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.