Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Escape from Blackistan-- Or an Introduction to Divestment

Escaping from "Blackistan"--an Introduction to Divestment
Several years ago, I wrote an essay called "Escape from Blackistan" in which I explained how, for most of my life, I failed "to fit in" with many of the ideas about "blackness" that most of my peers (even at Harvard) adopted. The essay discussed the difficulties of feeling aligned with other blacks on issues of injustice, and yet completely (and not always unhappily) disconnected on just about everything else. Many of the ideas embraced by those deemed "authentically black" seemed ridiculous or dangerous to me: avoiding education, embracing certain types of music and excluding others, embracing only certain people, hair styles and clothing, living only in certain neighborhoods-- all to "stay black." It seemed ridiculous (especially at Harvard!). Still, when I tired to find a publisher for that piece I had little success.

These days-- as new discussions and blogs on the efficacy of black monoculturalism abound-- I wonder if the time is ripe to re-visit the concepts of Escape from Blackistan.

In the course of completing the research for my upcoming book, Don't Bring Home a White Boy and Other Notions That Keep Black Women Single I have been exposed to lots of new ideas that have given me a whole new vocabulary for the concepts in Escape from Blackistan. One of those ideas is propounded daily by Rev. Lisa Vazquez at her think tank/blog site Black Women Blow the Trumpet. The concept is "divestment" and basically it describes the process by which black women re-examine, then abandon the notions commonly considered to authentically "black". Divesting from these concepts means not only ceasing to believe in them, but refusing to invest any further time, money, or emotional energy in supporting these ideas.

In a series of thoughtful essays, Rev. Vazquez points out that dismantling "notions" that limit the way black women must behave in order to remain "good sistas" is necessary for black women to obtain dominance in a world that increasingly requires us to be culturally fluid in order to succeed. By dominance, she doesn't mean any abuse or misuse of power; she means the necessity of the good use of power in order to achieve success.

For all of us-- regardless of race or gender--achieving success really does require dismantling some of the notions that many of us were taught in childhood. For black women in particular, however, it means taking a careful look at cultural notions like the "strong black woman" or the matriarch image of a woman who shoulders everyone elses responsibilities, putting herself last. It means the habit of giving black men a "pass" when they fail and accounting it to racism. Indeed, it means reconsidering whether it is truly racism or sexis that affects black women more. Ultimately I think many of these notions come down to self or selfish-- and the loaded meanings those words have in the black community.

Obviously, Reverend Vazquez's essays had particular relevance in Don't Bring Home A White Boy, which is also about re-examining cultural dictates. But they also brought back a lot of the ideas I had written about in my Blackistan piece. Are black Americans finally ready to give the idea of a single black voice and admit the truth-- that we are as different and as varied in our backgrounds, tastes, beliefs and value systems as all other Americans? Does that dilute our power and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing in country that is less and less "black and white" and more global than ever? More and more, aren't the differences between people attributable about socio-economic class-- not race or ethnicity?

I don't pretend to know the answer (though I certainly have an opinion). I'll be exploring all of this as I dust off my Blackistan essay and retool it around some of new ideas I've been reading about. It will be telling if publisher's believe there's a market for it now. It may mean that the climate in Blackistan is shifting... and that the center of black monoculturalism cannot hold.