Smokey Robinson / “The Black American”
One of my uncles recently emailed me a link to Smokey Robinson’s 2003 appearance on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam program. Smokey’s piece, "The Black American," is an impassioned argument for the recognition of the importance of black American identity. That might seem to be a tired old argument, one that you’ve heard or seen on or at any number of poetry performances, but Smokey’s piece was a little different in that he also railed against the use of the term ‘African American.’
Here’s a representative excerpt:
But then, came the 1960s
When we struggled and died
To be called equal and Black,
And we walked with pride
With our heads held high
And our shoulders pushed back,
And Black was beautiful.
But, I guess that wasn’t good enough,
Cause now here they come
With some other stuff.
Who comes up with this shit anyway?
Was it one, or a group of niggas
Sitting around one day?
Feeling a little insecure again
About being called Black
And decided that ‘African American’
Sounded a little more exotic.
Well, I think they were being
A little more neurotic.
My overall agreement with "The Black American" aside and granting that I don’t know much about the history of the term ‘African American,’ I seriously doubt that it was created by anyone with an insecurity about being called ‘black.’ And the bits about ‘exotic’ and ‘neurotic’ are funny and they do rhyme, which may be why they’re in there, but that’s straining credulity to. The reasons people came up with the term ‘African American’ are probably pretty close to the reasons people came up with the term ‘black.’ It’s all about trying to create a sense of pride and identity in a culturally and psychologically (and, back in the sixties, physically) hostile environment.
A lot of Smokey’s piece is about black pride, as he says, but I think a lot of it is also about generational pride. Smokey came of age in a time when calling yourself ‘black’ meant something. It was a matter of choice and consciousness, not just a bubble to color in or a box to check off. Using that term was probably even more meaningful for a person who looks like Smokey – a light-skinned, wavy-haired black man. It times during his performance, it almost seems like Smokey takes personal offense at what he perceives as intellectual do-gooders attempting to do away with the term that gave he and his generation such a sense of dignity and self-respect.
Despite all the cheering for Smokey’s words, I think most of the people in the Def Poetry Jam audience understand (or at least feel) the complexities regarding race and identity in America. Their uproarious applause wasn’t necessarily because they agreed with everything Smokey said. Their applause was because they agreed with Smokey’s verbal facility. They liked that he said what he had to say in such a convincing and interesting manner. They liked that his argument was persuasive even if they didn’t completely agree with it. They liked that he was clearly fired up and emotionally engaged and yet totally at ease, never stumbling over his words or losing his poetic rhythm. For that evening at least, Smokey was what Chinua Achebe once termed a ‘master of words.’
My quarrel with Smokey’s piece isn’t about the issue at hand (whether or not blacks in America are Africans or even “Africans”). My problem is with the logical failing inherent in Smokey’s argument about what black Americans should be called. A major part of Smokey’s point is that he’s tired of the name-changing (from ‘nigger’ and ‘slave,’ to ‘colored,’ to ‘Negro,’ to ‘black’ and now, to ‘African American.’) The name Smokey has decided he likes, the one he says he’s proud of and is sticking with, is ‘black.’ But frankly, calling ourselves ‘black’ makes even less sense than calling ourselves ‘African.’
I’ve never gone a day of my life without seeing at least one other black American but in my 36 years I’ve only seen a handful that might accurately be described as ‘black.’ Frankly, the term that makes the most sense is ‘colored,’ because that’s the one that most accurately and inclusively describes the whole range of our people. Of course, I’m not advocating the (re)use of the term. Anyone with a modicum of historical awareness knows that’s simply not going to happen. And no, I don’t have any alternatives. So for now, I – like Smokey – am sticking with ‘black.’
* * *
For a discussion about the pros and cons of Smokey’s ‘black not African’ argument, go here:
For a discussion about the pros and cons of Def Poetry Jam itself, go here:
And for a poetic response to Smokey’s piece, go here:
—Mtume ya Salaam
We keep going there because
Until we get there, we are not there. Perhaps, a better question is where (or “what”) is this “there” that we are trying to get to? Moreover, who is “we”—how do we define our social identity?
# # #
When I have flexible time in my schedule, I keep flexible hours. Yesterday I went to sleep around eight in the evening and woke up just before midnight. It is now noon the next day. I’ve been working at the computer. I just took a shower. About two hours ago, I paused to be interviewed by my daughter, Tiaji, who is visiting from Baltimore with her two daughters, Vumilia (affectionately known as “Vumi”) and Aline (who is name for her maternal grandmother). We talked about family history, referencing a long letter my mother wrote in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy, a major storm that flooded the area of New Orleans where I grew up.
Tiaji marveled that there was so much history—both family and general—that needed to be known, needed to be shared.
I also recently finished watching The Namesake
, a movie by Mira Nair focusing on the psychological journeys of immigrants from India into the United States.
It’s Sunday at noon now. Friday evening we had a discussion at Ashe Cultural Arts Center with two Afro-Latina women, one from Panama, the other from Puerto Rico. And now, Mtume writes his introduction to Smokey Robinson’s spoken word piece about identity.
# # #
Yes, there’s an elephant in the room. It’s race. Of course, by now most serious adults in America are aware of Barack Obama’s speech on race.
However, I don’t think blackness and race is the issue at all. I think the definition of whiteness is the elephant. What is whiteness? What culture has white America created that is uniquely white? We know that our blackness is mixed. But whites act as if white is something culturally definable, yet if you ask any white person who self-identifies as white what defines their whiteness what answer do we get beyond inexact biology?
Surely by now we all know that biology does not define culture. Surely? Hopefully!
I remember when I first encountered Cuban intellectuals proposing that the Cuban identify was a creole identity that included Spanish, African and Indigenous Native American. At first I thought they meant race. I know better now. I wish America knew better; I mean, I wish the United States knew better.
In the same way that American citizens consider ourselves the sum total definition of what it means to be American, and seldom recognize that all the peoples born in the Western Hemisphere are Americans, that’s the same way the majority has appropriated “whiteness” to mean the sum total of a much broader existence. One of the conceits of self-identifying as “white American” is to deny (or, at the very least, limit) the humanity and the Americaness of all other Americans.
Hence this debate about Hispanic immigrants, especially Mexicans. But who moved the border in the first place? What’s so “New” about New Mexico? It’s just that part of Mexico that the USA appropriated at gun point. Indeed, Obama was wrong about slavery being the original stain on the Constitution. The Consititution is the original stain on this stolen land, this site of intentional Native American genocide.
I’m waiting for that conversation! (Really, I’m not waiting because I know it will never arrive on its own. If there is to be any serious discussion about race in America we will have to take it there—which is part of what Obama was attempting to do. Nobody is going to bring it to us.)
* * *
Mtume, Jesse Jackson started the current nomenclature of “African-American.” Many of us continue to resent it. For Reverend Jackson it was a way to put the emphasis on being American without having to interrogate exactly what it means to be an American.
The violence inherent in the term American is the bitter core of race in this country. Ultimately, this historic conquering and enslavement of people and appropriation of land is what must be faced if there is ever to be genuine peace and unity. This is part of what Reverend Wright was addressing and this is precisely what most Americans refuse to address. When will we interrogate the social realities (both historic and contemporary) that the American flag covers up, subsumes, consumes and negates?
When we put “white” and “American” together without honestly examining both terms, what we get is a conqueror, an identity that seeks to dominate the world.
Jesse wanted to be on corporate boards. Jesse wanted a piece of the action. The main concern about race was the dash to get a piece of the cash, to break off a piece of the power.
* * *
Right on Smokey. Raise the questions. We will never know ourselves if we don’t question ourselves, question the world.
* * *
WE ARE GUILTY OF FORGETTING WHO WE ARE
i am in a room
4 walls, ceiling, floor
2 windows, a door
outside the window is the world
no walls, sky, earth
death, birth, & the relative briefness of life
inside is the same as outside
only smaller, less complex
outside is the same as inside
only bigger, more choices & possibilities
there are only three questions to ask/to answer
1. who am i, 2. what is the world
& 3. how do i change, love or leave it
nothing else except
god sitting somewhere
marveling at our transformation, god
mystified, unable to explain the logic
of how we have become just like
the pseudo-human creatures
who enslaved our ancestors
after all the centuries of racist bullshit,
lynchings, chattel slavery & such that
we black people have suffered
who would have thought
that violent savages
& impotent religious fanatics
is what we would be come
* * *
Mtume, here are two songs for your consideration in the spirit of Smokey’s spoken word piece.
One is “West Indian Revelation”
from the out-of-print album Happy Just To Be Like I Am
by the honorable Taj Mahal. "West Indian Revelation" is available on the compilation The Essential Taj Mahal
The other is “Human”
from the album Wild Seed – Wild Flower
by Dionne Farris.
Reflect and Enjoy.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
The elephant in the room
Baba, you don't distinguish between the power structure and the ordinary person just trying to get by. The average so-called "white American" probably has nothing compelling to say about that designation. I doubt if they could either defend or attack the name or what the name implies and I doubt that they've ever given the subject more than a passing thought, if that. When you approach the subject the way you approach it, it gives the impression that the "white" attitude is one that individual, ordinary Americans spend either time or energy maintaining. I work with "average" white (and black and Mexican, etc.) people everyday. I believe to my core that the people I work with are much, much more alike than different.
I agree that we must never be satisfied until everyone - no matter their race, class, gender or whatever other distinction they may choose or have been born with - is treated fairly. At the same time, I think it is crucially important to craft our arguments in such a way that they are constructive. These are different times than the sixties; we are fighting different battles.
You say, "When we put 'white' and 'American' together without honestly examining both terms, what we get is a conqueror, an identity that seeks to dominate the world." How do I reconcile the truths in that statement with the guys I work with everyday, most of whom wouldn't even know what the statement means, let alone cop to being a part of that conquering identity? And says who that they're even part of that identity? Am I really supposed to believe that the average white American is more a part of the problem than, say, Condeleeza Rice or Clarence Thomas?
You say the elephant in the room is race. I disagree. I think the elephant in the room, the thing we refuse to talk honestly and openly about, is class. And not only that, the two overlap enough that we could solve much of the former issue simply by dealing with the latter.
—Mtume ya Salaam
P.S. Now that I know it was Jesse Jackson who came up with the term African American, I've gone from being ambivalent about it to damn near dead-set against it. Jesse Jackson? Man, come on.
P.P.S. Dionne, I love your music. Where you at?!
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