The day before my brother, sister, mom, dad, and I left for Las Vegas, Nevada, to spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, two things happened to me that threatened to challenge my “blackness.” One of those challenges I specifically asked for, while the other came without warning.
For those of you who aren’t African American, I understand it if the phrase “challenge my blackness” catches you off guard. After all, A) How can one’s blackness be challenged? and B) What exactly is blackness?
Before I talk about the myriad ways one’s blackness can be called into question, I’ll try to define blackness.
First, understand that blackness is an abstract concept. There is no official organization that hands out actual cards certifying how “black” a person may be. There are, however, a set of understood rules that most individuals who identify as black tend to govern themselves by. And like any good set of rules, what I’ll call the Chart of Blackness is full of details about what one does not do; unfortunately, it doesn’t spend a lot of time noting what one can do. It’s like baseball in a sense.
For example, a pitcher can strike out a batter to end an inning and yell and pump his fist on his way back to the dugout in his excitement, and no will take issue. But if a batter hits a home run off that pitcher and does any number of things deemed to be in poor taste by the game’s unwritten rules — flip his bat, stare at his long ball for too long, jog around the base path too slow, or, heaven forbid, yell and fist pump just like a pitcher can — on his next at-bat there’s a chance he’ll have a 91-mile-an-hour fastball directed straight at this head.
Blackness works just like that. There are no written principles, just a set of learned concepts that guide us on our daily way.
While there are books that do a good job of illustrating what it means to be black in real-life situations — How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston is the gold standard — nobody has taken it upon themselves to create an actual fixed set of rules because the very existence of said rules would be against the code. Some of the stuff on this unspoken list are so important that even many non-black people are aware of their accepted existence, rules like “Do not touch a black woman’s hair without her permission.” Some are less known but still equally important to black people, like “For God’s sake, don’t stick your hand in food that is going to be shared communally,” or “Don’t eat just anyone’s potato salad.” Any violation of the rules can get you on the naughty list real quick.
As for how one’s blackness can be challenged, I really don’t have enough words in this column to describe the many ways this can happen. But I will say that growing up, my blackness was challenged frequently.
Oftentimes I was made fun of because I didn’t dress or speak “black enough.” Even worse, in the sixth grade I was accused of “acting white” because I was in the gifted and talented program, read books for fun, and listened to music that wasn’t hip-hop, gospel, soul, or R&B. While hurtful at times, I now understand that this was kid-level Chart of Blackness stuff. As an adult I find myself praised for those very things. Go figure.
Today, my blackness is challenged for different things. As a kid, no one gave a damn if I didn’t know how to play Spades, but as an adult, my blackness gets challenged every time word gets out that I don’t know how to play.
Because of these challenges, I recently purchased a card game called Black Card Revoked that takes the wonders of the Chart of Blackness and pairs it with the thrill of Cards Against Humanity. On the day before we left for Vegas, my order came in, and I was filled with excitement at the chance to have my blackness challenged, and this time in a fun way.
The other challenge came from a seemingly benign Instagram post I made in which I asked why so many charity-minded black celebrities from poor areas give turkeys as their go-to donations during Thanksgiving. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that the comments under that post got so heated that I was actually called a “sucka ass nigga” by a real-life black celebrity who is from the area. Another person challenged my blackness by saying that my question typified why blacks can’t progress as a people. That same person also called me jealous and messy, two major fighting words if the Chart of Blackness documented such things. Others stated that as a black man, I should just be happy that black people with resources are willing to give back in the first place.
Of course, no one ever actually answered my question of why turkey giveaways in the hood have become synonymous with the utmost in black generosity, and it made me wonder how fragile the concept of blackness is. I mean, not one month before Thanksgiving, thousands of black men and women marched through the nation’s capital calling for justice from a government that often sees its black citizens killed by the very people sworn to protect them, that incarcerates blacks more frequently than others, that expels black children from school at a higher rate than others, that pays blacks less than others, and that allows for the gentrification of black neighborhoods without pause for concern. And yet a month later my blackness was up for debate over some damn turkeys.
By simply implying that our black celebrities should do more than provide photo-ops and quick fixes that last no longer than a day or two, I was told that I was against my race. If a white person were to do that to me, I’m sure Black Twitter and Instagram would have had my back en masse. There would’ve been hell to pay.
But who will help me defend my blackness against other blacks? Should this even be a concern in 2015? Is that not more indicative of a lack of black progress than anything I may have said?
There are so many questions. If only there was a chart to refer to.