Because they are told that they are black, so they study blackness and try to be properly black.

They look in the mirror and see that they look similar to other people who are considered to be black. At some point they drill it into their own heads that they are indeed black and take ownership of their blackness. They are ever mindful of whether they are considered good black or bad black, but mostly take examples from the black people older than them, around them. Some will bother to read black literature and thus compare themselves to black characters and writers back through time. Some study black politics. Some study black culture. All take some measure of this particular flavor, which by adulthood, they feel they have mastered and take their black selves into the world and see how the world responds.

A particular few, of which I was a part, take it for granted that their take on blackness is proper and needs no adjustment. They assert this privilege amongst black people as a ‘role model’ and amongst non-black people as a ‘community leader’. Some are successful in both directions, and with a little skill and luck take advantage of this special position. This group was known as the ‘talented tenth’, a term coined by WEB duBois, basically meaning in his day, people who graduated from college, which was rare among the darker bretheren of America.

Nevertheless all of black people in America recognize that their assessment of what black is, does, and means meets with doubt, dissonance and disagreement. Thus there is always debate amongst black people about what is actually proper blackness. This debate is the saving grace of black people and within it you will find a microcosm of the eternal questions that face humanity. After all, black people are just as human as any humans ever were or ever will be. But it is often difficult to distinguish those issues that black people debate from that of the human condition because so much focus is given on the black part of it all. Of course that includes black people themselves, who confuse human problems with black problems and black strengths with human strengths. I think it gets confusing for us all. What’s important is that the matters aren’t settled, and inspire new thinking and new rehashed thinking close to the center of being, every generation.

If you happen upon a black person who will share their difficulty about being a proper black person, you will likely stumble into some very interesting, perhaps even eternal questions about humanity. This is the actual, valuable part about Black Studies. However, if you happen upon a black person who tells you that it is a black thing that you can’t understand, you have likely stumbled into someone who has accepted a racial fiction as essential truth. Being able to distinguish these attitudes is subtle and tricky, requires honesty and courage, but it happens all the time. Pay attention to how much people take responsibility for their own sense of being. That’s the key.

I leave you with some quotes:

Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation. If Afro Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them — from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth — it’s because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic diversity to subsume those fictions.— Greg Tate
All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact – this may sound very strange – you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you. —James Baldwin

Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes. —James Baldwin

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