Exploration of Blackness

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

By Shanelle Matthews

Earlier this month we published a blog that outlined the monolithic and capricious way America celebrates Black history – with decontextualized, corporate commercials and signage that limits the scope of identifiable, progressive Blackness to a single heritage month. With that discussion, came the suggestion to explore Blackness and experiences with Blackness with more care, paying attention to the uncomfortable but important details that mantle the plight of the black experience in America.
Although I won’t share it in its entirety, my experience is first hand. It is also acutely intersectional. I want to preface it by acknowledging that my privilege both allows me to tell of my experience and use technology to share it with the world.

As a Black, queer feminist, my experience with Blackness has been multi-faceted. It has proven to be both sentimentally joyful and heart wrenchingly painful – an antagonistic relationship between several identities vying to occupy space in the same body. The mental elasticity it has taken to not compartmentalize myself into biddable parts is chokingly exhausting. My identities are not mutually exclusive. Although I’ve been relegated to a social deviant by some and an angry Black woman by many, I’ve managed to forge my way into a non-compliant existence where I believe my voice is being marginally heard and sometimes appreciated. The space in-between is where my privilege ends and my identity becomes a knotty annoyance that consigns me to the likeness of a quietly reprimanded child. In exploring my Blackness, it has become real to me that many believe I am not an expert in my own experiences – that others can tell my story better than I can.

You’ve been told about my experiences a thousand times. Politicians and the media have deconstructed my existence, peeled back my layers, and put me on display for centuries. They say I’m a self-sabotaging, resource draining welfare queen. I’m the parent of many but a mother to few. I’m lazy, undeserving, sexually insatiable, exploitive, and I know little about myself and my body. I’m uneducated, ill-mannered, and a drain on society –so are my children. If I do manage to beat these odds, I am difficult and irrational. I am successful but only marginally so because I am unmarried and unable to find a man who is willing to compromise his sanity to be my partner. I am lonely and sad.

For me, none of this is true. This woman is mythical – as real as the mermaid unicorn hybrid that puts a dollar under your pillow and presents under your tree. But this is my experience with Blackness. It is countering the narrative of a story that is told on my behalf so I can't tell my real story; the story of a self-sufficient, resilient, loving, and appreciated Black woman who is tangible and human. The story of a woman who is sex positive, practices yoga, and has made the self-determined and conscious choice to both be queer and not yet a parent.

When I was a teenager, my dad used to tell me that going into the world I had two strikes against me: my womanism and my Blackness. That later became three strikes when I outed myself to my parents as queer. While his ideology was correct in that my plight would sometimes be difficult, I later found those strikes were not strikes at all but instead stories, stories whose narratives had to be explored and eventually changed.

Exploration can be defined as the search for information or resources. Blackness, in all of its nuanced complexity, cannot be completely exhaustive in its existence because there are stories and legacies that have never been told. Also the Black experience that is shared with the world, has been deceitfully documented by people who have a vested interest in hiding the truth. We have the power to explore the richness of the identities of Black people and the cultural implications of Black legacies by divulging our experiences. This divulgence includes the thoughtful art of appreciating identity without appropriating it – more on this later this week.

Although these experiences vary in their involvedness they have a similar significance in needing to be discussed and shared. There is an inherent intricacy to sharing second-hand experiences with Blackness that often leaves non-Black people apprehensive (and sometimes not so apprehensiveness as with my story). The thorny history of Blacks in America and the subsequent marginalization leaves little room for error, even folks in America who identify as Black can find it difficult to explore and share their experiences. This week we will explore both first and second-hand experiences with Blackness. We hope you will appreciate the diverse stories from both staff and guest authors as we set out to discover differing narratives of Blackness in America.