Exploring Perceptions of Blackness

How would one go about defining 'Black'?

                                              By Khavheni Shope

From an elementary scientific perspective, there is still ongoing debate as to whether or not Black in itself is a color. On the one hand, it can be described as the "absence" of it because it does not reflect any colors comprising the visible light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet). On the other, it is referred to as "the complete absorption" of color, as it captures visible light as opposed to casting it back to the retina. The general consensus is, however, that Black absorbs light rather than reflecting or rejecting it, as white does.

If this is the case, then why is it that darkness, the synonym or euphemism for Black, is often described as a lack or opposite of light? If anything, darkness is the embodiment of light whose radiation is too intricate for the naked human eye to perceive.

To understand this question, it is important to deconstruct the social symbolism attached to darkness and light. The former is viewed as a mystery because of the fact that the human being cannot actually see what goes on within it. Since our instinctual defensiveness tells us to fear what we do not know, what is unfamiliar, we accord darkness the title of "the unknown" and cast it as a threat. Furthermore, stemming from this oblivion, it also makes reference to ignorance and/or primitiveness, as in "Dark Ages" or "Dark Continent." Whereas light is constantly affiliated with knowledge because it allows for visual awareness, for those who possess the ability. As a result of these one-sided symbolic definitions, a dark skinned person is likely to be perceived as the potentially dangerous and ignorant "unknown," or "other," while the lighter skinned more knowledgeable, familiar, and therefore "normal."

It is said that there are inevitable associations of white with light and therefore safety, and black with dark and therefore danger, and ... this explains racism. 

- Richard Dyer, 1988
Student covering face from tear gas diffused by police during #FeesMustFall protests, University of  the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2016. Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EFE/EPA

These socially constructed connotations justified centuries of humanely unjustifiable oppression against peoples of darker skin, which in 1971 led Steven Biko, Black Consciousness leader and South African fighter for the emancipation of African people, to define Black as:

Those who are by law or tradition politically, economically, and socially discriminated against as a group (in the South African society) and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realisation of their aspirations.

- Steven Biko

Minors striking for higher wages and safer working conditions before Marikana massacre broke out, 2012, South Africa.  Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Conversations on Blackness

Interested in perceptions of Blackness, with emphasis on how we as a people see ourselves, I decided to take advantage of my trip to the state of Texas in the United States, to engage in conversations with willing African-Americans I encountered about their lived experiences. Coming from South Africa, a country of historically profound segregation that was and is not limited to race, I found that many issues affecting the Black communities of the two nations are very similar, stemming from centuries of the physical, psychological and economic enslavement of our people for the selfish benefit of the white race.

The interviews I conducted were audio only,  of a small group of people and although they may have lacked diversity in certain aspects, such as gender, they were still able to capture glimpses of the lived realities of African-American youth from the southern state, aged between 25 and 28. I chose the recordings that best catered to the purpose of this piece and its fluidity.

The discussion flowed into reflections of Blackness, shining light on the ungrounded criminalization of Black people, implications of the minority status in a society that caters to white privilege and ended with the interviewees' thoughts on the way we as a people view ourselves.

One person spoke of the aforementioned negative connotations surrounding darkness and how they are replicated in daily life, for example through racial criminalisation. The fact that darkness is linked to the unknown, unwanted and potentially menacing, means that people whose skin is dark are then prone to be viewed in that same manner as the undesired "other" and likely criminal. If this is the case then the presumed innocence, a legal right by national and international law, for a dark, or Black, person inevitably would be tainted solely based on their skin.

Racial Criminalization

Police seen before sign with innocent people killed by law enforcement, at a protest against police brutality, 2015, New York, USA. Photo: Eduardo Munoz, EFE/EPA

The criminalization, as well as demonization, of Blackness traces back to colonization and slavery where Indigenous peoples were regarded as "savages" which then condoned white supremacist cruelty ironically in the name of "taming" or even "civilizing" the dark beast. In the U.S., the abolition of slavery gave birth to the 13th amendment which stipulates that all citizens have the right to emancipation, except in cases of punishment for a crime committed. This emancipation clearly was not reserved for people of color, when their movement, education, access to health care, housing, jobs and even mentalities were restricted by law to a "coloreds only" status, purposefully inferior to the "whites only" way of living, which impeded the growth of a whole society and intended to keep them in servitude to the white race.

Furthermore, in the U.S., prisons are a very profitable business, which according to the Huffington Post, is a billion dollar industry that makes more profit the more inmates they receive. In 2009, private prisons had increased by 37 percent since 2002, where repeat offenders were the most lucrative of them all. This translates to the legal system ensuring that more people are sent to prison, where they will produce cheap labor for corporations, to be able to afford basic necessities such as toothpaste and soap. Even worse, state and county prisons are increasingly outsourcing the medical services available to inmates, meaning that they are relieving themselves of the responsibility of occupants’ well-being. Thus, instead of seeking to uplift a society that has spent generations on end in undeserved systematic and perpetual persecution, in the "Land of the Free," these Black bodies are once again mere pawns in the capitalist agenda.

The Black Body

Sarah 'Saartjie' Baartman's  full body cast and skeleton on display at Musee de l'Homme, Paris, France, from 1820 to the 1970s.

On the subject of bodies, it must be noted that the Black one, has drawn considerable attention from the white gaze constantly oscillating between objectification, denigration and hypersexualization. The Black body was sold as an object of labor, for the procreation of more slaves, as science lab rats as well as to tantilize "sinful" desire. The case of the Black Female body is the most curious: subjected to the expectations of those who should not have the right to dictate the functions it will perform, the gaze strives to render the Black Female body an object to which all are entitled but those who possess it. Let us consider the tragic life of  Sarah Baartman, or the veneration of J. Marion Sims as the "father of gynaecology" with failure to acknowledge all the Black women who contributed against their will to his shamefully unethical experiments, without whom he would not have succeeded. Or even looking at the more recent case of Carolina Panther's MVP, Cam Newton, critiqued, mostly by white fans and critics, for not displaying sufficient "sportsmanship" because he refuses to succumb to the demands on how he should play football more "traditionally," so as not to shine like the star he seems to be; the white gaze seeks to ensure that the Black body, especially Female, remains bound to its every whim.

The ridicule continues when the appeal of Black physical traits (curves, hair) goes unnoticed until they are attached to non-Black bodies (Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner). Referring to afros as "radical" and "edgy" as if they were only discovered yesterday by trendsetting Vogue magazine.

The rotten cherry on top of a bitter cake is that media follow suit in the dehumanization of Blackness by overwhelming the general public with overstimulating, grotesque pictures of dead Black bodies like swatted flies, which ultimately serve to desensitise Black suffering. Even in death, Blackness is unjustly robbed of dignity. If one had to compare the amount of images of gory dead people of color and those of dead white ones, the conclusion would be that white supremacy seeks only to protect its own.

Necessary Blackness

The Foxy Five addressing issues of multi-faceted, systematic oppression in the South African society.  Photo: Chaze Matakala

Although we continue to rise from the ashes time and time again, it is clear we still have a long way to go: we are made invisible in so many chapters of history, science, media, except for those sporadic moments when it is convenient for us to miracurously appear to testify to the progressiveness of the white liberal. We only come to life when we do not expose white privilege, when we do not threaten the comfort of whiteness but rather accommodate it.

"I feel a little bit more comfortable with him because I know those are not Jordans."

Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.

- Assata Shakur
South Africans support #BlackLivesMatter Movement by protesting in front of U.S. embassy, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Nic Botham/EFE/EPA

Simultaneously, we as a people are not without blame either. Black leaders also participated in the slave trade, betraying their own for material wealth, to the satisfaction of the white man. Playing Oscar-deserving Blaxploitation (Black exploitation) roles in hip-hop videos and reality television, conforming to the shallow portrayals to which we have been typecast, while the rest of us watch in suspense to see what drama the next episode of one of the VH1 reality TV shows making a mockery of Blackness, like Love and Hip-Hop or Basketball Wives, will conjure up.

Or aspiring to whiteness by playing by the same crooked rules of a corrupt game that paved the way for our oppression in the first place, instead of decolonizing, transforming and therefore dismantling the system that was never made for us to flourish.

It's important that we don’t pick and choose between consciousness. That means that we don’t want your feminism if you are homophobic. We don’t want your queer politics if you fat-shame. We don’t want your Black Consciousness if you are misogynistic.

- Panashe Chigumadzi

Furthermore, we should also take responsibility for reproducing one dimensional perceptions of Blackness when we remain silent about issues affecting facets of our complex identities that extend beyond race. Intoxicated by our frail self-righteousness, we like to decide whose pain is worth soothing and whose should be irrelevant. 

To be more specific, socio-economic positioning, race, gender, sexuality, mental and physical abilities, religion, etc., should not be treated as individual experiences independent from one another but rather inextricable parts of a whole whose recognition is paramount for the true freedom and empowerment of our people. Black pride is but an illusion when we ignore the entirety of the spectrum within which it resides.

If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.

- Audre Lorde
Manauara, 24, occupant at LGBT home against homophobia, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Reuters
Blackness is history, whose truth has been skewed.
Blackness is rich, whose wealth misunderstood.
The Black Tofu. Photo: Ceopatra Shava