The formula of hyphenation … is reaching the point of saturation in the United States, and the right hand side of the hyphen can barely contain the unruliness of the left hand side.
America is not—as put forth by good-guy John Edwards, recently revived by renowned race-pedagogue David Simon—“two Americas,” but if it were, both of them would be Christian. Like many growing up in the American project, I spent most Sundays huddled in a “velvet” pew holding a tome open to the wrong book on the wrong page of the right Book, praying for lunchtime.
My family attended the fun church in town. Or so it was framed by the white classmate I’d chased throughout middle school, would chase through high school and into college—intellectually, then romantically. (I soon caught up—or had perhaps been ahead all along. We never quite got the intersection right. He became an engineer; I do, well, this.) I imagine the stomps, hollers and rhythms that filled those long Sunday mornings could seem like fun to an outsider. You could hear my church from down by the river to IL 31, a two-lane highway that can take you as far south as Sundown Town and as far north as the American Dream. And if you peel your eyes bug-like and drive real slow, you might just get a glimpse of Black America.
My entire childhood was dotted by regularities the world has yet to realize as quintessential experiences of a kind. Kitchen-sink relaxers, the curling iron’s hot kiss, gardening as therapy, greens at the table, soul in the family room, country-cousin vernacular, no cussin’, thick legs, a Cherokee great-gram, my great-gran in overalls. The poetics of this Black American life are infinite.
But living is not how I learned what I was. It was in college that I learned to recognize my own culture: from Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Lawrence Levine and Roger Abrahams, the prominent features of Black life on this soil were taught to me by sentimental white women and tenured white men. I have the Works Progress Administration—and the oral histories they gathered, from Black women and men old enough to remember slavery—to thank for introducing me to my own relatives. Reading the transcripts of those histories closely, it’s as if I could hear the secrets my folks kept out, the knowledge undetectable by the technologies of ethnographic research; and so, I’d like to think it was the slaves who taught me, too.
America hates the have-nots but it hates the have-naps even more, even when they have savings. I say this with the dramatics of a slam poet or Tumblr blogger, in a rhetoric that for all its banality is nonetheless understood only as hyperbole, and not as what it is: plainly stated truth.
America wants to be everywhere by land, sea, bomb and/or cinema. America has mostly succeeded. Blackness, meanwhile, is everywhere in fact, touching every mappable corner of the earth. Blackness is the funniest, saddest, most beautiful, weirdest, most irreplicable thing visible and invisible to the human eye. From the lofty-minded labors of the academic elite to the capital passed in folded bills and loose change, to the arts and splendor that animate our unguarded moments—all these things owe their existence to Blackness and most of all to Black peoples.
As a Black person, this is not the treat you’d want it to be. As a Black American, omnipresence rather feels like choking. I wake up and live Blackness American, which is one way of saying I live with death. The refrain haunts the working, sitting, playing, driving, parking and walking hours, minutes and seconds of my day and night. I see death shrouded over little children running circles on the half court, the elders huddled together at the bus stop. This is one kind of living death in America.
There is another kind of death, sent from America to the shores and borders excluded from world-history curricula and only mentioned when it’s time to export all of America’s ills.
You, the Black American, are not responsible for your country’s wars but you help make that war possible. Our blood soaks the soil that grows the crops that fill the bellies of an electorate who, mouth full, deliver drones and death with a detached panoptics afforded by Silicon Valley’s latest and greatest. These death sentences hover over people who look a lot like you, but it’s hard to see past your own shroud to make the connection.
Failure to perceive that connection is a form of ignorance I was born into and crawled away from, only to find myself stuck in it again. America carries our creations far and wide, and it is uncanny to see our music, our dances, our language mass-produced and lived out in the fantasies of persons whose names I struggle to pronounce. This ubiquity is a privilege, I am told, despite our intimacy with the most destructive nation on the planet. Never mind that the violent project that misappropriates the fruits of our labor is killing us just as fast.
Africa does not claim me. America wants to kill me. And yet: here I am.
THE NEW MELTING POT
It is no longer the Nineties. It is—thank God—no longer the Nineties. As Appadurai predicted, hyphenating has gone quite out of style. Whether overwhelmed by migration or killed in the culture wars, the hyphen has disappeared, literally and metaphorically. “-American” was the anchor that proposed the gradual integration of ethnic differences into an assimilated America. If “American” was once a measure of protection against the ethnic Other, that protection has eroded into blank space. White hysteria now sits in uneasy proximity to what it fears most.
The hyphen has melted away, but the “ties of the tribe” have not. Some of us afore-hyphenated Americans remain so in spirit, for worse and for the culture. While many slid into whiteness or some approximation of it—respectability, model minority—with relative ease, those of us too unruly to ever be any of the above used globalization to forge bonds across the diaspora instead.
No matter how little tech’s pioneers care about us, their inventions made possible a new creation: what artist Aria Dean calls “a black collective being.” The internet is how I met diaspora. And it was not what I would call a homecoming.
TO BLACK FOLKS, WORLDWIDE
Since I first learned there was such a thing as diasporic identity—culture—I learned that my lived experiences—abjection, I guess—weren’t worthy. Everyone looked like me, but not, everyone spoke like my family speaks, but not, and as excited as I was for these differences, the differences were much less excited about me. Sisterhood was more like sorority.
Daily digital encounters with diaspora are a lot like church, minus all the theological stuff. So-and-so wants to be flagrant, so they let it slip that the jewel-encrusted pin your aunt’s been brandishing about since you were old enough to waddle, well… let’s just say it’s a little less Neiman and a little more Marcus from around the way. Now, if you want to see some real family jewels, come take a good look here at what I’ve got. This bracelet, now that’s the real thing. Genuine.
Everybody takes turns to share what they have, where it came from, how old it is, why you’ll never find one, even if you want to go looking.
From the ships that landed elsewhere, from otherwise colonial tongues, from the freemen, from the twice-liberated, from the degreed, the titled, the boldly dressed—their eyes pierce us from cyberspace and envelop Black America with pity. They, the ones with genuine jewels, from the islands or off the coast or from “the motherland,” watch our struggles on a Jumbotron nobody asked for, tsk-tsking it took us so long to rise up only to lose our culture in the process.
You look back at your auntie. You don’t know where she got the pin. You only know that it’s real. Maybe not real in the way the bracelet is, maybe not real in the way hers is, or hers, or his, or theirs. Maybe she spent a lot. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she crouched, for hours, over that coffee table, the one just an inch and a half shorter than you’d want, peering through two pairs of readers and adding, one by one, a tacky-backed stud until that pin sparkled like nothing nobody else got.
Others of the motherland and across the diaspora, those with real culture, tell us that the origins of our creations lie elsewhere, so it must be true. They say the legacy of the Middle Passage makes itself known in a contemporary cultural lag, placing us behind in a syllabus that excludes us anyway. I say, imagine calling Gwendolyn Brooks the epilogue to something greater. Imagine finding Melle Mel rhymes somewhere off the coast of Senegal.
“To be unhomed,” says Homi K. Bhabha, “is not to be homeless.” This is our unhome. This is America.
BLACKNESS + AMERICA
If America is for anything for us it must be a surrogate. A name that allows its significant Others a cultural claim so that we might too overwhelm the constraints of hyphenated existence and find refuge in making. The “America” in our America is morphologically identical to the word in that jingoist refrain—God Bless America, thy name I love. Yet we say America and mean something else: the sutured two, Blackness+America, is something dangerous.
Sometimes I look at Janelle Monáe, Chance the Rapper, Blue Ivy, Prince and I want to hold their magic tight to my chest, to say, Back off—these icons are mine. I say mine to mean ours like mine, mine own, for shackled hands only. You must be fresh off the boat to claim these legends. (A childish impulse, to be sure.)
The claim then cannot be about ownership. Envy, a colonial impulse, must be beaten back. That thing—something like the word, the note, Baraka’s blues, Baldwin’s beat, jazz—“cannot be owned,” says Ashon Crawley, “but only collectively produced, cannot be property but must be given away in order to constitute community.” I cannot hold icons to my chest. I cannot restrict access to artists whose Blackness American is so Blackness American but is so in the sense of sharing themselves with others. I must learn to share as they have.
The question, then, isn’t about living with whiteness—an impossibility—but how such a Blackness as America can entwine itself as a strand in the insurgency of global Blackness. I name us not to extricate our culture from the world, but to give our contributions charge, to acknowledge the hellfire—America—necessarily traversed every time the things we make leave psychic promise and circulate the world.
I name us humbly: a stance that in our language signals respect over inferiority, in deference to the ones who share the rumblings of an inconceivable existence—a familial stance. With a name, may you see how we too rattle the table. How we too evade capture and poison the throats of our enemies. How we live the grandfather’s truth:
Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.
This, too, is an experience of a kind. We are all of us the inevitable and we need all of us to be possible.
Art credit: Samantha Wall