Why do so many others want to claim Blackness if it means oppression?
Blackness deserves to be understood as something more than the consequences of how it exists in a white supremacist world.
By Inigo Laguda
It is the most enthralling and excruciating time to be Black. Recently, it seems, some have managed access to glide through avenues that were previously concealed from us—to break down walls that were once erected to ostracize us. We are in the belly of a Black artistic renaissance and some of these shifting tides are joyous to watch. We are flooding onto magazine covers. The silver screen has a vivid range of our stories being told. The littler screen is forming and fleshing out more of our narratives than ever before. Slowly, we are being more and more seen.
But just as the draping trees and tranquil swamp-waters of the southern Bayou once served as an eerily mesmerizing backdrop for the unrelenting violence that enslaved peoples faced as they toiled tirelessly nearby—the painful reality of being Black is one of a dual existence. Victory is juxtaposed with defeat, and joy is never further than a stones throw from pain.
To be Black is to be sentenced to death now – find a reason to justify it later.
— Sir. berus (@Sir_Berus) September 14, 2018
From outlandishly-justified police killings and white people’s penchant for 911 button trigger-happiness, to mass incarceration, the Grenfell fire and the Windrush scandal, it would seem that both interpersonally and communally, other people seeing Blackness is continuously followed by, at best, discomfort and anxiety. At worst, it prompts a psychological need to be subdued, a harsh reality that extends not only across the pond, but throughout the entire diaspora.
In the wake of such a dizzying juxtaposition of suffering and celebration, I often find myself questioning how something so widely understood as wondrous is always subjected to such violence? How can something be so loveable and hateable at the same time? Why is the nature of Blackness so globally sought-after if also oppressed?
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I often say that whiteness is a police-guarded, gated community and Blackness is something of a street party. This is because to be white is to be initiated into a community of institutionally protected power, a power that is upheld by fluid rules and regulations that bend to white whims, a power that is only reachable by invitation and rigorous security checks (which often are exams of anti-Blackness). No matter how hard we labour, the most unambiguously Black amongst us could never bleach their way into whiteness or behave our way into it.
Blackness, however, is visitable by anyone, because it is the well from where the power is taken. Blackness is “claimable” and “invadable.” In a world that holds such an unhealthy obsession with duality in both its hands, Blackness falls immediately into binary opposition of whiteness. In such a dynamic, whiteness is a thirst to conquer and Blackness is to be conquered. In such a world, I find myself as wondering about our part and ability to safeguard the heart and soul of Blackness.
A few months ago, An Irish theatre director named Anthony Lennon was granted a full-time residential traineeship from the British Arts Council’s BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) fund. He is white. His parents are white. His grandparents are white. As the plumes of controversy polluted talk-shows and social media, he meandered his way through a Guardian article justifying himself.
He acknowledged his immediate white lineage but talked about having “African ancestry.” He spoke of always being perceived by others as Black and how he had internalized that message. He reminisced on his youth and becoming intoxicated with “rap” and “body-popping.” He talks about adding the Yoruba name “Ekundayo” to his own so that his daughter wouldn’t be confused about the origin of the Blackness he had stumbled into.
What followed was a dizzying flurry of Black people coming out in his defense. Nearly 50 Black theatre and film figures signed a letter in support of Lennon, and there was somewhat of a nauseating broken clock experience when Piers Morgan became a voice of reason against a Black woman on daytime TV.
Lennon’s supporters say his case is complex and multi-layered, but only ever offer a surface level analysis of it. “While having white parents, Anthony was born looking mixed race. He owns a cultural and personal history that falls outside easy definitions and labels,” but they don’t go to any lengths to justify what that “cultural” history is or why this “personal” history overrides his immediate lineage. The letter of support talks about how Lennon has been discriminated against, as if discrimination is the only barometer that Blackness is measured with.
And herein lies the problem. Perceiving Blackness simply as its desirable and undesirable components is the avenue in which non-Black people use to shimmy their way into kinship with us, knowing that we’ll welcome them into our spaces, movements and culture.
Thieves will and have burgled from us regardless, but this feels like giving them our front door key. We say that the desirable and undesirable components are enough to make you Black. We say that if you’re able to mimic us in one or more of these categories, then you can be one of us. This allows non-Black people, from Bhad Bhabie to Awkwafina, to indulge in “Blaccents” and more easily find success in it. It gives white women from all over Europe another opportunity to mock the aesthetics of Black women for increased social capital.
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All these imitators benefitting from their performances of Blackness may seem minuscule in the history of anti-Blackness, but they are merely un-nipped buds in a ravenous jungle that has been grown upon that historical soil. The small allowances are indicative of a system that has gorged itself on our bodies in order to sustain, preserve and grow itself, so when dealing with such a beast, protecting Blackness looks like resisting in every nook and cranny.
Black blood is the fuel for this world’s engine. Our salvation looks like a planet unable to spin.
— Sir. berus (@Sir_Berus) May 7, 2018
Blackness deserves to be understood as something more than the consequences of how it exists in a white supremacist world. Blackness includes and transcends gender. Blackness is an unhousable, spiritual, ancestral and social experience that exists across the diaspora, of people descended from the African continent.
Blackness is vast, specific and foundational, but in a world that wishes to drink from its well whilst poisoning its water, I believe that we should do our best to protect it with all our might.
This means vivid opposition to those who wish to use the aesthetics of Blackness for their own financial gain or self-exploration. This means celebrating exhibitions of Blackness when they are worn on Black people and challenging their very existence when they comes from non-Black people. It means not only uninviting a whole load of non-Black people from the philosophical cookout, but fervently resisting those who’d wish to gate-crash our culture.
The animal we’re facing here is not new. It is a familiar exploitation with a fresher, kinder and more disarming face. It is the young blood-relative of the same thievery that we have heavily endured—only with less aggressive force and more flattery. Resist it all the same.
Inigo Laguda is an artist, storyteller, and musician currently residing in London, England. He is particularly interested in deconstructing the common conceptions of “normal”. His focus is centred on Blackness and mental wellness. His intimate thoughts can be found at @SaveInigo.