Thoughts began to toss and turn around in my head as I sat in the luxurious dining room of the Omni Hotel in New Haven this past weekend. I was there for the annual Black Solidarity Conference at Yale University and the speaker, standing in for the well-respected Manning Marable who became ill at the last minute, was a brown skin brother whose name ended with PhD—a title not typically associated with Black men. But the speech that would follow his introduction would leave me unimpressed. The topic of his speech was blackness and rather than speaking from the heart, he poured over several pages of what sounded like a thesis allowing contradictory notions roll off of his tongue to make an argument that would essentially seem quite irrelevant in regards to the solidarity I hoped to feel upon my departure.
Using blackness as his backdrop, he led the audience through what he probably considered to be a deeply profound ideological labyrinth to draw a distinction between what it means to be technically black versus what it means to be technicolor black. Rather than boring you by repeating his long-winded explanation I will sum up his argument by simply saying that this stellar intellectual was drawing a distinction between having black skin and taking actions that better black people in addition to wearing your blackness on your sleeve.
After what seemed to be thirty minutes, the speaker had still not proposed a clear definition of what it means to be black and to help the audience understand the difference between being technically black and what it means to be technicolor black, he pulled an experiment of sorts out of his back pocket which included shouting out popular names and gauging from the show of hands which of these individuals could be considered technically or technicolor black. Of course Condolezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and Michael Steele were all included. But to spice things up, the speaker also threw in Chris Brown, Rhianna and Lil Wayne.
With members of the audience raising their hands for technically black and technicolor black for each candidate, there was no clear consensus on what it means to be Black. Does being Black mean that you have to be a Democrat? Does it mean that you have to be a radical supporter of all things Black? Does it mean that the majority of your audience has to be Black? Does it mean that you have to dress a certain way? Does it mean that you must speak a certain way? If blackness is more defined by action and experience than skin color, can whites possess blackness?
Is there a true definition for what it means be Black, or are Black people, after having their identity stripped from them 400 years ago, still struggling to define who they are? The one thing the speaker said that I agreed with was that Black people are not a monolithic people, meaning we are diverse. Just by looking around at the audience the light faces, dark faces, locked hair, straight hair, Muslims, Christians, heterosexuals and homosexuals I found were all enough evidence to support that statement. So then if we are a diverse people why do we as Black people try to put each other in boxes?
I’m not defending individuals like Rice, Thomas and certainly not Alan Keyes, but at the same time I wonder what danger and confusion we as Black people cause for ourselves by attempting to strip “passive” Blacks of their identity. Are we espousing an idea that counters our fight to be judged by the content of our character and not our skin color because if Rice, Thomas, and Keyes were white would we care? Can skin color and character be separated then because we seem so comfortable with judging the character of our people based on their skin color?