Identity & Culture

Black is international

Journalist Touré, in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, discusses the mainstreaming of Black American culture in recent decades like this:

“Black culture was once coded and culturally distant, like the secluded juke joint off the beaten path where Blacks rollicked and explored their artistic and aesthetic souls and intrepid Whites trekked out to it as if into an uncharted forest, to see something exotic. Now Black culture is more like Starbucks: located on every corner in every major city and available to anyone who wants in. It is the lingua franca – the common language.”

Black cultural historians can attest to the fact that Blacks have always had an influence on the popular culture of America. And I think that most contemporary Black Americans can see that our styles, our music, our language, and even our demeanor have become not only influential elements in American popular culture, but damn-near essential elements of it. What would America do without us? What kind of music, art, food, entertainment, and fashion would it produce? It’s scary to think about, so let’s not. The bottom line is that Black culture has become an undeniable and indispensable component of the American brand.

And yet, it doesn’t seem that many Black Americans are aware of how much this influence extends beyond the borders of the United States. We know that through sports, movies and music (especially hip hop), popular images of Black Americans become spread throughout the globe, for better or worse. Citizens of countries with infinitesimal or non-existent Black populations may still formulate opinions about Black Americans based on their exposure to media images and touring celebrities. This is usually discussed in a negative way, as a warning to Black Americans that if we don’t organize to shut down negative media portrayals produced here in the U.S., they will slip through our hands and be on the next plane to everywhere before we can even say “Sambo.” But this position is based mostly on a concern about the opinions of us formed by non-Blacks in places like Europe and Asia.

What I’m concerned with here are the more positive aspects of our cultural projection onto the global screen. Specifically, I wish that we would pay more attention to the ways that we have positively influenced and inspired the millions of Blacks living across the Diaspora, in places like Brazil, France, Holland, England, Cuba, and Japan. How many Black Americans even know about or acknowledge the presence of moderate to large Black populations in these societies? Not to mention the entire continent of Africa. How connected do we feel to our global brothers and sisters? And how much do we understand the powerful influence we’ve had on people around the world, whether they be black, white, yellow, or any shade in between? If we would take a look at hip hop artists in Chilé, reggae artists in Jamaica, or b-boys in China, we would notice a consistent trend -an adoption of Black American aesthetic and style that is the highest compliment one can offer to our culture.

There’s always the argument that this “wearing” of Black culture is more problematic than it is flattering. I will admit that the commodification and marketing of Black American culture across the world, with very few Blacks on the receiving end of the wealth generated from such ventures, is a huge problem. But I also contend that strengthening our international awareness and connection is one path to empowering ourselves to have more control over our images and cultural products. Especially when we are strengthening that connection to people in other countries who share our African ancestry and all the beautiful, complicated histories that brings. This is a modern day Pan-African vision. And with current technologies, it’s more feasible than ever. We don’t even have to leave our homes, although this is obviously the preferable method for gaining exposure to international perspectives. Either way, the vision of globalized Black identity is a powerful possibility. It not only lets Black identity out of the box, it shatters the box into a million little pieces and scatters those pieces in every conceivable direction across the seven seas.

In my online perusing, I came across this AfroEurope page detailing Black sitcoms, theatre groups, and musical artists in various European nations.  Unfortunately, most Black Americans don’t know of these people but it’s pretty safe to say that most of the Black Europeans can name at least a few Black Americans that have been influential on their lives or careers. Am I saying this simply to display my American arrogance and self-absorption? I hope not. But since I believe that most non-U.S. Blacks already know that Black Americans are here, it falls upon the shoulders of Black Americans to become less insular and begin seeking out the cultural contributions of Blacks from nations and historical contexts outside of our own. We should be as influenced and inspired by them as many of them are by us. I am simply saying that we as Black Americans must become more aware of our global extended family, because our worlds (and our identities) never did and never will be confined within the shores of America.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s