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Black Consciousness in a Post-Heroic Age

Nicholas Powers Jan 21, 2014

MANDELA DIED — I stared at the text and read it again, then again, the words zapping me as if I were licking a battery. From the train window, Long Island was an endless row of doll-

houses. Again, I looked at the text and shook my head. Nelson Mandela’s wrinkled face lit up in my mind, then vanished. It felt like something precious was drained from my life.

Shifting in my seat, I shook it off. It’s not like I wake up thinking of Mandela. There’s no poster of him on my walls, no Mandela book on my shelf. Last time I thought of him was during a preview for the film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela. It’s official, I thought, Morgan has been every important black man in history. Including God.

But as the train rocked along the tracks, I felt that sting again. As a teen visiting my friends, I sometimes saw a framed photo of Mandela on the wall, often next to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. or a painting of Black Jesus. He was a hero in the Black freedom struggle, which was the reason we sat in a new home, drove new cars and wore new clothes on our backs. Between bites of dinner, I would lean back and study those photos, then ask my friends’ parents what they remembered of the struggle. 

A heat rose in their voices. Whatever we had been talking about was pushed out of the way. Leaning over their plates, they told us of being afraid of whites, of being pelted with slurs and spit on if they were in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. They told us of being stopped by cops, frisked and threatened, stared at. They told us of the civil rights marches that shook the world. As they talked, I saw their faces light up.

Afterward, my friends and I would pile into a car and drive around town. A joint was passed as we talked about girls, sports and school, and the blurry future became more blurred with each inhale. Over and over, we came back to the stories of the struggle and hit dead air, words failed us as we sat in the car and stared at the dark streets, worried we’d never live up to that history.

At some point, someone always had to be dropped off in the ghetto to see a friend, get more weed or hook up with a girl. Fear knotted our chests as men on the corner eyed us, our car and our new clothes with hunger. The ragged homeless, looking like mummies, pushed shopping carts over broken sidewalks. Despair sat in the air.

And this was the weight that we, college-bound and privileged, were supposed to lift from the world. But how were we to do that? Hanging over us were the faces of Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Jesus. It felt like they stared down at us from beyond the grave. In this spotlight of judgment, we leaned on the car and watched our friend walk into the row of ghetto homes, each one with shattered windows like broken glass teeth. 

I blinked the memory away as the train rolled into the Nostrand Avenue station. On the street was the familiar liquor store with a poster of a black woman on all fours in the window. Nearby a homeless man held out his hand. Shrugging him off, I passed by a bookstore as a video played in the window, showing a young imam who shouted, “All praise is to Allah! Let me hear you say it!” Out front a half-circle of junkies and drunks shouted with him, holding their hands up to the screen as if being warmed by a fire.

Invisible Factories

Why do we need Mandela? Or Martin Luther King Jr. or Angela Davis, Malcolm X or Harriet Tubman? Why do we need heroes?

The first act of oppression is to divide us from our experience. “Nigger,” “faggot,” “bitch” — a whole vocabulary of dissociation cleaves us from our bodies and frames our desires as the source of our pain. Underneath the vocabulary are social roles — slave, sex worker, outcast or in general the Other — that we are trapped inside of. In this nauseated state, we hunger for a way out. Heroes are those men and women onto whom we transfer our faith in empowerment. They are mythic figures and each represents a different path to liberation. The history of African-American hero worship is a tug-of-war between giants in the halls of history: those who point toward integration, to the larger world, and those who close the gates and order our separation from the world in order to create our own.

Each generation has its heroes. And those faces, hanging above us, cast different judgments on our lives based on their politics. The direction of the freedom struggle takes form in this attempt to live up to the ideals emanating from their haloed faces. And unless you’ve been in those houses and at those dinners, heard the stories, you wouldn’t know that being “black” is not just an ethnic or racial identity but also a political one. It embraces the history, and almost requires a conversion experience.

Becoming “black” is work. No one is born a race. No one is a race. It is a political fiction, not a genetic reality. But it starts, for some us, with a shock. Students and friends tell me of their verbal branding; they were called “dark,” “darkness,” “midnight,” “shadow,” “tar baby” — basically anything that scalded their skin. And of course we grew up hearing “nigger,” “nigga,” “nig.” Most of didn’t say it in the house but waited till we got outside and threw the slur at each other like a dodge ball.

Black psychologist William Cross mapped out the stages of racial self-identification in his 1971 paper “The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience.” In it he laid out five stages of the process. The first, Pre-encounter, is a child’s sense of self before exposure to race. Next is the Encounter, in which an individual is hit with racism that “shocks” them into awareness. Third and fourth are Immersion and Emersion, during which an individual goes “full black” and clings to their group in racial solidarity, often like a see-saw that elevates all things “black” and devalues all things “white.” Afterward, solidarity plateaus and they open up to the world. Internalization, the last stage, comes when the individual becomes confident in their racial identity and balances it with their other identities. Cross designates this stage as a fork in the road: if an unhealthy balance results, the person abandons the Black freedom struggle for private life. Cross points toward a continuing commitment to political change as a truly life-affirming Black self.

Like all good scholars, Cross revised his schema after more research. Yet the basic stages hold true. Of course real life is not a clean arc of development. And the Black identity each generation assumes is shaped by the social forces its members contend with.

Imagine children emerging into the world, brown-skinned but not “Black,” not aware of the history that preceded them. Like invisible factories, discursive institutions transform them into a specific type of “Black” person. They enter a church or hang in the street, they come from the Caribbean or are middle- class or visit family in jail. More important than the physical buildings they enter is the language they acquire. It frames experience. 

A discursive institution is organized knowledge rooted in language and acted out in a defined space. It is where they practice forms of “blackness,” each with different values, often one conflicting with the other. A cliché is the home versus the street, seen in the 2009 biopic Notorious, when Biggie Smalls as a teen changes clothes on the roof to hide his drug dealing from his mother.

Each discursive institution — the church, the street, etc — that transforms and regulates one’s social identity can move you through Cross’s racial identity scale or stall you at a stage. Essentially they are regressive or progressive. Today’s regressive discourses are the marginal but loud: Black cultural nationalism (sorry Harlem!), gangsta to corporate bling bling, Hip Hop, church-based sexism and class elitism in the form of prosperity theology and homophobia.

So when I first heard Amiri Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew Up America” and the stupid line, “Who told 4000 Israeli workers to stay home that day,” and the mostly young, mostly Black audience clapped, I winced. It reduced “the Israeli” into a one-dimensional caricature defined by national identity. And I sensed it trapped youth of color in Cross’s third stage, Immersion, where everything black is good and everything white is bad. Baraka is part of an African-American tradition that slips between group-affirmation and other-denigration; he usually and irritatingly framed others (whites, Jews, gays) as the source of evil, reducing their humanity to a single, false identity, telescoped by our own need for distance from the Other.

And when I first heard Snoop Dogg’s 1993 song “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None),” which basically is a gang rape anthem, I watched everyone’s heads bobbing to the beat and waited for someone to wake from the trance and say, “Hey, is this a rape song?” No one did. 

Today is not much different. Music is one discursive institution overlapping with others, but where it met street culture and was sucked into corporate America, it became a regressive narrative of blackness. Not all Hip Hop but the most popular forms of it are sexist, materialistic, homophobic and work as commercials for the 1%. On the bus home, a teen was listening to a Lil Wayne rap song on his smartphone: “I’m so rich I go pour Champagne and don’t drink it / Ice on my neck like I fainted / These are the thoughts of the brainless.”

“Am I a Feminist or a Womanist?” Poet Staceyann Chin asked. “The student needs to know if I do men occasionally and primarily, am I lesbian?” In the classroom, people squirmed. On screen the YouTube video played, Chin recited a poem of loving women and how she feared rape, harassment and then being blamed for it. When it was over, I asked the students if they know anyone who was gay. Nearly everyone raised their hands. “Do any of you think your gay friend” — I waited a second — “is going to Hell?”

Stunned, some shook their heads as if warding off a bad smell. Others got still, peeked around and said, “Yes.” A debate raged back and forth over what the Bible meant and who had the right to interpret it until one student, female, with deep brown skin, raised her hand and said, “I’m gay. And no one is putting me in Hell. Ever.”

She has millions with her. In Black America a new generation is pouring into the spaces between the church and the street and claiming those spaces as queer, atheist, punk and poet. They are inheriting, recreating or building from the ground up progressive discursive institutions. Whether they are teen poets of color, going from Urban Word NYC to the Nuyorican Café, parishioners of Liberation Theology churches or the nose-plugged, head-thrashing music zealots at the Afro-punk festival, they are in places that encourage them to embrace their other identities, all the while staying focused on social justice.

Those places aren’t widespread. And yet they contain the small channel through which youth of color can find language that connects all their fragmented parts into a whole person. And to be a fully realized human being in a white and male supremacist, homophobic, late capitalist society is dangerous. Out of necessity the new rainbow youth are radical. They showed up at Occupy Wall Street or rallied at the Million Hoodie March after the Trayvon Martin verdict.

After the rallies, they go home. If they are gay, they risk their lives by holding hands with their lovers. The painful irony is that they most likely walk past Afrocentric bookstores with posters of Malcolm X or maybe now, in honor of his death, Amiri Baraka, two men who hid their own sexuality in order to be accepted as revolutionaries.

The Fire Next Time

When Amiri Baraka died, I remembered these youths’ anxious silence and wondered, what he would say to them? What answers could he give? Last time I saw him perform, he swung his bebop rhythm voice, hitting the scales to a revolutionary battle cry. Old and stooped, he vibrated with intense energy like an engine, his droopy eyes flashing, cutting, dismissing and smiling with mischievous joy.

“Since the rich eat more / than anybody else / it is reasonable to assume,” he chanted, “they are more full of shit.” The room exploded in hard, bitter laughter and I wiped my mouth, feeling a twinge of guilt at the cheap shot. And it disturbed me. It sounded like we were crushing hard coal in our mouths. Our buried rage shot into open hate before subsiding again.

The fury of revenge, it tasted like hot sugar on the tongue. And even though Baraka’s politics split long ago from the cultural nationalism of, say, the Black Israelites, who shout on street corners about the “devil” and the one true God while looking like extras from the film Gladiator, he shares with them a taste for sweet fury. It is addictive because it sublimates pain into a self-righteousness rooted in the belief that one’s suffering is the central truth of life. Tragically, it often is. The danger comes when every unanswered question is read in the same exact way, as another symptom of oppression.

Of course inside Baraka’s voice is Malcolm X’s. No one in Generation X actually knew him, but we recycled him in the 1990s as an icon of militancy. He was our myth, a pure hero from the past whose murder was a guarantee of his truth. In college, I shoplifted his cassettes from Tower Records and played them endlessly in the dorm. One speech, Blacks in Africa, a call to race war, damn near hypnotized me. I pressed the earphones tight as Malcolm X said, “In Morocco and Algeria they’re telling the white man to get out, in the Congo Lumumba told the white man to get out.”

And then his voice hit a threatening low. “And in South Africa they’re telling the white man to get out. He says he’s not going. But he’s got another thought coming. He’ll either walk out or swim out in his blood. He’ll walk out of his volition or swim out in his blood, because the Black Man has awakened. And the Black Man has united. And where there’s unity there’s strength. You don’t need any guns; you just need some unity and a blade when it gets dark. You don’t need any jets. You don’t need any battle ships. You don’t need any atomic bombs. All you need is darkness. Nightfall.”

Brown Skins, Black Masks

“How does it feel to be a problem?” I asked the class. A silent wave of emotion washed over their faces. Eyebrows bobbed up and down. Foreheads wrinkled like venetian blinds. On every desk was a copy of the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, the classic by W. E. B. Du Bois. We just read the scene when a white girl came to his New England school, looked at his brown skin and rudely ignored him; it hit Du Bois that he was “black.”

“When did you first know what your ‘race’ was?” I threaded my question like a needle to pop the pressure in the room.

“It wasn’t from white people,” a woman burst out. “It was from nigge — sorry, it was the kids calling me darkness or tar pit or midnight.”

“Right,” another student said and heads nodded, hummed yeses rose from them. “If you dark, they get on you, harass you,” she said and pulled her coat closed, crossing her arms.

“Are you going to teach us about double consciousness again?” The question came from a male student in the back row. He then recited, in a robotic monotone, the famous passage, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

The whole class roared, slapping their desks and laughing. I taught the concept every semester and was known in the college as Professor Double Consciousness. I eyed them as they cackled and said, “I’m going to fail you bastards.”

They palmed their chests and looked at each other in shock. “No, no, no, I’m not,” I said, “But how about a question. Let’s flip the double consciousness that Du Bois talked about in which a minority, specifically African-Americans, internalize how the majority, specifically white people, see them and each other. It’s real. It’s why some of you have been judged and judge others as too dark, too nappy, too ill na na.”

They giggled.

“When have you looked at yourself from a ‘Black’ point of view?” I asked. “When have you internalized a viewpoint that showed you as beautiful or powerful or lovable because of your color, your race? If you know about double consciousness, do you have a black consciousness to heal yourself?”

A perplexed silence fell over the room. They looked up and around, down and up again. They searched themselves and as they did, the quiet stretched into anxiety.

“Do you have a black consciousness?” I asked again, a tone of sadness in my voice. And again it fell like a single piano note between them and me.

“Well, do you?”