How Black Is Your Black?

by Janelle Harris

Right now, I’m enjoying Baratunde Thurston’s book, How to Be Black. Every afternoon, when I can carve out time to actually read instead of write, I’m somewhere in full public view, steady laughing out loud—or, at the very least, smirking to myself—about his snarky commentary and funny recounts of stories from his childhood. His mother, a woman with a definitive love for her Washington, DC community and her people in general, reminds me a whole lot of myself, who forbade my elementary-school aged daughter from watching Disney movies because I didn’t want the mainstream image of beauty to infiltrate her mind before she was equipped to fight it off.

I was also pressed for her to understand the real Africa, not the Africa we see represented on TV. It may be a while before we can actually set foot on motherland soil; prices for those trips are no joke for one, let alone two people, unless we poke some air holes in one of my suitcases and take the Samsonite travel discount. (Just kidding, department of family services folks!) But if I had anything to say about it, Girl Child was not going to grow up thinking that all they do on the continent is starve, swat flies and forge war.

So when I think about how Black my Black is, I think about my own mother because that’s where this whole love of self and culture came from. Wasn’t no ho-ho-hoing Christmas decoration or no craft fair trinket that didn’t get penciled in brown, if it didn’t come that way in the first place. She wasn’t militant; she just believed in celebrating the beauty of us. I think we all start piecing together our first rudimentary bits of self-identity based on what we learn from our families.

Still, for all of our joy of being in the skin we’re in there existed, among my immediate and extended relatives, an unpublished law book of things Black people did and didn’t do that were just unspoken rules of the culture. My mama swore Black people didn’t waste food. My uncle claimed Black people didn’t drive anything but American-made cars (yes, he really said that, and I think he was only half-joking). My cousin insisted Black people didn’t dig rock music or pierce weird parts of their bodies. It took a little work to dislodge Blackness from the corner it had been jammed into and listen to my Alanis Morrisette with unapologetic pride and laugh off some of the broad-stroked cultural conventions that are supposed to fall neatly into “Black” and “Unblack” categories.

  • QoNewC

    This conversation is futile. Having lived on the East Coast, I didnt identify with the culture of black folks there. Im sure I will have to same experience if I went to the South. Black folks are individuals with many variations and we are entitled, like everyone else, to our individuality. Yes culture exist and it cant simply be dimissed because we may not adhere to it because it is fluid, regional, generational, economic, political etc. The cool thing about black Americans is that we dont have to adhere rigidly to any one culture or cultural expression. This also has its drawbacks. In any event, you are as black as you want to be.

  • Socially Maladjusted

    I think the most UNBLACK notion is the -

    “blacks are not a monolith” mantra

    Can’t stand nigros who are always trying to differentiate themselves from other blacks.

    When I’m around black people of other nationaities to my own – the first thing I experience is almost always instant recognition like -

    I know you – you’re Stoney, dat cross eyed nigga from Parchmore Estate I knew from his brejrin Mickey’s whose sista I used to bang, that b itch nearly baby fardad me.

    kiss teet

    Or I know you – you’re that goofy stoosh (bougie) nigga, who used to get NECKBACKED (self explanatory) for being such a b itchboy in school.

    Your parents thought they was the bees wax, but all the other mums and dads (especially mine) took the piss out of em.

    I can remember my mum going – “backa a darg a darg – front a darg a Mista darg”. Meaning, putting on airs for company, but gettin down nasty when company gone.


    And of course the inevitable dirty but hot recall you get when you’re around sistas from other parts of the globe –

    I know you – you’re that plump lil sket dat neva said no to a lil dirty but hotness, yeh you’re from x country but the dirty but hot vibe you’re givin off is like Red Cross – promises to deliver relief anywhere in the world.

    ROTFLMAO! (come on stop hatin you know that was funny) LMAO!

    Yeh – when I’m around niggaz from anywhere on planet earth, I feel good, llke I’m at home, because no matter what kinda BS you’re tryna front –

    I know you, coz I seen you.

    you aint speshawl, you just black.

    So shut it.


    oh my days.

  • Princess P


  • QoNewC

    @Princess P

    I dont know what this brotha was just talkin’ ’bout. He just disproved his whole point with that one.

  • Socially Maladjusted

    etu QON etu?

    what’s so not gettable about what I typed? The point being that although we’re born and raised in different parts of the world and speak many different languages, there Is a MONOLOTHIC blackness that I recognise in every black person that I encounter


    especially the ones who think they’re better than your “regular” negro.


    a bougie wannabe is exactly the same kind of walking talking cliche in Britain as they are in the States, in Jamaica, in Nigeria.

    Always tryna tell the world how not-black they are. Well that is a very familiar (albeit undesirable) black behaviour.

    I’ll bet good money that you understand THAT point very well. Ya just didn’t like it for some reason.


  • Socially Maladjusted

    Who’s next? (spelling, grammar and punctuation? – check)

    @princess no sense

    So what have you proven by calling out my


    of a bunch of words?

    another bougie cornball bites the dust.




  • apple

    im not very black obviously, because i like what i want, do what i want because i want to do it, not because i’m black or not black

  • Socially Maladjusted

    Let’s make it even more black around

    I’m currently learning Nigerian Pidgin english



    pidgin english na mek am go krezy.

    kiss teet


  • purplekeychain

    “And it just can’t no Blacker than Judge Joe Brown.”

    Hahahaha! I thought I was the only one who thought that.

    You’re so right, though. There are so many black experiences out there, that suggesting that “Black people do/don’t do” certain ish is stupid. Like, if I’m doing it RIGHT NOW, then how can somebody look in my face and say “Black people don’t do that” – as if to deny my experience or take away my black card because they caught me listening to Modest Mouse. Whatevs.

    This is exactly what I was talking about yesterday — black folks and their over-familiarity with other black folks. Just because YOU do something that “black people do” doesn’t mean we ALL do it, and doesn’t mean we all accept it or shake our heads at it or just ignore it. Being black doesn’t mean we share the same background, morals, values, choices, religious beliefs, and the list goes on and on — stop making assumptions about WHAT BLACK PEOPLE DO.

    On that note, I will never forget this brother in Chicago telling me “I don’t know WHAT’s wrong with Oprah! She know she keep a cup of bacon grease next to the stove just like everybody else.”

    i DIED.


  • QCastle


    Brotha, you kill me sometimes. LOL. I get your point though. I never de-emphasize my blackness but maybe our blackness is different.

  • African Mami

    It’s black enough to know that on a cold winters day, I need to lotion up, or else I’ll end up looking ashy as all hell.

    It’s black enough to pray for Obama and his family, that Jesus keeps them well coz lawwwwd knows there’s peoples out thurr tryna hurt them

    It’s black enough to know that I am tired of this cottamn conversation. I mean, what are we trying to prove?! Iunno…whatev….

  • African Mami

    @ SM,

    I just came from using the monolith mantra-it was very necessary that I use it!!! Other than that, for the most part I usually agree with your commentary!

  • golden_girl

    I kinda get what u are saying cause I’m the queen of “we are not monolithic” but this is why:

    I find that blacks stereotype each other WAAAAY More than Whites ever could imagine. Seems it is worse with the younger generation. So I’m constantly explaining why it is good to hike and No you won’t get killed by the Klan if you go deep in the woods.

    Black women hate each other. Excluding some family and friends. We really do hate each other. The stank face greeting is more than I my balls of steele spirit can take. So while I’m in my own lane minding my own damn business…sistahs on the sideline are saying….bytch….who u think u is?

    U are right. There is an instant acknowledgement that “oh oh. there is another black person in the room,” as if a battle is going to ensue..but If I don’t know you I can only take u @ face value……the “dat’s dat nigga from up da street” is not a factor for making judgements.

    But again I see the truth in what u are saying.

  • Guest

    @Socially Maladjusted: here’s more black points for ya– haul on over to so trayvon martin is given posthumous due process.

  • soconfused

    Why are Black Americans sooo caught up on proving that we’re not a monolith? No other racial group does that. This is not an argument in the latino, chinese american, or native american communities. I agree that your blackness should not be limiting, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something essential that connects us all. Chattel slavery and the culture created from those conditions binds us. Our experience as a marginalized people binds us. And if white people never walked the earth, most of us would be West African with a whole lot more in common. What is the point of this narrative currently being pushed by Toure and Baratunde? What does it do besides divide us at a time when we clearly need to come together? To understand that essential blackness, read Rebecca Walker’s “Black Cool”

  • Perverted Alchemist

    “Why are Black Americans sooo caught up on proving that we’re not a monolith? No other racial group does that.”

    Probably because Black Americans don’t really want to admit that they are, indeed, a monolith?

    “No other racial group does that. This is not an argument in the latino, chinese american, or native american communities.”

    That is until a person of Latino, Asian or Native American heritage happens to be a Republican- that’s when the spaks fly, LMAO!!!

    “I agree that your blackness should not be limiting, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something essential that connects us all. Chattel slavery and the culture created from those conditions binds us. Our experience as a marginalized people binds us.”

    And the average Black person could really care less about that…

    “And if white people never walked the earth, most of us would be West African with a whole lot more in common. What is the point of this narrative currently being pushed by Toure and Baratunde? What does it do besides divide us at a time when we clearly need to come together? ”

    I think it’s a little too late for Black people to come together. The average Black person today only cares about themselves too much to help other people.

  • Diddy

    This article and the comments made my day, like that losing your black card comment just killed me! I also think that SM has the right of it. I just think that black are sort of an insecure race hence all these debates on how we are/are not, should be/shouldn’t be etc etc. It’s probably cause of the displacement that came with slavery because although its been hundreds of years past, the acceptance of black people as equals is quite relatively recent in comparison so in a way we’ve not been “free” for that long in retrospect but who cares we’re here now! And ain’t gonna lie I think we’re great. We’ve got bare jokes, we don’t take ourselves too seriously most of the time but it doesn’t mean we’re slackers. We just know how to enjoy ourselves and each other. I love the whole overfamiliarity thing! It makes things so much easier and comfortable! We’re just more socially inclined I think, nothing wrong with that?

    It’s like we try to refine and redefine ourselves but I don’t see the point lol just live and just be. Don’t think about it too much, it’s just never that serious. Like one of my friends actually said to me that even though you’re black it’s like you’re white sometimes but mainly black and I was like dude I’m just me man lol it’s not like there’s a fine line between being black and not so black it’s not like I go to sleep listening to system of a down and wake up the next day a shade lighter lol! As in yeh as a population there are things that are “common” to us as black people as there are in asian populations, white populations etc etc as we’re all prone to the environments we;re surrounded by but within that we’re individuals too and however that manifests so be it, it doesn’t make you any less part of the population! Literally half my life was based in Africa and the rest in a very rural British village where we were the only black people in the whole town! No middle ground- talk about culture shock damn! The thing is though after living there long enough I started indulging in the things “black people don’t do” like heavy metal music, which I absolutely love and in general my music collection speaks for itself ; I’d be listening to Vybz Kartel then Slipknot then Beres Hammond then Andrea Bocelli next to D’angelo and Kings of Leon and the list goes on lol, it doesn’t make me any less black lol I just like music! Although I definitely did feel more at home when I finally went to uni and moved to a city with a bigger black population (well considering the fact that we were “the only blacks in the village” that wasn’t exactly a difficult feat to beat lol) which shows that there is definitely a welcome familiarity there but nah I don’t think there’s a way black people should be or whatever just screw it and be.Simples.

  • ogawdDee

    nothing more annoying than self-righteous black folks…

  • Usagi

    Lame. Just because we’re vaguely from the continent doesn’t mean s*** to me. Either you’re cool or you’re not. I have no interest in “black” culture. I have no problem being black, but keep your stupid rules to yourself. I hate other black people, when they feel like I should like/act/sound like them. Half of “black” culture isn’t even from Africa. W.Africans/Bantus have WAAY to many issuses.

  • Mikashawn


    Hold up Q – I thought blackness wasn’t a big deal to you. I read your posts on the adoption story. If white parents can raise a black child just fine, blackness not considered, what is this blackness that’s “different” for you? Just saying…

  • Jamara Newell

    I don’t think anyone should stop doing what they like because it isn’t Black enough. But pretending some things are not just white folk or non Black folk things make less sense, most things arise from some sort of cultural expression. If you are culturally black likely you are going to be something that is apart of your culture. If you aren’t then you aren’t culturally black and you might as well accept that reality and move on.
    I am a family based person and my blackness is derived from how my parents and so on express their culture. If they say something isn’t Black then it isn’t and I’m likely to avoid it.

  • full moon

    My Black is being Me! A yearning to know where I came from. A burning itch to know the truth about my ancestor’s and what they knew. A desire to find truth iin all things. A need to know thyself, to learn all I can, to move people to action. I am a Black women who is searching for the better part of Me! The way I move, the way I think, the way I speak, the way I dress, the way be…is my Black. I love being Black… I Love being apart of the Black race.
    We are all connected by the blood that runs through the veins…we are all lost because we have lost our true selves. If were were never enslaved mentally by the white man…we would not wear flipflops during winter solstice…we would not wear weave…we would not marry out of our race…we would not be plagued by out of wedlock births, poverty, our men abandoning their people, we would not each this shit we eat, we would not kill over blocks, we would not hate our sisters and brothers like we do, we would not act like sluts and gansters for attention. I think we agree that Black is not what it used to be. But iam still proud…mainly of who I have become and of the fact that I SEE!

  • Ras_the_Destroyer

    “I saw sisters strolling around in coats and flip-flops and brothers, sometimes a one-man wolf in a pack of white dudes, strolling around in shorts in the wintertime.”

    Therein lies the problem. The black male in question went with the prevailing cultural cues because he did not want to experience xenophobia. It’s called the possessive investment in whiteness George Lipsitz described. I seriously doubt he or anyone else would do that mess in a predominantly black setting. For example, the only time I see black women wearing a coat and flip flops or shorts and Uggs is when they are in a predominantly white setting. The same holds true for a confused negro wearing shorts in the wintertime.

    Second, I look at race as a series of concentric circles. There are people in the homogenous zones (or areas where one group predominates) having little in common with those in the intermingled sections. A phenotypical connection to persons in the homogenous zone does not qualify an integrated/intermingled negro to speak for or disparage the behavior of persons in the homogenous zone. An affinity for things in the intermingled zone does not make that affinity black either. It means you are probably a fly in the milk looking to blend in. You ain’t foolin’ nobody but yourself.

  • Luna

    This is funny, since many Asians, Latinos and native Americans do not see themselves as a monolithic group. Dominicans do not see Mexicans as one of their own, because they speak the same language. Bengalis do not see Indians as one of their own, just because they live on the same subcontinent. Koreans and Japanese haven’t really gotten along with each other for a long time and they hate being mixed up with each other. People generally don’t like being part of a monolith. It’s understandable why Black Americans from different parts of the USA, as well as West Indies blacks and West Africans identify with their culture or sub culture 1st and race 2nd.

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