The Problem With Being Black

[Dwayne Betts]

Yesterday Thomas Chatterton Williams was on Tell Me More.  The discussion about his memoir, Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, had me thinking about what the problem is with being black. I shouldn't say problem though, because I don't mean to say it's a problem. What I mean to say is that when blackness manifests itself in the public discourse, it is usually about it being a problem, or about some substantive lacking.

I haven't read Williams book, but in the ten-minute-or-so clip I was intrigued by two things: his father and the way he misconstrued hip-hop as a kid. There was a moment in the book where he describes giving a hard foul on the basketball court and when asked why he'd done it pushing the kid and yelling, "Bitch, because I wanted to." Williams says this is part of the b-boy hip hop aesthetic that he was trying to adopt.


Growing up black with Tupac, Big, Nas, et al. ringing in my ears meant a lot of things for me. Growing up in a neighborhood where drugs were as accessible as mechanical pencils meant a lot of things for me—but I'm not sure any of my personal choices can or should be reduced to those two facts. The troubling thing about being black is that in the end there is always someone willing to hold your blackness accountable for your failures. For most, this kind of thinking unwittingly sets up a dichotomy or reinforces a dichotomy of blackness and whiteness. So for me, listening to Williams I felt that for him if hip hop = blackness, than his father's love = whiteness. This is not to dismiss Williams' call for a more expansive way to be black in society—it's just to say that if you fail, at the moment, to acknowledge that there already exists a myriad of ways to be black, it is you, and not blackness that needs a more expansive outlook.

When I got home I had to check Williams out a little more and found this piece he'd written in n+1 where he wrote:

Because the terrible truth is that black America has never—not even during the Harlem Renaissance—produced a whole class of mature cultural elites working and consuming at the very highest standards.

Williams' article takes its title, "What Do We Who Are Slaves And Black Have To Do With Art," from Dubois 1926 NAACP speech, Criteria of Negro Art. I read the article wondering if I'd been witnessing and reading the same tradition of black literature and culture as Williams. John Edgar Wideman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Richard Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillepsie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis—these folks don't get mentioned at all. True, he mentions Baldwin, the novelist Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni, but to a person he mentions them all to highlight some tragedy of Ralph Ellison's life. This is the problem with people's bifurcated view of America—when things get drawn down color lines, someone has to be the loser. So Williams, with the quickness, writes:

whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates—i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place—black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar...

More than anything else we have to be talking about vision here. Williams cannot not know that Toni Morrison is a great novelist, in the tradition of Faulkner, in the tradition of John Edgar Wideman. He cannot not know that Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the greatest poets America has produced. He cannot not know that August Wilson may be America's greatest playwright.

I'm not post-racial. I have no real understanding of what that means. I am, however, American. I'm actually black and American—but of the two, I think my Americanness is my most defining characteristic when I enter the larger world (that is move outside the states). Matter fact I'm a southern American, growing up in a slave state (Maryland) and as long as I pay taxes, as long as my rent is paid in U.S. dollars, as long as I am the descendant of slaves—I think I have the right to claim slavery and freedom as my heritage. To claim Faulkner and Wideman. To claim Robert Penn Warren who once said, "Nigger, your breed ain't metaphyiscal" and Sterling Brown who responded, "Cracker, your breed ain't exegetical." I'm not sure what makes any art distinctively black or white, when America has this long history of intermingling, intermixing, and interinfluencing (Interinfluencing sounds so good, so wrong)—which is not to say there is no black art or white art, but to say there is no autonomously black or white art (and this is essentially what nationalist, racists, romantics and a host of folks who defy category call for). Williams' interview on Tell Me More and this particular article share a troubling refusal to acknowledge that black culture contains multitudes, some vibrant, some suspect.