The Limitlessness Of Blackness » VSB

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The Limitlessness Of Blackness



If you were on the back of a school bus leaving East Hills Elementary School in 1990, or perhaps sitting in homeroom at Penn Hills High School in 1997, waiting for the 1st period bell to ring, you might have overheard or been a part of a ripping session. And, if you overheard or were a part of enough of these ripping sessions, you would have heard two words repeated more than any other: “Ugly” and “Black.” Versatile, these adjectives were used as prefixes (“You Black-ass, Craig Mack-looking-ass ass…“) and pronouns (“Shut up, ugly“); even often reflexively attached to sentences that had nothing to do with them (“You know your Black ass can’t read“).

That “ugly” was used so often is understandable. A person’s face is the most obvious thing about them, and making fun of someone’s looks is both particularly easy and, since you have no control over the features you happened to be born with, particularly cruel. Black, however, makes less logical sense. Mainly because each person participating — the rippers, the rippies, and the captive audience — would be Black. Basically, you’d have one Black person using Black as an effective insult against another Black person, in front of an audience of Black people who’d verify the insult’s effectiveness by laughing at that person’s Blackness.

It’s been years since I’ve been a part of a ripping session. And, while I’m aware there are full-grown Black adults who still believe “Black” is both an effective and necessary part of any insult directed at a Black person, I haven’t heard it nearly as much as I did when I was in high school. Part of this is undoubtedly due to choice. Long gone are the days where I had to be cool with someone just because they happened to be classmates or teammates. I can — and do — just choose not to interact with certain types of people, and one of those certain types of people are Black people with a visible antagonism toward Blackness.

Also, I’m aware some will disagree with what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. I have not been alive during a better time to be Black in America than in 2015. I wasn’t alive during the Black is Beautiful 70s, so all I know about that decade’s zeitgeist is what I’ve read and been told. I was alive during the 80s and 90s, however. I remember Jeri curls. And S-curls. And dipping your head in a quart of Sportin’ Waves every morning. I remember the ubiquity of “African Booty Scratcher.” I remember when, if you included “beautiful” with any sentence where someone who looked like Lupita Nyong’o or Michelle Obama was the subject, people would have assumed it was opposites day. Aside from the two year stretch in the early 90s when Africa medallions and HBCU short sets — both of which I owned, btw — were hot, we (Black people) collectively just did not consider Blackness to be as cool as we do now.

Still, while this intraracial progress is very real, our embrace of Blackness is incomplete. Colorism, both intentional and subconscious, still exists. The aesthetic, social, and political value of Black men among other Black people still exceeds that of Black women. And, of course, there are some very famous Black people attempting to convince us we’ve collectively transcended Blackness.

Also there’s the idea that Blackness is limiting. Not necessarily a crutch — Blackness isn’t bad — but a ceiling. It’s a thought that’s both tacit and pervasive; rarely expressed explicitly, but a widely-held latent feeling that’s often the impetus behind certain things we think, certain things we say, and certain decisions we make. It comes out in a skepticism about an education received at an HBCU. Or a reluctance to label a book or a storefront or a professional organization or a new nightclub or a new sitcom with anything that has the word “Black” in it. Or during an awkward Access Hollywood interview with an artist or an awkward Facebook status from a friend where something like “…I want to be seen as an artist/person, not just a Black artist/person” is expressed, awkwardly.

Perhaps this thought process isn’t as conspicuously perverse as a group of Black kids using “Black” as a takedown, but its pervasiveness — and the surreptitiousness of this pervasiveness — makes it worse. There are many of us who believe this, and many of this many who have no idea this belief, which cultivates the idea that in order for your full person to blossom, Blackness must be escaped, exists in them.

What’s happening here isn’t a rejection of Blackness, though. It’s an incomplete understanding of what it can mean to be Black. It’s believing Blackness has barriers, that Blackness is stifling and suffocating instead of liberating. It’s not understanding that there’s enough room within Blackness to be Black and be however and whoever you want to be. It’s putting exit signs on a concept, on a space we haven’t come close to reaching the depths of. It’s not realizing that measuring the vastness of both discovered and yet to be discovered Blackness is like measuring the air. Or a capacity to dream. It’s assigning limits to a limitless space.

Admittedly, the limitlessness of Blackness is a difficult concept to grasp. In no small part because its not a very American concept. Blackness has so long been taught, forgotten, and retaught to be a negative, that realizing it’s not just not-a-negative but an actual positive is hard. And it makes you ask yourself certain questions you might not want the answers to. But this, this reassessment, is a form of liberation too. Questioning how you feel the way you do about Blackness — and why — begins the process of freeing yourself of the idea that Blackness is a crutch. And freeing yourself of the idea that Blackness is a crutch begins the process of believing freedom comes when Blackness is escaped into, not escaped from.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at Or don't. Whatever.

  • The issue with Blackness has to do with how the experience is actually lived. Our mainstream is deeper and more powerful than it is than other groups. Types like Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner has more pull than their counterparts in White America or Latin culture. There’s a reason you can say THE Black Church. Things are a bit more ubiquitous in our culture. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or even pretending that other things exist. You can even say our relative small-c conservatism is justified. But you aren’t being realistic in that there are limits to what is considered mainstream Black.

    I do plenty of Black things. I eat soul food, like soul music, grew up in the Black church in a Black neighborhood. There are a lot of touchtones big and small I relate with. Then again, there are so many things where I don’t fit in. Like being West Indian, especially once I get off the East Coast. Or my many and varied interests. I have no problem with being Black, but I do feel like no one is really seeing for what I’m doing because they’re so busy checking for HBCU reunions while listening to Steve Harvey and thinking about Big D Tyrone who they freaked off with last weekend.

    But that’s just me.

    • Sigma_Since 93


      Does your family view themselves as West Indian first and Black second?

      • My dad’s fam defines themselves as Black first, West Indian second. I know that some do it backwards. Plus, there’s the whole mixed marriage thing with all the fun that entails…

    • Amber

      I think as black folks who don’t necessarily see themselves represented in the mainstream we tend to think we are unicorns or some special brand of negro. Each person has his/her own brand of special but I’m always bothered by some folks when they seem to want to separate their individuality from the total black experience as if whites only have the privilege of being white and an individual. I went to a PWI for undergrad and don’t listen to Steve Harvey and i know many blacks in the same boat.

      • I think part of it is self-hatred and part of it is stuff that’s pushed down our throats. So much of White individuality is shoved down our throats that in a misguided sense of pride, our conformity has someone been framed as a strength. As for me, I try to seek out my own kind in whatever I do. Mostly, it goes on straight personality compatibility. However, there are some Black folk who will do whatever it takes to be “quirky” and “unique” as if it’ll cancel their skin color. Nah…

  • cancergirl08

    “It’s not understanding that there’s enough room within Blackness to be Black and be however and whoever you want to be. ”

    Exactly. When people say they don’t want to be seen as “just” a black person, I believe they are internalizing the attitudes and stereotypes of others (and not just white folk, either) who view blackness as limiting. They are hoping and wishing and praying and in some cases, downright asking to be seen as a complex human being with various skills and diverse interests. Being human and complex (something we ALL are) should not even qualify as a request in the first place!!! There is no permission required to be black and {insert whatever floats your boat here}

    Oh—and those ripping sessions. My Hershey chocolate self was definitely called black. Oddly enough, by men who were my complexion or darker.

    • Marc.J.H.

      I hope Raven Symone reads this. Your comment was made for her.

    • I see your point, but I think you’re preaching to the choir. There’s no socially acceptable way for Black people to step out of the mainstream that isn’t seen as being weird or selling out. Raven Symone and Pharrell are dead-a$$ wrong, but they do have a real point about the internalization of some negative stereotypes, a scary amount of which is pushed by Black people themselves.

      There’s something powerful about sharing a cultural background with someone AND being yourself. Black people are asked to choose way too often.

      • KB

        You are dead on about the negative stereotypes and colorization being pushed by our very own. You see it a lot within the older generations. I remember being younger and hearing all the names my grandmother called my uncle (her son) in reference to his dark skin tone (which was the same as hers). It took me a minute but as I got older I realized why my mother was so against her sons referring to each other as “black a**”

        • MzzPeaches

          You know how many older black women would look at me sideways when I first went natural. Lips were pursed and pearls were clutched as they couldn’t figure out why my hair wasn’t “done”. And by done I mean permed within an inch of my life.

          • Word. My ex-wife was made to wear a wig at her wedding to cover her natural hair because “you aren’t supposed to get married with hair like that”. The self-hatred is real.

            • MzzPeaches

              That makes me sooo sad.

            • KB

              Wow! That’s just crazy.

            • ain’t no way in hell…

          • Amber

            So i went natural about 14 years ago and what was so silly i would press my hair for job interviews. So one job interview i had my hair was basically fried and it refused to lay down so I looked like Marge Simpson on this interview. I was so embarrassed but I did so well that they offered me the job. I ended up not taking it cause it wasn’t more money than I was already making. But after that I decided to not do that again cause there will always be something that people can use to discriminate or invalidate my accomplishments and many of those things that people see as a disadvantage I can’t do anything about like my race or gender so I’ll wear my natural hair with pride.

          • Pinks

            I struggle with this all the time. My mom and grandmother seem to think my hair isn’t done unless it’s straight. Nevermind I could’ve spent a full two hours washing, conditioning and bantu-knotting – I should just “comb” my “good” hair more often and I’d be fine.

          • At least no one ever said to you that you would “make some nice babies” just by looking at your hair and skin color

            • MzzPeaches

              Actually, I had a color struck fool tell me I was good wife material cause I was the “right” color brown (not too dark) and even though my hair was natural it was “curly enough” to be acceptable.

              • cakes_and_pies

                I witnessed someone say “Redbones make good babies, but not good wives.”

                • MzzPeaches

                  Huh?! Our people, I tell ya…

              • LeeLee

                Wow. Just wow…….I hope this was a long time ago. That brothas are more ‘enlightened’ now, no pun intended. But I fear this might have been recent :(

      • cancergirl08

        I hear you. I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself.

      • When I was growing up in the U.S. before I moved to Nigeria, I had no conception about what it meant to be Nigerian or even African. I saw myself as black, and I was conscious of that at least at the age of 6, and I made sure my vast majority of white classmates knew that. For a 6 year old kid, I saw the essence of not proving your blackness, categorized you as a Carlton Banks.

        I moved to Nigeria at 8, and from then on till the rest of my life, I never felt the need to prove any my identity ever again. I was a human and my identity was set in stone. I had a past, a unique family history, but all it told me was, “this is what you can build on.” I read books by Shakespeare and books by Wole Soyinka, and saw I could be either one, if I wanted to and was willing to put in the work to arrive at that.

        This is one of the reasons why I never vibed with the Afrocentrics I met in college after returning: the Moor-ians and the Egyptians. I could tell their investment into these civilizations was based on escapism and not actual history, since the vast majority of the slaves came from West Africa. No, Egypt was the black response to Greek Civilization and Moors were the black response to the Roman Civilization. They were using history as a reaction.

        A reaction is not an identity. I remember seeing clips of the LA Riots and the media interviewing some of the rioters saying that this was a creation of white people. That the attacking and destruction of businesses, was a reaction to white people and racism. Then I wondered to myself two things, a. what about all the black people, the majority of which didn’t participate and b. why Korean store instead of Police Department? When we are enraged it is those in the closest proximity that suffers, not our actual enemies.

        I give Cornell West credit for the insight, that for most black people, it was impossible to see themselves, without the consideration of how they are perceived by white people; thus however they view themselves, is based on how they perceive white people looking at them. The advantage of this is blackness, becomes a reaction against whiteness, however, the cost comes at a lack of identity, that one has to constantly prove and never gains satisfaction. An identity is limited and definite, simply look at your Driver’s ID and see if such a basic point, isn’t staring you right in the face.

  • Sigma_Since 93

    So much of the issue is optics. When I said I wanted to work on Wall St folks laughed because they didn’t see anyone that looked like them in the pits, folks shunned the Cosbys because they didn’t believe you could have two career orientated parents living in the same house, own the house, and buy fancy art and ish. We chide folks who listen to rock as being white because many don’t know we created rock and roll.

    • tgtaggie

      I agree. What’s funny is that ppl already complaining about Tiger not giving enough money to UMES to start the Charlie Sifford Scholarship.

      I’m not making excuses for the guy, but the amount of work his foundation does for low income kids will stand long after he hangs up his spikes.

      • Sigma_Since 93

        And folks forget about his First Tee contributions

        • tgtaggie

          True. And forget about the fact that he donated over $15mil in tournament winnings to either his foundation or charity. A couple of years ago, he even put up a couple of millions to sponsor (b/c one of the sponsors backed out) his own tournament in Dec.

    • Damon Young

      We clowned Tiger but didn’t know about Charlie Sifford (RIP) and Calvin Peete. In 20 yrs, we’ll be clowning brothers for playing baseball.

      tiger didn’t get “clowned” because he played golf. every single black person i know was living on tiger woods island. what made people start to leave was his insistence on creating a new racial identity for himself: cabalasian

      • Sigma_Since 93

        I’m talking about before he made it big. Back in his Stanford days.

  • *sits outside listening to Toro y Moi’s The Flight*

    • CamCamtheGreat

      Chaz is that dude (except for Les Sins – that was meh). Still waiting on the new album.

      • It’s streaming on NPR right now. I loved Les Sins. I like dance music though.

  • Miklonis

    Better to be a Jamaican Booty Sniffa than an African booty scratcha, I guess…
    Seriously, I hate when people use “blackness” as a modifier, especially making a negative behavior a “black” behavior. If you act like a civilized human being in school, say excuse me, please, and I’m sorry, pronounce your syllables, and show kindness–you’re acting “white.” Which is not “cool.” However, if you act like a proudly ignorant, loud, disrespectful, unkind, jerk, that’s acting “black,” which is “cool.” And then we’ll say that “black a** n*gga turnt up all the time!” So blackness = negative behavior and whiteness = correct behavior.

    Being black is state of being; how one acts is a choice. There is “black culture,” but to me, this is a watered-down version of the negative traits that get ascribed to us. Instead of being clever, like the inventors of the past, now it’s hustlin,’ doing something pseudo-legal to make ends meet. Some hustles are ok, most are bad. But we glamorize this to a point to where even those among us who don’t have to “hustle” turn to it as a means of authenticity.

    Being quick-tempered, violent, ready-to-fight. How many times do we say–“that wouldn’t have happened to a black person” or “try that sh*t with a black mama.” We praise and readily accept the violent hot-temperedness stereotype assigned to us, and then it plays out on a daily basis. It’s part of the reason cops respond so heavy-handedly with our black men (and women for that matter) and how we can be perceived to be deadly unarmed and butt-naked against cops with 13 round firearms.

    And being raw–just inappropriately raw–with our youth. There’s no “Radio Disney” for kids in the hood. There’s 107.5 and 92.3 with Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne. There are 7 year olds singing about Anacondas. Kids being exposed to explicit filth with no filter. 10 year olds who know about eggplants. Kids who can quote Kevin Hart’s dirtiest routines “You gonna learn today…”

    Too much energy is spent by folk trying to be a version of black that is self destructive, and by people who have no idea what our history is all about. I think trying to be good human beings instead of an ignorantly/stereotypically defined blackness is the way to go. Cuz the way we going, our current model of blackness, is not working.

    • Damon Young

      “Cuz the way we going, our current model of blackness, is not working.”

      according to who and what?

      • Miklonis

        According to our societal perception and our upward progression. We have an identity problem the fluctuates between assimilation vs. maintaining a cultural identity that was artificially created FOR US. We were told by white folk how to act black, stereotyped to this day. If we act differently than what is expected–snap–blackness gone.

        Despite ascendancy into the middle class, we are still denied the full franchise. White America welcomes a few of us, but not all of us and it is often a probationary welcome at that. And they often expect us to play those stereotypical roles.

        The current model, where we reject many decent concepts because they’re deemed “white,” is not serving us. We celebrate promiscuity and infidelity–make songs about it and praise it–as if blackness and fidelity/marriage don’t go together. We’re the only race with instructional sex songs played for 4 year olds. We have Chief Keefe, Lil Durk and Bobby Schmurda gang-banging to a beat and calling it music, waiting to be killed. This ain’t a Cosby-style hit piece, but like I said, we seem to think that extra anger/aggression, rawness with our children/youth, and a cutting-corners hustler mentality is authentic blackness.

    • Wild Cougar

      Maybe you should change your environment if that is all you see. Or change what goes on in your head to only see negative.

  • KB

    When I think back to instances of colorism experienced growing up it’s crazy how much the issue of color is ingrained in us by our own people. I can’t tell you how many joanin sessions (what we called it growing up in the Atlanta area) employed the “you so black” intro line. Years ago in college I dated a lady who had a young son (barely a year old) and whenever he did something that would warrant getting reprimanded she always said, “you need to sit down with your lil black self!” I told her that she was going to give that boy a serious complex when he got older and asked her why would she even refer to her son in that way.
    But as much as we lament the focus of colorism within our community, I have realized over the years this is not just specific to blacks. It happens within almost every race/culture/ethnic group.

    • Nicholas Peters

      every ethnic group that has been colonized by white people

      • Sigma_Since 93

        ethnocentrism at it’s finest

  • Charlisia Nwachukwu

    i love this conversation but my perspective of blackness has always been “challenged”. I am the black face in the white place for much of my up bringing. I was constantly told by black people that I was not black enough, I talked white, etc. I have had both white and Korean friends let me know I am not “really” black. Honestly, I feel more comfortably black at 32 than I have have ever been in my life and its because I now understand … there are 45 million different versions of being blackness in America. And we have so many different perspectives on what that means, so I do not fault the black celebrities who have had a different experience of blackness. I think the harm in their perspective is for some reason it seems as if they are speaking for all 45 million of us.

    • BlueWave1

      “Honestly, I feel more comfortably black at 32 than I have have ever been in my life and its because I now understand …”

      This quote is significant. I think a lot of people have the same experience. Part of it is we think “our” black experience is alien when we are young and lack perspective. Many of us have had the “not black enough around other blacks, but undeniably black around non-blacks” experience. Then we mature and realize that experience itself is a very black experience. When your non black friends say you are not like “other” blacks the unspoken second part of the statement is “but you are still different from us”.

      When we mature we gain the perspective to know that being black is done a million different ways. My black is no more or less authentic than anyone else’s. The key is the maturity to understand that. And you have it.

    • I hate when any group of people hit me with that “not really black” meme but it vexes me more when non black folks say it to me. I’m like what do you know of blackness?

      • menajeanmaehightower

        It’s the opposite for me. It hits me more when it comes from a black person.

        • More of the others have tried to arbitrate my blackness than actual black folks have so that’s how I arrived at my conclusion.

          • tgtaggie

            How about Teflon Dawn and the USC girls team? I think they going all the way. If she does, I wonder if she gets a bronze statue out in front of the Colonial Center

            • That’s a good question. I don’t know if she’ll get a statue but she’s about to get paid. The crazy thing about watching them play is that crowd is into it all the way. The other sports teams are in the stands, other coaches, and alumni who have turned pro.

    • CamCamtheGreat

      This is so similar to my story. I’m 28 and still struggling to get to where you are today. At least I know it’s possible, but it definitely ain’t easy.

    • Damon Young

      “Honestly, I feel more comfortably black at 32 than I have have ever been in my life”

      this is a very interesting and telling quote. a part of this is likely due to the fact that we (all people) tend to get more comfortable in our skin as we get older. but i also agree with your point that many people grew up in racially challenging environments. some of these challenges were because of white people. and some were because of other black people.

      and, as far as the celebrities go, the issue comes when they speak about race/blackness collectively instead of individually. if you say “my fame and money has given me a status where race just doesn’t matter as much” fine. i’d still disagree. but fine. but when you make a blanket statement about race not mattering anymore — and you’re a black guy from chicago — you deserve to be called on it

  • Tracy Glover Williams

    Colorism is pernicious among our people throughout the diaspora. Bleaching creams and clothes pins for noses. Stay out of the sun reminders. Fawning exclusively over beige babies. Still saying good hair. Checking the tops of ears for too much color at birth. And my favorite “she is pretty for a dark skin girl.” My children are different shades of brown (thanks to our “multiracial miscegenation backgrounds”) and Black people are the worst offenders in how they treat my girls due to a factor they had no control over. My caramel child is fawned over and my hershey child is ignored. By folks that should know better.

    Black was synonymous with ugly in our communities, even in my youth. Call someone “Black” and be prepared to fight. My MIL refuses to call herself Black anymore. She found her birth certificate recently – she was born in the same county in MS where a man may have been lynched recently. Cert says she is “colored.” She is proud of that label. Because Black is just wrong to her. “They” can’t make her Black. Sad part is she actually lived through the “Black is beautiful” movement/moment.

    Lastly, here’s to hoping that more of pursue the things that excite us regardless of the dominate group’s and Black people’s expectations. Never feel limited by your Blackness – that isn’t what is holding you back. Racism and lack of opportuntities is not a function of our Blackness, but other people’s pettiness.

    • menajeanmaehightower

      One thing that’s always made me uncomfortable is when black people want to talk about the different races that made them the person they are. It’s rarely said in a way of fact but more in a way of “I’m better because i’m not fully black.” I was watching this one hair video of this brown skin girl and in the video description she started naming all of the different racial backgrounds that was in her genetic code and i thought to myself, “for what?” It seemed weird to me.

      • Damon Young

        you could totally play different race bingo with all the nationalities some of these Black “models” name before they name “Black”

        • st george doesnt exist

          i take it you have read your share of black men magazines. yeah i read the damn bios too… I never seen so many german and italian black women in my life.

          • Persephone Jones

            Those women know that just being black isn’t enough for a woman to be desirable. She has to be mixed with something to avoid being called a “regular” black girl.

  • MzzPeaches

    Growing up in Atlanta, I was very aware of my blackness. Yes, I grew up on the west side in one of the largest housing projects in the city, went to all black schools K-12 in neighborhoods that were crime ridden and drug infested, witnessed (and was a victim of) some of the most awful social ills that plague our communities.

    However, I was still exposed to sooo much that made me unequivocally proud to be Black. I had teachers who proudly booked those field trips to the (original) King Center & King Home, APEX museum,the Alonzo Herndon House, the AUC. We were taught of all the home town civil rights heroes (King, Hosea Williams, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, etc), taken to the Bill Pickett Black Rodeo, the Shrine of The Black Madonna Cultural Center and bookstore. My sixth grade teacher had us watching Sankofa in class and pouring out libations for our ancestors (Ashe).

    And not only was I afforded the opportunity to have teachers who cared so much that I learn about my culture, but I had mentors who exposed me to college tours, high teas at the Ritz Carlton, golf & tennis classics, Aida at the opera, horseback riding in Dahlonega, Alvin Ailey shows, theater productions and so on.

    I learned that because I am Black, and a woman that I would have to always prove how educated and talented I was to those within and outside of my community. And I also learned because I am Black, and a woman I was born with the internal fortitude it takes to navigate a society that was systematically designed and conditioned to see me fail.

    • KB

      <—– proud product of DeKalb County School System. Clarkston High School c/o 2000. Shout-out to a fellow Atlanta area grad.

      • MzzPeaches

        APS all day :) Frederick Douglass High School c/o 2004.

        • KB

          Have a friend who graduated from there in 01. Symya. Williams

          • MzzPeaches

            I know of her, but don’t know her personally. I was a Freshman when she was graduating.

  • I like making space for black eccentrics. I enjoy reading about blackness and black culture. I think about my own blackness a lot and often come to the conclusion that I’m antithetical to the way masculinity is constructed within blackness/black culture and then just shrug my shoulders. I don’t have much to contribute to it and it’s really not worth the fight to be or feel included.I’m under no delusions about whether or not I am black though.

    • Damon Young

      I’m antithetical to the way masculinity is constructed within blackness/black culture

      how so?

      • Short/skinny overall small framed, look infinitely young, introverted ,hyper-sensitive, not God fearing in the slightest and so on and so forth. Essentially when people construct black men they aren’t talking about someone like me in the slightest.

        • BlueWave1

          The vast majority of black men don’t fit into the “conventional” notion of black masculinity. Conventional notions of black masculinity are fantastical and based more on fantasy than reality.

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