Smokey Robinson / “The Black American”

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12 Responses to “Smokey Robinson / “The Black American””

Rudy Says:
March 24th, 2008 at 6:37 am

I was watching CNN last evening, which was unusual for me. I assume naturally that such news programs are racist. The host of this program was exploring "in depth" Reverend Wright’s sermon and black liberation theology and he played extended clips and brought in two black theologians and three editors, two white females and a black female. But it was rather a short program with ads. Through all these sessions, the host kept asking the question, What will white people think of Wright’s sermon or what will whites think of black liberation theology. There was this unconscious use or norm use of the word "white," not merely as biology, for there was a natural assumption that whites think alike, despite age, gender, place, occupation, education, etc. As Kalamu suggests, in the next such encounter, we should not go on the defensive, as Smokey warns, but ask What is white, what is whiteness, what is white thinking, what is white thought? — Rudy

        Mtume says        

Well put, Rudy. I agree with what you say here and I actually agree with a lot of what Kalamu said too. But there’s a big difference between what the talking heads on CNN say and how ordinary working people feel on the other hand. Those questions you list at the end are very important ones, but we have to make sure we’re asking the right people those questions. Most guys I know don’t even know who Reverend Wright is. And even if they do know, EVERYTHING they know about him or his viewpoints will come from the five minutes the see or hear about him in major media. But, as you suggest, I would like to hear those questions asked of a so-called expert on TV.


Qawi Says:
March 24th, 2008 at 11:44 am

Since this is gotten political :), Prince’s ‘Family Name’, The Last Poet’s ‘Hand’s Off’, and last week’s ‘We People Who Are Darker Than Blue’ from Curtis Mayfield could easily be added to the Jukebox.

As Obama said in his speech on 3/18, the Constitution is stained with the racism of slavery. And living in DC, the very Capitol Bldg itself was assembled with slave labor that hasn’t been appropriately given credit for until recently. Once the government realizes the legacy of disenfranchisement plagued upon us “survivors” of 20 generations from the Middle Passage, then we can collectively start talking about what our names should be.

I like Smokey’s piece, but it robs some less conscious brothers and sisters the rational for one to pursue one’s African-ness. We can’t solely depend on Henry Louis Gates to get us back in touch, we need to pursue it as well. For most of us “African-Americans” (I still don’t believe Jesse Jackson coined the term), we are more than a some total of our parts. Meaning we are more than just African and we are more than just American.

I give Smokey credit for his delivery and artful choice of lyrics, but this poem seems to give more excuse for folks NOT to learn about their heritage than not.

I’m already Bladk and African-American…now what?!?

Kweli Says:
March 25th, 2008 at 7:05 am

Smokey smokin’ something. He went out of his way to declare himself not an African, to distance himself from his heritage. I doubt that any one with Asian heritage, who has been in this country all their life, and speaks only English, would deny their heritage or call themselves “Yellow.”

The interesting thing about the Black/African American debate is that those who consider themselves African American use it interchangeably with Black, while usually those who only use “Black” are against “African American.” That tells me a lot right there. I know what Smokey is getting at. I didn’t grow up in the 60s, so I am not attached to “Black.” In fact, we should ask ourselves what has Black come to mean nowadays. In many cases I’ve seen people with multi-racial background use it so as not to discount their non-Black heritage, in essence indicating that they are not White. And for mulattoes it doesn’t even mean that. So there, “Black” is another word for “colored” and ALL people are “colored.” If Smokey and others want to use the literal argument that they are not from Africa, I would like to know how many of them are literally black.

        Mtume says        

Kweli, those who are pro "Black" are more adamant about it because they’re going againt the grain. "African American" is the commonly accepted terminology. You don’t have to be adamant about using the term that is most generally accepted.

Let me give you a concrete example of why I find the term African American problematic. I recently got custody of my ten-year-old, so I’d been checking out schools in the area. My neighborhood school is Rosa Parks Elementary. Online, I discovered that the "African American" population of Rosa Parks is about 15%. I was happy about that, but I also found it strange, given that the black population in my neighborhood is only about 5%. I live in City Heights, a working class area right in the middle of San Diego. Around here, it’s overwhelmingly Hispanic (mostly Mexican), with the remainder being a mix of white, Asian (mostly Chinese and Vietnamese), Eastern African (Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese) and, of course, black. That’s in approximate order of the population.

Every morning, my run takes me past the school. I see the kids walking to school and on the playground and I just don’t see the 15% of black kids that the website told me are there. I do however see lots and lots of Mexican kids and African kids. And that’s when I realized what was going on. The school was lumping in "African American" kids (i.e., black kids from America) with ACTUAL "African American" kids (i.e., Ethiopians, Eritreans and the like). That’s a problem.

Now let me be clear that I have zero problem about being included with ANY African people if we’re talking about cultural heritage. I am aware of and very proud of all of the ways in which we black Americans have consciously and unconsciously retained parts of our ancient heritage. At the same time, these population studies are used for funding purposes. They’re used to decide what programs should be offered at what schools. They’re used to decide what types of tutoring will be offered, and so on and on. The cultural lifestyle and educational needs of the average black kid from America and the average first generation African immigrant are very different.

When I see a black American on the street, I say whassup, they say whassup and we go on our seperate ways. When I see and Ethiopian or Eritrean on the street, I get no reaction at all from them. I have never been even acknowledged by the many Africans who live in City Heights, let alone talked to. If I say whassup, the most they’ll do is look confused and sort of nod at me in a distant way. They react pretty much the same as the average Chinese or Vietnamese person reacts. With a kind of "why are you talking to me" look on their faces. I don’t take offense because some of it may be a language thing and some of it is probably a cultural thing. If I had to guess, they regard me as an American, as someone who is completely unlike them. By and large, I think they’re right. And yet, according to the school records, we’re all "African American." That really makes no sense.

Kweli Says:
March 25th, 2008 at 12:30 pm


That’s an interesting perspective you bring with regards to the schooling. I understand where that would be a problem for you or anyone concerning their child’s needs. It seems that situation, however, would enrich a kid’s learning experience as it relates to other people… unless Black American children are in the extreme minority.

Actually, I never thought of “African American” as against the grain; I just think it’s a proper description of who I am, much more so than a color which I am not.

I’m lucky enough to have seriously exposed myself to African people and cultures throughout the Diaspora. As a former co-owner of a bookstore here in the ATL in an area of town very densely populated with immigrants, mostly of African descent (mainly East Africans, ironically), we tutored/mentored refugee kids from the Continent, and eventually expanded it to all Black children. Obviously there were some challenges in the beginning due to a lack of understanding of each other’s background, but I am proud to say that most all the kids benefited from our leadership. Today, years after the program has ended, we (the tutors/mentors: Africans, Black Americans, Blacks from the Caribbean, etc) still keep in contact with the kids, some who are off to college, some in the workplace, etc. I’m usually able to positively vibe with Africans from the continent and elsewhere pretty easy. These experiences are partially why I take a Pan African stance.

The error, I believe, in the thinking of Smokey and some others regarding “African American” is when it takes a standpoint of purely “I ain’t no African. I didn’t leave nothing in Africa.” As Malcolm said, “You left your mind in Africa.” Many of them who are multi-racial recognize their non-Black ancestors (which is right to do so), but African is a no-no. With that said, I am pro-choice. But recognizing Africa does not equate to separating oneself from Black American contributions and culture. If Smokey has “nothing against Africa,” as he stated, there would have been no need to put out the disclaimer. He played himself. I don’t believe him.

Qawi Says:
March 25th, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Wow…this should be a separate blog. To add my 4 cents (already added 2 cents earlier)… Mtume, to your point, White Afrikaaners fit that description as well. I’ve heard stories of "white folks of European ancestry" from Pretoria who came to the US and filled in the forms as African-American.

Back on Smokey…while I (and others) accept his stance on the term "Black" what he implies is that being called African is somehow inaccurate, almost like being called African is something to be ashamed of. I’m of Mtume’s generation and while being born in the 70’s should have instilled "Black Power", I know folks who didn’t want to be associated with anything African.

Just because your Great-Great-Great Grandpa is from Cleveland, don’t make you any less African. When we deny our background, we cater to the legacy of the slave owners and others who tried to erase our history. Smokey isn’t that naive to remember that OUR people weren’t always called names like William Robinson.

When we were brought over here from AFRICA, our names were attributes 8 year old n*gger female, 20 yr old strong male, etc. Clearly that was an American designation, but Smokey doesn’t embrace that either. If he prefers to be called Black, so be it. However, don’t deny the fact lyrically or otherwise that you are of African ancestry! No amount of travelling or miscegenation is going to change that.

        Mtume says        

I didn’t hear Smokey deny his African heritage. He said he wasn’t born there, he doesn’t want to live there and he’d like to be called a Black American. That’s not the same as denying his African heritage. His piece wasn’t about heritage. It was about right here, right now. What I think is, back in the sixties, Smokey made the leap (and it was a leap) from Colored to Negro to Black, and now, he’s saying, "Fuck that, I’m done leaping. I’m Black and I’m proud and that’s it!"

Let me ask this question: if someone whose ancestors way back when came from Sicily wanted to be called just American instead of Sicilian American or Italian American would we say they’re ashamed of their heritage or that they’re trying to deny it? I don’t think so. Making that distinction is just a black thing, I guess.

And, if your ancestors for several generations back were born here in America, then yes, that DOES make you "less African" than someone who was born in, oh, I don’t know, Africa.

So Qawi, let’s follow your argument to its reasonable conclusion. If being born in a place and your ancestors having been born in a place doesn’t change your identity, then the only "real" Americans that exist are the Native Americans. So why do you want to be called "African American?" Why not just African?

Historically, black people in America have endured so much powerlessness and degradation and shame that today we reactively and unconsciously project our own negative feelings onto others. What I mean is, when we finally gain the awareness that our ancient ancestors came from a place where we weren’t an underclass, a place where we were the majority, a place where we weren’t descendants of slaves, we feel so much pride that we get angry if it seems like anyone is trying to take some of that pride from us. But sometimes, we get angry even when nothing is being taken from us at all. Smokey has an opinion about what he should be called. He states that opinion and all of a sudden he’s denying this and erasing that and he’s naive and so on. The man clearly knows his heritage is African and, in his piece, I hear zero naiveté.

If you want to call yourself African or African American, go for it. But me, I’m with Smokey and I’m with Ice Cube: "Calling me African American, like everything is fair again / Devil, get your shit right / I’m black / Blacker than a trillion midnights." Well…except for the devil part. Cube always did like to stir the pot. emoticon

ToYsHiKa Says:
March 26th, 2008 at 1:58 pm

I agree, Smokey was not saying what he wasn’t, but speaking like many of us now who were born in the 70’s…late 70’s….OK 78 to be exact…LOL

I don’t consider or call myself African for I was not born there, never been, and sadly I don’t think I will ever go. Nothing wrong with that I don’t think…

I work with white woman who were born there, and they are more African American than myself. I won’t deny my history, but I will no longer carry the history either only because it filled with a great amount of sadness, oppression and depression. I would like to live in the now…

Rudy Says:
March 27th, 2008 at 5:11 am

Right on to the Right on! You my boy, Mtume! You tell it like it T-I-Z. One more thing forgotten in our chat is that Smokey says his “blackness” is an inner thing, that which is at his core. Now that is something no one can deny. It’s personal. It has to do with consciousness. So though I feel a little uneasy in spots of Smokey’s spoken word, that’s about me. That which I have not settled for myself. By the way, Baraka says something similar to what Smokey says after his visit to Africa in his Autobiography. He knew he was not an African, though African influenced. So Smokey is all right with me. I love his shit talking. — Rudy

Qawi Says:
March 27th, 2008 at 1:54 pm

…I’m up to 6 cents now and I look forward to next week’s topic. 🙂

To all the points here…well taken. To you Brother Mtume, I hear and understand your point. Though the posts written here may disagree with me on what is being portrayed in the song, my issue is actually a bigger one. One bigger than Smokey and that is the concept of Blackness.

BOL’s tagline is “a conversation about black music”. With that, I ask what is Black Music? Is it the same as African-American Music? Is it the same as Afri-Carribean Music? Is it Jazz, Blues, or Rock?

If African-American and Black Music are NOT the same, could they both have the same mother or father? Could they have the same uncle, ‘pentatonic scale’? Could they have the same nephew, ‘Hip-Hop’ or niece ‘Reggae’?

Much like in any family, there are relatives that you are more partial to than others, but you are still family! It doesn’t take Alex Haley or Henry Louis Gates to take a swab of Mitochondrial DNA to prove this either. In the case of ethnic designation, that partiality is where we get Black and African American.

I love being BLACK and AFRICAN-AMERICAN. Not ‘or’, ‘instead of’, or ‘not’, but AND. I wouldn’t change any of that.

I was born in the 1970’s, in this country, I was born Black. If I was born in the 50’s and 60’s I was born Negro. If I was born in the 20’s – 40’s I was born Colored. If I was born between 1865 and 1920, I was born a darkie or n*gger child. If I was born earlier than that in THIS country I was a slave. These designations are not limited to the decades mentioned either. BUT, none of these names would apply if I was born in Africa. I would just be an AFRICAN – Asante, Hottentot, Yoruba, Hausa, Somali, etc.

I mention all of that, because when Mtume said, “if someone whose ancestors way back when came from Sicily wanted to be called just American instead of Sicilian American or Italian American would we say they’re ashamed of their heritage or that they’re trying to deny it? I don’t think so. Making that distinction is just a black thing, I guess.”

Believe it or not, it is not a Black thing. In their own ethnic circles, Italians call themselves names of their national origin…paisan, etc. And however many generations have past, their living ancestors tell of the ‘Old Country’ and going home. They emigrated to this country by choice and were not disenfranchised from their Italian heritage. They were readily accepted for their contributions…on an American scale but particularly on an Italian scale. One only needs to travel to NY and do a little research on the NYPD and the NYFD to see this point. Chinese, Korean, and other peoples from Asia can be counted in this example too.

Mtume wrote, “And, if your ancestors for several generations back were born here in America, then yes, that DOES make you “less African” than someone who was born in, oh, I don’t know, Africa.”

Once again, one’s lack of cultural definition doesn’t change the fact of the genetic material placed in them. Obvious physical features aside…as the Jungle Brothers said, “Black is Black is Black is Black” Just because I can’t speak Kiswahili or Bantu doesn’t change the fact that I am a living example of the African Diaspora.

Mtume wrote, “So Qawi, let’s follow your argument to its reasonable conclusion. If being born in a place and your ancestors having been born in a place doesn’t change your identity, then the only “real” Americans that exist are the Native Americans. So why do you want to be called “African American?” Why not just African?”

Why? Because historically, we were never allowed. Why did we celebrate Negro History Week, Black History Month, African-American History month…because to quote a Last Poets Song “whit*y steals your future and lies about your past.” As a matter of fact, Africans didn’t even call Africa, Africa. While it is true that ethnocentric or nationalistic designation won’t instantly connect me to my heritage, it is a name from antiquity that preserves the definition of how I got hear and how I survived. It can be just a misnomer to some folk like Smokey, but so is the term “Black”. When you look at golfer Vijah Singh, do you see a black man, or Fijian.

Sincerely Bro, I’m done on this topic. I’m not trying to convince anyone that either term is better than the other. What I do want folks to leave with is that we were AFRICANS first. The melanin in our skin made us shades of Brown that we now call Black. And now several generations later, neither the Africanness nor the Blackness can be removed from us.

So I guess, technically we are African-Black-Americans. 🙂

rich Says:
March 27th, 2008 at 6:39 pm

From a perspective outside of the USA, and at the risk of being irrelevant, I think Rudy’s point about influence is interesting. I have friends who would fit categories such as African-Australian, Indian-Australian, Asian-Australian, etc. In talking to my "African-Australian" friend, he indicated "Sudanese-Australian" was closer to the mark, while for my Asian-Australian friend, she is pretty clear that it is Vietnamese-Australian. Sometimes categories are so broad, I think their actual meaning can get lost of become confusing. Like the USA, this country is populated by such a rich mix, that I often wonder what actually defines the "Australian" part of any of these equations. in many ways what binds this group of friends together is a shared experience of migration and settlement, we can talk about the tough experiences we, our parents or grandparents had in settling in a new country, or talk about the quirks of specific cultural and family traditions. for my indigenous-australian friends, a common feeling of loss they share arises from the lack of contact they have with their cultural traditions and ways due to the impact of years of a government policy of seperating families, children being taken away from their parents as part of a systemized attempt to kill off indigenous cultures. issues related to race resonate around the world, I think ultimately I agree with Mtume, it is how we craft our arguments about inequality that will provide future, inclusive directions in the fight for social justice and equality. in addition, I would suggest that the more we try consider and understand our own identity and those of our neighbours, then the more likely we are to be able to develop a community that draws upon the best of and caters to the needs of its diverse population.

        Mtume says        

What an interesting and provocative week of comments. Qawi says, "I love being BLACK and AFRICAN-AMERICAN. Not ‘or’, ‘instead of’, or ‘not’, but AND. I wouldn’t change any of that." I can dig that.

Rich comments from Australia that, "The more we try to consider and understand our own identity and those of our neighbours, then the more likely we are to be able to develop a community that draws upon the best of and caters to the needs of its diverse population."

Rudy notes that "Smokey says his ‘blackness’ is an inner thing, that which is at his core. Now that is something no one can deny. It’s personal," and asks, "What is white, what is whiteness, what is white thinking, what is white thought?"

Kweli says, "Recognizing Africa does not equate to separating oneself from Black American contributions and culture."

And Toyshika adds, "I don’t consider or call myself African for I was not born there, never been, and sadly I don’t think I will ever go. Nothing wrong with that I don’t think…."

I can hear some truth in all of these comments, and, I don’t think they’re necessarily incompatible. So thanks to everybody for writing in. Later!

Melvin Says:
March 29th, 2008 at 1:40 pm

The term “African American” without the hyphen, and the frenetic debate over its usage, appeared shortly after Teressa Heinz Kerry was interviewed by a U.S. newspaper (I could not find the specific reference), where she told the reporter, “My roots are African. The birds I remember, the fruits I ate, the trees I climbed, they’re African.”

She referred to herself throughout the 1990s as an “African American,” and when her use of the term set off a firestorm of controversy in 1993, she defended her right to use it. African-hyphen-American belongs to blacks,” a Heinz Kerry’s spokesman told reporters, insisting that it was proper for his boss to call herself African American as long as no hyphen was used or intended.

From these modest roots, several libraries of comments have been amassed with “Black,” “African-Americans,” and just plain colored folks warring in with the claim that she has no right to call herself an “African American” because of her complexion.

What followed unnaturally was the adoption of “African American” by mostly “black” academics who chose to use the unhyphenated label, with Jessie Jackson and others advising the media on the correct label to use in its reporting. There! That’ll show you Teresa Heinz.

I had the same thought as Smokey did when, after a 5-year absence from higher education, I wade back in to find the name change. In fact, I asked my colleagues the same question that provoked Smokey: Who voted for the name change? No one knew. Well, where did this need to change the name come from? Again, no one knew. Now, here were the so-called creme de la creme (Du Bois’ Talented 10th) without a clue about something as significant as the “monumental” events that led up to a name change for their ethnic group. And, if you follow the various forums on the subject, the discourse, if you can call it such, really goes to show just how lame Black Americans can be when it comes to who we are both as a group and as individuals. Consequently, it was easier to shoot the messenger (Smokey) than it was to deal with his core statements: You can’t just keep messing with your ethnic group identifier if you are going to stay on point. Or as George Kelly put it, “Experience is not what happens to us, experience is what we do with what happens to us.” The legacy of New World Africans is constant change over nomenclature from one generation to another. From a development standpoint, this means fighting the same old battles each generation and expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?


Emily Ann Says:
March 30th, 2008 at 11:01 pm

How timely this discussion is amongst all this talk about is so-and-so “Black” enough? I just wrote an Op-Ed piece (that was picked up by three local newspapers) on this issue of self-identity. Malcolm X was quoted as using the term “African American” as he said it connects us to the land base from our ancestors. All wars are fought over land and the resources connected to that land. Race is a mental construct, merely a tool to divide and control and keep the minds of the masses off of the economic games used by the ruling classes. African people, wherever they are in the world, come from a continent that gave the light of civilization to the world. If you call yourself “colored”, Black, or just American, you are cut off from that great legacy. And yes Virginia, Africans from the continent come in all shades and hues, and eye shapes, more evidence that all peoples in the world have an “African” ancestor/DNA, so in essence we are all “Africans”. Some of “them” and “us” just don’t want to accept their own “African-ness”. Interesting to note that “North” Africans are classified as “White” on the US census and employment forms. Question? Does that include Pharoah Tut? I have a Nubian friend that can trace her peoples lineage directly to Ramses. Interesting to note, she looks just like me or my sister, or my grandmother. Yes, Virginia, the Egyptians and Nubians were African. And yes, Egypt is still in Africa despite all “their” attempts to “take it out of Africa”. My history didn’t start with slavery, neither did yours, so why allow people to limit your self-identity and history? One of my teachers said the enslavement period is merely a blink of an eye in the long, long, rein of history when Africans ruled the world. Yes, Virginia, Africans did rule the world for thousands of years. And as my ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) ancestors said, “Know thyself”! Ultimately when African people know themselves as the spiritual (not religious) people that we and we take our rightful place as leaders and teachers among men and women, we will bring in the Dawning of the New Aquarian Age. Overstand that Spirit trumps Matter, and Spirit has no “race, color, or hue, or gender”. When we can see the Divine in our own black, brown, carmel, blue black and white” skins then we can see the Divine in everyone and everything and create an economy based on that reality instead of what exists at this moment in time.

Emily Ann Says:
March 30th, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Re the term “Black Africa” and those non Africans that want to claim the title of African American, that’s complete nonsense. Again, another linguistic tool for us to somehow see that North Africa has nothing to do with our history and culture and that there is some imaginary line between North Africa and the rest of the continent, as if the borders of today are somehow related to the borders of ancient times. There not! As if people of ancient times didn’t migrate and move about the continent. They did! Now back to this nonsense of non Africans trying to claim some connection to the land-let’s flip the switch-If I’m born in Europe and move to America does that make me a European American (even though my skin is blue black). ? If my dad is in the military and I’m born in Japan and then move to America does that make me a Japanese American? It’s no different from those invaders, missionaries, and mercenaries that want to claim some kind of ancestral tie to the land of Africa. Come on African people, don’t even entertain such twisted thinking. Again, remember, the land question. Who’s controlling the land and the resources? And they will come up with some Manifest Destiny dogma to justify their exploitation of the land and the people.

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