Words on Blackness

Shakespeare’s words succinctly express the conclusion I drew from my visit to the museum in D.C.

In November 2020, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. There the sight of exhibits showcasing the accomplishments of many human beings who had one thing in common – their identity – greeted me. The idea that these humans identified throughout history by a qualifier such as negro, colored, black, and most recently African-American was the overarching criteria that led to the inclusion of their work in these exhibits. What impressed me about the exhibits was the fact that each life was honored without mentioning the controversy, shame, or ridicule that the expression of their life may have attracted while that person was alive. Certainly, controversies were mentioned to provide context, however, they were not the focus of the exhibit. Rather the focus was on the black person’s art, music, sportsmanship, political contribution, et cetera.  

The narratives that suggested that somehow that individual and those like him had made a mistake in their lifetime was not present. Instead, the person and his accomplishment was showcased to highlight their personal brilliance, and less to explain the complexity of the time.

For instance, when I gazed upon a photograph taken of members of the Crips gang of Los Angeles, I wondered why the commentary about how gangmembers’ lives are cautionary tales for youth to heed, was absent. And when I looked at James Brown’s costume that had the word ‘sex’ embroidered across the abdomen just above the crotch, I winced at the thought that this was a poorly chosen outfit. I worried that the cautionary words to the youth — that unprotected sex can lead to lifelong difficulties – having been left out could have rendered the James Brown display unbalanced.  And yet there it was before my eyes. I walked away from the exhibit with a sense that whatever we do with our lives is all worthy of notice. Shakespeare’s words come to mind. He once wrote in his play entitled Hamlet that nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

To that end, I have decided to praise all those who like me identify with Blackness in whatever capacity. Personally, I have learned through the reading of Baratunde Thurston’s work entitled How to Be Black that there is no one way to be Black. I am not alone in drawing this conclusion as I have already heard the words “I’m rooting for everybody Black” uttered by filmmaker Issa Rae during her red carpet interview at the Emmy Award ceremony in 2017. This statement is deeply rooted in the experience of people who look like me who have felt the sting of exclusion at the hand at those who look unlike me.