By Miles Jaye
Negro is a fundamentally simple term. In Spanish, it’s negro, in French, negre. The pronunciations differ but they all mean Black. Colored is equally simple. Even African American is a fairly simple concept to grasp. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized the complexities of the term Black.
James Brown declared, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.”. It was a clarion call, a boldly liberating call to action, it was 1969. It never occurred to me that it begged the question, who was James Brown speaking to? It didn’t occur to me, but I should have asked, aside from people in fros and dashikis, who responded to that call? It certainly never occurred to me to observe, as indeed I should have, who did not respond– who remained conspicuously silent.
Being a Brooklyn kid, growing up in the proverbial melting pot of New York, I assumed brown skinned people, as an unspoken rule, identified with Black. That included my brothers and sisters from the West Indies, the Caribbean, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Puerto Rico, the D.R., Haiti, Cuba, Brazil Columbia, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Guyana, throughout Central and South America, and of course, Africa. These were my neighbors and my schoolmates. If you were brown skinned and riding the train or walking down Flatbush Avenue and I didn’t have the benefit of hearing an accent to indicate otherwise, I assumed you were Black.
A new Black family moved onto my block this week. Actually, they were here before me, but I thought they were Indian. In spite of the fact that the dad is as dark as I am, it never crossed my mind to think of him as Black. In fact, I didn’t think of them as Black until Kamala Harris declared herself so, in her DNC convention acceptance speech. Prior to her announcement, I had never known East Indians to identify themselves as or align themselves with Blacks. Even now, I can’t imagine myself congratulating my new neighbors on the first Black woman to be selected as a major party candidate for V.P. They might be offended, indignant. Indians are very proud people and to them, Kamala Harris is Indian, Southeast Asian– not Black.
This new Black thing is beautifully orchestrated and equally complicated as it allows us, or forces us, to explore cultures outside of our normal experiential sphere. It pushes us out of our comfort zones, expands our playlists and opens our eyes to languages, music, foods, art, philosophy, religions, and history we may not have otherwise had a reason to explore. For instance, we speak of slavery as though it only existed in the Triangle Trade, when in fact, slavery, though illegal throughout the world, is still practiced in India today. Women are bought and sold into forced labor and sexual servitude in 2020 in towns like Mewat, not far from New Delhi, the capitol. Perhaps Southeast Asian women have their own reasons for celebrating Kamala Harris’ success.
Indian food and music are wonderful, but the caste system is so deeply entrenched that it is virtually impossible to elevate from one level into another– it’s oppressive, it discriminates and it’s generational. India is a huge continent, thousands of years old, with language, culture and history so intermingled with other cultures from Africa to China that this whole Kamala Harris/Black thing should be our excuse, our license to delve deeply into the world to discover the true scope, scale and extent of the human condition and experience as it relates to color. We’re bound to color in America. We’re so distracted by Black that it can only be conspiracy.
We’re tethered so tightly to a psychology, sociology, history, religion, education, economy, and political landscape designed to suffocate, that it’s no wonder we can’t breathe. White Supremacy is the knee on our collective necks, and it exists on both sides of the isle. Systemic racism, which some say doesn’t exist, might better be identified as tactical, or strategic racism. We are prisoners of war, and Blackism is the shackle that binds and confines us. James Brown meant well, but his clarion call could have shaken the earth off its axis had he spoken to the world, not just America, and demanded the Black world reply. So now it’s our turn, it’s on us to call on the Black world to say it loud.
Kamala, like Barack, chose to be Black. That she attended an HBCU, joined a Black sorority, collects Converses, and likes to dance, is all well and good. However, I insist, I demand that she is honest with us about her Southeast Asian culture. Don’t play us! Bring something new to the table. You claim Black, you have to represent Black. That’s the deal! Barack misspoke when he said; “Democracy is not transactional.” Of course, it is Sir, or did you mean not for us? Kamala laughed when she said it is not her intent to make special provisions for Black people. Do! From now on, you have to pay to dance!
And, while I unapologetically take issue with the exclusion from the halls, corridors, and towers of power, deserving Black folks whose lineage date back to the American slave experience, folks like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, whose ancestors for centuries, have drenched this soil with blood, sweat and tears, and filled this air with screams and cries of horror, for the appointment of folks with skin color just brown enough to appease us, I welcome the opportunity, the challenge, to choose culture over color for my thesis, my protest. I contend culture, not color is where liberation lies, and where justice will be found. Just as all peoples of the world, Asians, Africans, Europeans, Jews, Gentiles, White, Black, Red, Yellow, were at one time or another slaves, let us not forget that we, Black peoples of the world, were mariners, explorers, inventors, scholars, merchants, gifted artisans, astronomers, brilliant scientists, skillful linguists, warriors and great spiritual leaders. Say it loud…
Black… it’s complicated, but so are we. Genius is always complicated!
That’s what’s on my mind!