i am an african american man born in 1961 in southern california. (my next immediate thought goes to retracing my ancestry because the natural question is why were you born in southern california at that time?) but that's not exactly the question. though i don't hesitate to say that i am black because both my parents were proud of their lineage and my mother married a man who looked like her father, my father married a woman who looked like his mother. a largely aesthetic choice for both of them which they then attempted to infuse with the stuff of their dreams.
my appreciation of my culture came through politics and at a very young age. my father is an episcopalean from connecticut, my mother a born-again ex-catholic from louisiana. his politics in a short phrase were primarily a scholarly shade of black nationalism, hers a conservative tint of classic liberalism(1*). the politics of the family were much in the mix beyond our immediate household. one uncle an old school academic on a serious trickster tip bogardin' through administrations, the other a sharp and worldly economist who worked in west africa.
from this standpoint all blackness was understood by our generation to be a cultural and intellectual contruct. from the racial perspective, it went without saying that only africans and american blacks had any real interest in its creation, extention and preservation. blackness was as black folks created it and that creation would sustain us against the barriers of race.
i personally was involved with my father's institute for black studies in it's publishing and neighborhood activities which included writer's workshops open to children and adults. as well i was part of the now well-known Us organization of dr. karenga.
i have always understood that a thorough understanding and continuous effort at redefining and refining the problems and solutions of the day was what gave extraordinary people the courage and ability to be fearless. for black people, this was the work of the 'race man' into whose 'talented tenth' i had been born. the fearlessness was part and parcel of freedom and it was required because of the very well known means by which blacks have been deprived of their freedom in america.
my race was a given. i and my family and all of my friends were enemies of those in power here. but we never doubted our entitlement to freedom. my blackness was my culture and my politics and my intellectuality and my style - my well orchestrated and well wrapped system to deliver that freedom to me. blackness was necessary because freedom was denied.
at the time, there was little doubt in any of our minds that black nationalism as it was originally constructed was the ideology that fueled and shaped what our blackness would be. as well, beyond that there was little question that a pan africanist world view was appropriate. that was the point. today black nationalism and pan-africanism are changed as am i.
now, i see myself in many more ways, but i am satisfied that african-american is constructed as it is. much of what my family is and the choices we have had to make spring from the fact of our african origin, and the ways and means we have to fight for freedom or whatever we fight for is instructed by our history and presence in america.
when i speak of race, i speak of a fiction whose usefulness is long past, if it ever had any. if it was darwin who first suggested humans be classified according to 'race' or some perverse american school of thought which distorted science to justify its gross constitutional hypocracy - neither is what i have in mind when i speak of blackness. nor was it ever really what a negro was all about although free men of color, that pre-civil war term, might come close. i know it has taken much for africans to unthink this thinking and much more still to communicate such knowledge to those who would benefit. but i see that as an equivalent task of blackness. in determined struggle against the trap of race has been born the power to overcome its very definition. but was that the point? no. the point was to achieve freedom, not to merely transcend race. one can transcend race by scientifically denying it but that can never account for blackness.
so even as legal sanction of racial oppression falls in bits and pieces around the world, i still have reasons to be black because my blackness creates freedom. it was never based on some essential darwinist characteristic.
so i am demographically african american and my blackness -- my culture, my intellectuality, my politics and my style -- takes up from time to time aspects of multiculturalism, liberatrianism, taoist philosophy, hiphop aesthetics, postmodern thought, polytheism, liberation theology, and african american history, literature and film. that's what i call the mix and i put myself in it for the sake of self-fulfilliment and out of an obligation to a continuing struggle to create freedom.
existentially, this is a very difficult task. consider the opportunities one is presented to explain oneself thusly. more likely americans want to know my zodiac sign. no problem, but. the creation of space to be black like that is very important and i know this is something african americans struggle with constantly. i happen to like s.c.a.a. despite all its shortcomings for this reason. i have decided to be black here and be free here, despite the limits. i see others have as well, in plain sight of many folks who can only see race and worse fictions. but of course that's what being fearless is all about.
more power to us!
mbowen, november, 1993