Black in America

The Tourist (or Not That Black in America)

Jose 12 Comments

Black in America

Black in America

Sure enough, I didn’t catch most of CNN’s Black in America 2 special. I’ll most likely catch that sometime in the future; reruns prevail over original programming even on a 24-hour news channel. I caught bits of it and found inspiration in the story of Steve Perry, a Black high school principal whose high expectations and stringent attention to detail made his school (and of course, his students) extremely successful. There were other times in the few clips I got to see that resonated with me as someone who’s grown up in an impoverished predominantly Puerto Rican and Black neighborhood, like the fatherless children, the vacated mom-and-pop shops, and more prevalent cases of grown children raising much younger children, even when they didn’t birth them.

However, I had a hard time looking at the stream of messages from Twitter and Facebook because at the end of the day, a big part of me feels like a tourist in the African-American experience rather than someone fully accepted into what others may see as “Black in America.” To clarify, I believe there is no real definition of Black per se, but there is a shared set of characteristics through culture, skin color, facial features, places of origin, and even speech patterns that help people more concretely identify themselves and others as Black, or any other race. Furthermore, I also see that race and ethnicity are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as there are Black people in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Ghana, Liberia, Columbia, and even in places like India and Russia. It doesn’t make them any more or less Black, but this variety of experiences makes my consciousness about what it means to be Black in this country even more complicated.

This may not be true for everyone or even the majority of Black people in this country, but in a way, because of the legacy of experiences in America, not just slavery and revolts but also wars fought and to a certain extent patronage and patriotism to this country, many groups of African-Americans hold a certain degree of exclusivity when it comes to Blackness (and even certain elements of Blackness) by which any lesser man may be intimidated.

“I never liked the Cosby Show.” I can’t tell you how many people’s eyes bulged out of their heads, jaws agape, cheeks ever-expanded when I said that. While most of my other friends from different cultures would just nod and keep the conversation moving, many of my Black friends made it a much bigger deal than I felt necessary. Yes, I’ve heard of The Cosby Show, and seen the million and one specials. I’m familiar with the plot and characters, how pretty Lisa Monet was, and the pudding sponsorships and TV shows Cosby had before and after the show. Yet none of that even so much as put a dent in my psyche; what could a Black doctor with a full, happy family whose problems weren’t that great in the grand scheme of things and whose problems could be solved in a matter of 22 minutes and every so often a celebrity appearance tell a young dude whose father figures were barely there or were abusive, and whose apartment only stretched the lower stage of his man’s house (if that)? What did I know of Richard Pryor, Stevie Wonder, Prince, The Color Purple, Purple Rain, Fame, collared greens and grits, Harlem, The Apollo, people feeling “the spirit” in the middle of a sermon (that doesn’t happen in Catholicism), Good Times, Sanford and Son, and Denzel Washington movies before Glory?

Maybe it’s even because of my station in life and my temperament, rebellious to the status quo. Even to this day, I still don’t know why people take too much heed to Cosby’s opinion as it pertains to Henry Louis Gates or Barack Obama, no more than I can explain the taste of grits (grits aren’t bad; they just don’t have a real taste until you throw some cheese on it). I can’t explain why in some African-American circles I’ve been in, they limit the slavery experience to the borders surrounding this country, like I can’t explain why too many Blacks (because even a few is too much) blame Latinos for job losses in the jobs some might consider beneath them like janitorial or culinary work when we should look at all the factors surrounding people’s employment.

And that’s where I turn back to Black in America, because TV has had such a strange effect on the ways others perceive all of these cultures. Upon further reflection, I have to admit that, if not for hip-hop, I may have never known ½ the things I do about Blackness. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at least, had a character who grew up in the hood and ended up raised by rich people; that gave me an “in” that the Cosby Show never did. From the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I learned of the latest dances and styles (as well as not so popular ones) in the Black community, and eventually, I came to feel like it was my 2nd home.

Truly, people who wish to document the Black experience in America may never get it right, and the least controversial way of documenting that experience is simply to provide an emotional attachment to these pieces and let the thought processes and questions come from the viewers themselves. Even if they decided to include some of the prominent experiences we know are out there, experiences like mine would still be left out.

I have a feeling if we replace Black with Latino in this essay and postdate it to the new Latino in America, it’d still be apropos.

Jose, who doesn’t care if he alienates others, but be civil …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonThe Tourist (or Not That Black in America)

Comments 12

  1. MarcyWebb

    You are correct. Black means something different, depending in which social, cultural, historical and political context it takes place. Someone also told me that in parts of China, there are people as dark as you and me. I also attended college with many women from India who were darker. But, “black” meant something far different for me than it did for them. They actually ignored the Black women on campus; we were beneath them.

    An article which may interest you: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1587276,00.html

    A good piece, my brother. :)

  2. Cassy

    I was thinking the same… how can one or several programs that pay attention to a group even pretend to say it all or even enough. The vastness and variety in a group is in a sense, limiting! I always feel kind of let down when these programs are put together, like they’re giving blanket coverage or an Ethnic Group 101 course. There’s so much more…

    From your 2nd par.: “I believe there is no real definition…but there is a shared set of characteristics…that help people more concretely identify themselves as…” Right on. This chica is waiting for CNNs Latino in America to see how and if it leaves me out, defines me, pigeonholes me, or actually teaches folks to expect difference. Not sure why, but it’ll bother me a bit, if their only guest speakers are Puertorican, Dominican, and Mexican; though I consider them “mi gente”, I’ll be thinking “what about me?”

    I’m also/always thinking, are these programs for you and me, make us feel like finally they’re talking about us, for us, maybe community-building? Or are they for mainstream whites, so they can catch a glimpse, learn, and think they understand? Hmm. I’m getting all pessimistic here. Not my style.

  3. Aaron

    Nice post Jose, but one thing jumps out in my mind…

    The words “black” and “white” as used to define a set of people are social constructs. To show how important a dictionary sound meaning of “black” and “white” are in definition based culture and race conversations – compared to defined words such as African-American, Hispanic, Korean, etc – in proper English neither word is capitalized.

    - Aaron, who is probably too high on coffee to make a coherent point but surely was not trying to be a grammar nazi (and no, that word isn’t getting the caps treatment either)

  4. MarcyWebb

    @ Cassy

    “I’m also/always thinking, are these programs for you and me, make us feel like finally they’re talking about us, for us, maybe community-building? Or are they for mainstream whites, so they can catch a glimpse, learn, and think they understand? Hmm. I’m getting all pessimistic here. Not my style.”

    I believe that programs such as Black in America, and any other multicultural-type program broadcast on CNN is primarily for a White audience. Not that people of color cannot benefit from it or appreciate it, but, if we understand for whom the program is being made, that might help us to gain better purchase on it.

  5. Tafari

    Jose, my Black brotha; I love your reflective introdpections. I wondered why you were so silent on the topic last week. Now I know.

    I’ve bee. black in America for quite sometime now & 90% of what I saw on CNN, I could not identify with. In fact, I think if you replace the race of the subjects or mixed it, the show could have been called “Life in America.”

    For the record, I never liked the “Cosby Show” but love “A Different World.” And cheesy grits are the bomb.

    Tafari

  6. The Jaded NYer

    at the end of the day, a big part of me feels like a tourist in the African-American experience rather than someone fully accepted into what others may see as “Black in America.”

    Lord… it’s like you read my journal entry from Sunday night about not belonging anywhere!

    And your Cosby experience is my “Martin” experience… people look at me like an alien because I didn’t get or like the show.

    it’s hard out here for a first generation ______-American to fit in, period, whether it be in a Black community or not. I feel as if our feet are never really planted…

    PS- grits are gross, any way you paint it. Farina, on the other hand, is DELICIOUS. You heard it here first :)

  7. Pingback: Link Cariño | Hissip

  8. Get Real

    Don’t mean to dumb it down, but I think that this blog and the comments are so self-righteous and delusional.

    You say that the documentary was probably made for white America… well duhh Einsteins?

    Because when white America looks at you…

    you are either white, black, Asian etc!

    Whether you eat burritos, cheesy grits… dance the salsa or get it crunk are all secondary to this.

    A black guy named Jose, who hates the Cosby show and loves to salsa is guess what…. (drum roll) A BLACK MAN.

    Chew on that for a minute and then re-asses.

  9. Post
    Author
    Jose

    You definitely did dumb it down. I chewed on it for a bit and realized that indeed, the whole point of the blog was to look at the complexities of this thing we call the race experience. Simply put, you may have a point about this idea of race, though you fail to mention my Latino-ness. (That’s why you caught me on hissip to begin with.) But your point is lost in your inability to think about the race experience as anything more than what’s on the surface, unlike everyone else who’s commented.

    Plus, you need to re-assess your spelling before you tell me to “re-asses” anything else. I figure your oversight might be easier to deal with than my own issues.

  10. Get Real

    I see that I have irked you *smiles*.

    I will not bother returning because it is clear that I have already provided the ether.

    Let me not keep you any longer as you clearly have your hands full proving your “Latino-ness”. Good luck with that, because as we all know standing in the garage does not make you a Cadillac… I wonder if this concept is lost on you?

    Do you think Marc Anthony has to work as hard as you do to prove his “Latino-ness”?

    Pay no mind to any of the typo’s because it’s not that serious. No need to get so sensitive Jose’.

    Burn Baby Burn.

  11. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Easy to smile under pseudonyms, but fair enough. 1) It took you far too long to say you’re not coming back, which leads me to believe you will. 2) Indeed, there is no need for me to “prove” my Latinoness anymore than I need to prove you probably do this sort of gallivanting all over the Internet for your own jollies. “Oh look, let me write this blogger an irrelevant comment so I can feel good about myself.” I’d offer you a napkin, but you’re not real. 3) Just because you made a point doesn’t make you poignant and indeed the Marc Anthony joke was dull. 4) your typos are no match for you thinking your comments are akin to Nas or any other usage of anesthetic.

    Cool. :-)

  12. Erica

    lol, I’d definitely be one of those black friends with the bulging eyes and agape jaws — I’ve always been a huge fan of The Cosby Show. It’s a little odd to me, though, that people need to be able to relate to a show’s characters just to be able to find any enjoyment in a show. Growing up black, middle class (and Catholic) in Westchester, I could of course relate to the Cosbys — but my background didn’t preclude me from also really loving Amen, 227, Good Times and Martin.

    In The Cosby Show’s defense, I don’t think it’s a shortcoming that the show revolved around a doctor/lawyer couple with middle class problems. Does every black show need to be about a family living in the ‘hood and struggling to pay the rent? And I don’t think that middle class problems should be dismissed just because they’re not a matter of survival — all pain is relative. Hm, this is why there needed to be a Black in America 2 in the first place — the first special made it seem like every black person was poor and uneducated, when the reality is that the black experience is so diverse, just like our people. Neither special was all that great — I don’t think either ever talked about Caribbean or African immigrants or 1st generation black Americans. Really, such an embarrassing oversight on Soledad’s part. I guess that’s what “Get Real” was trying to say (though not very diplomatically) — these kinds of distinctions are sometimes lost on mainstream America; to them, black is black is black. (But I guess we’re all guilty of it — a lot of people still are quick to call any Asian person “Chinese” and any Spanish-speaking person “Spanish” even when they’re really Latino.)

    I think a lot of blacks feel like tourists in their own community. Hopefully the more we can acknowledge that the black community is not monolithic, the more we can appreciate our differences.

    Really interesting post, José!

    P.S. I’m a West Indian girl who likes grits (but I’ll pass on the collard greens — I like my callaloo!). :)

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