. It would free us up to deal with much more pressing issues.

The discussion also helped me realize, in a very tangible way, that I'm not black. Every time I attend one of these these black such-and-such conferences I never hear a significant mention of Africa. I end up feeling so alienated that I don't want to return.

As a little girl growing up, I always felt different because my parents were from Nigeria. My mom started an African dance troupe and we would travel around singing and performing traditional Ibibio dance. She was a pioneer in spreading African culture in Upstate New York. Our house was so deeply rooted in our heritage that I would look at other black girls around me like they were from a foreign culture.

It was tough living in between black America and black Africa. But in college, part of which included a semester at Spelman College, I realized that there is no pinning down a "definition" of blackness.

Even still, in my adult life, among other learned adults, I keep hearing the term "black" thrown around as if it has some singular, and definitive, meaning; I think of it as pluralistic, encompassing all descendants from Africa. Guess I have to check my reality at the conference door.

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