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I Am Black: Translations


Louis Benjamin
Photographer, author and educator
Born: New Orleans, LA
Live: Beacon, NY

Growing up, I went from being “colored” to being “black,” and I still use the term. When I say “I am black,” I mean it primarily as a way of describing what I look like, but I’m aware that people read a lot more into it. Sometimes, I’m even tempted to offer qualifiers, but never do. It’s actually rare for me to use the phrase, because I don’t need to when meeting someone face to face — the question “what do you look like” only comes up in occasional phone conversations or emails where I’m planning to meet someone for the first time. Even then, I’m just as likely to say something like “I’m medium brown-skinned.” I also use the phrase “African-American," but it feels cumbersome to pronounce and seems even more politically loaded than “black.”

As a teenager, I heard a lot of people say “be black, brotha!” To be black clearly meant more than skin color, it was about culture and when I say that I am black, I’m always aware of this. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Frantz Fanon, and James Baldwin articulated the nature of the black experience. Black art and culture exploded during the “New Negro Movement” — the period we now know as the Harlem Renaissance.  In the 1970s Aretha Franklin released an album called “Young Gifted and Black” and James Brown sang “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m proud).” Blackness is a cultural phenomenon that gave rise to the Blues, which in turn gave rise to Jazz — America’s classical music. And the Blues begat Rock & Roll. Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone were hippies that infused their music with political messages and left indelible marks on popular culture. George Clinton, one of the originators of Funk, acknowledged Sly, Jimi, and Sun Ra as influences. As Parliament and Funkadelic were ascending he penned songs such as “Chocolate City” (which includes the line “you don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot”) and “Think - It Ain’t Illegal Yet.” And so when I say that I am black, I embrace all of that. But there are also connotations of blackness that I reject. Black culture is rich and varied, not a monolith. We don’t all sound like characters in a Wayans sketch or a Tyler Perry production.

In 2016, mainstream culture treats skin color as an indicator of the content of our character far too often, even as it professes to be colorblind. Policemen get sympathetic treatment in our media when they say that they feared for their lives at the sight of a black man (as if the presence of melanin in the skin triggers criminal impulses and gives young black men superhuman powers). I’ve seen a mild version of this first hand — people gave a look and crossed to the other side of the street when they saw me walking toward them on the sidewalk. This kind of negro-phobia is often presented as though it were an understandable and acceptable form of temporary insanity. No one in the media (and Fox in particular) explicitly says Barack Obama is too black, but they insinuate that he’s too sympathetic to issues that disproportionately affect blacks. They even asserted that the President should not have lectured the Supreme Court on matters of law, ignoring the fact that Mr. Obama had been president of the Harvard Law Review and even taught law. I believe we’re only beginning to expose systemic and institutionalized racism and that it will be a long time before we mitigate it.

Finally, when I say that I am black, I see myself as part of a world that includes my brothers and sisters that are so fair-skinned that they could “pass,” but do not. I suspect that for some of them, it was a conscious choice.

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