(note: this was written in response to an african american woman who wanted to know how i could be black - she grew up in a white community and didn't feel black. she mentioned that she likes rock & roll, specifically 'the stone temple pilots'. how could that be black?)
yeah every 5 years i write an essay called 'the end of my blackness', then i dig deeper, but it sounds like it never clicked for you. did you never identify with something deep that resonated? anyway, the mellow cannot cast aspersions on one so seemingly deprived.
where did you grow up? what was blackness to you and your family? i would like your take on the following three books. the first is 'colored people' by henry louis gates. the second is 'high cotton' by darryl pinckney and the third is 'breaking bread' by bell hooks and cornel west.
you see i have an interest in blackness that is beyond racial which is somewhat easier for me because of how i grew up. in reading your letter i sensed that you felt a lack of kinship and you looked for it along lines drawn in stereotypical ways. that's tough because you have a white problem which is one of segregation. unfortunately for so many americans, they never get the opportunity to meet that one individual or be in that one town or know that one family that makes it so easy to admire what is black. if, indeed, the best we have are abstracts - creations of cultural production - we all lose, but sometimes that is enough. we needn't meet jim morrison to feel the power of his vision. but then it is the communing that makes one family. so i try to draw you to the abstracts in describing a family you missed.
wanting to be in this well wrapped universe i and many others perceive as blackness is very much like wanting to be rich. no matter how many rich people fuck up, you still know you can do it right and you still try. but then some people decide that riches are not worth the effort, or that the effort is necessarily corrupting.
i cannot sell blackness although i can celebrate it. i cannot make you know the joys and sorrows and tell you that it is the only humanity worth knowing. i imagine it would be like someone showing me, next week, how to play cricket. i will probably not experience the elemental motivation to be a great player.
i never fell in love with any white woman. not because i couldn't, but because i didn't. and so it is likely that i won't. (especially if my wife has anything to say about it). but i know that any day, i could make the choice and find what so many other millions of americans must know - how to love that woman. but my life is quite complete without that knowledge, and so i have no motivation to make such a move. but if i felt that i was missing a part of myself, it might be harder for me to never try. if i was missing a part of myself, i would try to overcome whatever fears kept me from finding out that good part. if there was a good part of me out there somewhere it would be hard not to try and find it.
i believe every white family in america must somewhere have a forgotten or despised or unknown black member. somewhere we all crossed over. somewhere, somebody found some shame too difficult to bear or some danger too great to face. it's never easy to find that missing blackness and admit the good. that's why this country is so fucked up. because it's so hard to find and admit the good. when it's black, it always gets despised. that's what toni morrison was saying in 'jazz'. that's what jimmy baldwin was saying in 'another country'. its that denial of the possibility of finding, as alex haley said, that old african.
and so instead of taking that journey into discovery, wherever it may lead. people can look at nose rings and press on nails, fried chicken and feelings of insecurity and self doubt and say that's black enough. they can make the decision to quit looking. white people do it every day. black people do it every day.
funny, i've been listening to the stone temple pilots, and they always sound best when i am driving the night winter road between new york city and hartford. as i leave the range of hot 97, where hiphop lives, i push in the tape and the words come..
'somebody told me. i know where to go. somebody showed me. i was last to know..'
two weeks ago when i was in columbus, ohio i looked out at a field of chopped down corn. the wind was pushing the chill factor into the teens. i hit the road again and kept thinking what kind of music i would hear in my mind if i grew up here, one black face in a hundred. and the words came...
'sell me down the river. sell me down the river. sell me down the river...'
tonight, i am home with my wife trying to pull myself away from my voyages into public consciousness. why do i keep writing about black culture on this computer? i see your letter looking for black affinity out there and finally the words that melded into winter landscapes, that slow sadness trying to explain and so i push the cd into my mac and the words came once again...
'but i wanted, what we wanted'
the song is now transmuted into the longing for a real place. i knew what it sounded like, but now this is what it means.
some days i need to be reminded that there are 31 million african americans. i have been keeping a rolodex of my combined phone books. i have about 1500 names, and believe me - that includes every business card i've collected in 10 years. i have put together a family tree with 300 names. some days i need to be reminded that there are 31 million african americans. every dime i have made in my life started with somebody saying, yeah pick michael. i know there aren't more than 50 of them. but some days i still need to be reminded that there are 31 million. how many could be friends? how many could be? in this little corner of cyberspace there are perhaps 200 in the circle. 4 i have met face to face, and i find that extraordinary. and still there are 31 million.
finding so much with those 1500, enough for me to say blackness is something worth looking for, knowing it's part of me and there is yet more good to be found, how could i possibly be coming to the end of my blackness? how could anyone possibly erase so much? how could there be no future in it? how could i believe my experience has no equal, no resonance in that many?
i find it. i feel it.
blackness...they got these pictures of everything to break us down, yeah to break me down. they make us hate and we make it bleed. but i got a lover and yeah she shows me how to understand it, yeah to understand. i got a brother and well he shows me how to make amends yeah to make amends with it...
mbowen, september 1995