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Defining a Person’s Blackness?

Last October at an annual conference that highlights various aspects of the Black experience, I attended a panel where Dr. Ronald Walters, professor of government and African American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and several other scholars were discussing the potential impact that the upcoming election could have on the Black Community. Walters made several thought provoking points during his presentation to the audience. However, one of the most notable things he mentioned during his insightful talk was an experience he encountered on his campus when he was within ear shot distance of a group of Black students.

According to the distinguished professor, these students were using the word “ghetto” as if they were discussing either a person(s) or group of people. Professor Walters admitted that he caught the very end of the conversation, thus he was unable to grasp the full extent of whom and what they were talking about. He concluded that such behavior may very well be another sort of group division added to the already numerous number of distractions that the Black community could ill afford.

More recently, just last week, I heard a Black male student here on my campus refer to some fellow Black students as “bougie Negroes.” His comments made me think of the potential divisions that Walters was discussing. Yet his statement also made me ponder a larger question, how do we define Black?

In my forty plus years of life, I have heard numerous terms some Blacks use in describing one another – ghetto, Uncle Tom, sellout, Negro, bougie, oreo, incognegro, aunt Jemima etc … All of these terms have been used in a derisive manner. Even the controversial N-word has been bandied about. Despite the historically genetic poison of this word, it has largely had an ambivalent meaning in the Black community. Some of us love to use it; others of us detest even thinking about it.

The larger question that emerges from this is how and what do we define as Blackness? economic situation? educational attainment? skin tone? religious affiliation? clothing attire? racial genetic makeup? geographic region? I pose the following questions. Are lower income Black people in the Huff section of Cleveland more Black than those who live in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills? Do Black people who have doctorates, law degrees and MBAs embody less Blackness than those who only have a high school diploma or even more minimal level of education? Are darker skin Black people like Wesley Snipes more racially legitimate than lighter skinned Blacks like Beyonce Knowles?

Do Black Pentecostals and Southern Baptists have more SOUL than their Presbyterian and Methodist parishioners? Do Black men and women who wear clothes by Damat and Tween and Tracey Lee more representative of a fashion racial consciousness that is absent among those who wear J. Crew and Timberland threads? Are biracial Black people like Halle Berry and Barack Obama less authentic than those of us who have two Black parents? Are Blacks who reside in the heat sweltering, largely agrarian Black belt states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia more racially aware than their fellow Blacks who live in the picturesque, snow capped mountain states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire?

My answer to all these proposed questions is a resounding NO!

In my opinion, defining another person’s Blackness is an arrogant, misguided exercise in futility. We clearly have more IMPORTANT issues to address. However, there are people within our community who have and would raise such questions for debate. As far as I am concerned any person who is committed to addressing the educational, economic, political and environmental problems that afflict a large segment of Black America and is dedicated to advancing the race – regardless of monetary income, biological makeup, pigmentation of skin, preference in worship, zip code, etc … this includes non-Blacks too, is Black enough for me.


Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

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