The Millennium Negro: The “New Black”

8 19 2014-WATN- Charice Pempengco & Raven Simone

“To put it bluntly, the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné can afford to declare their independence from blackness.”

In April of this year, Pharrell Williams declared the “new Black” in an interview with Oprah Winfrey by saying:

The “new black” doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The “new black” dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.

Just yesterday, child star of “The Cosby Show” fame, Raven-Symoné said the following:

I’m tired of being labeled.  I’m an American. I’m not an African-American; I’m an American.  I mean, I don’t know where my roots go to.  I don’t know how far back they go.  I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from, but I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person.  I don’t label myself.  I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with Black, I connect with Indian, I connect with each culture.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Millennium Negro, also known as the New Black.

One hundred years ago, the United States was entering the First World War.  It was also the start of the Great Migration–the first time blacks from the South were leaving their new-found homeland searching for “the warmth of other suns” away from what Martin Luther King later termed as “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression.”  The Great War ended in 1918 and black soldiers returned from Europe fighting for freedom and democracy abroad but still uniformly denied basic civil and human rights in the country of their birth.  Race riots in the country were spawned in the immediate years following the end of the war continuing into the Roaring Twenties, and meanwhile, the community of Harlem at the north of New York City’s Manhattan island was seeing a culture shift that Alain Locke, at the time called the New Negro Movement, but ultimately went down in history as the Harlem Renaissance.

220px-NewNegroThe Harlem Renaissance, to put it succinctly, was a way in which Negroes were able to capitalize on their cultural endeavors.  Locke’s book The New Negro highlighted works of poetry, verse, songs, essays and other writings touting cultural achievements, namely in the arts.  The end result, by the time the country was engrossed in a second world war, was that through this cultural movement, blacks finally had a lens through which they could see themselves as American.  I would make the argument that for the past century, blacks have always been forced to pick and choose between their blackness and their Americanity; DuBois clearly saw this duality early as he wrote about it in Souls of Black Folk and in his advocation of the “talented tenth.”  Only within the last decade or so have blacks been able to afford themselves to use the language of Americanity: in other words, be post-racial.

One of the tropes of the American brand of capitalism has been “new money.”  It’s been played out in countless movies projecting the sentiment that money doesn’t buy happiness and the like, but I think it’s worth noting that money can afford a certain level of blindness to some of the everyday issues that pervade our everyday lives.  To put it bluntly, the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné can afford to declare their independence from blackness.  It costs to be post-racial.  This debt can paid by actual capital net worth or paid for by racial ontological privilege appurtenance, also known as white privilege.  However, I think it’s interesting that both Pharrell and Raven chose Oprah Winfrey to disclose this information.

Oprah, over the years has had a relationship with the black community that has seen glorious highs and abysmal lows over the years.  As she was moving toward the end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” she had solidly established her net worth with the larger black community.  She came under assault from the black community, especially her fellow Chicagoans, when she started the school for girls in South Africa, when just 10 miles south of her schools in the Englewood neighborhood were languishing.  Notwithstanding her friendship with Tyler Perry, Oprah far established her rapport with the black community by having a rousing closing episode having students from Morehouse appear on stage with her as a scholarship she began was sending young black men to college.

Oprah has been seen as the embodiment of a post-racial society, some have quipped that if Oprah could make it to where she is, then other blacks can do the same.  Aside from the fallacy of that logic, Oprah breathes rarefied air to say the least.  There have only been three black billionaires in this country, Bob Johnson, owner of BET broke that barrier first and fell off that list shortly after he sold BET to Viacom entertainment, and Oprah marched on the list shortly thereafter.  For the better part of the last decade and then some, Oprah has steadily increased her wealth to just over $2 billion.  In other words, Oprah can afford to be independent of her blackness.  However, when overseas, Oprah was denied seeing a purse that she wanted to purchase by the sales assistant because it was “too expensive” and Oprah was reminded, along with the rest of the world, that she still occupied blackness in a real sense.

So how is it that the likes of Pharrell and Raven-Symoné don’t see the world through that lens?

Rather than run the list of this duo’s inane ignorance on the issues of blackness as an example of how they simply “don’t get it,” I would rather take this opportunity to explore what does the “New Negro” embody aside from ad hominem attacks, but the problems of occupying that space.

Being post-racial in a racial society doesn’t alleviate racism.

Race is a political and social construct that is entrenched in world history and most of us don’t know it.  As nationalistic identities were forged through European global exploration during the European Renaissance era, moving from the Dark Ages, those European civilizations created race as a way to categorize the other humans that they were encountering on these voyages.  In this case, history is told by those who wrote it down–Europeans were very much a written culture, whereas civilizations closer to the equator passed down their history orally.  Europeans began “discovering” the world, and suddenly by the 16th and 17th centuries, this concept of race as we know it has emerged.  Be not deceived, race was created as a means to maintain a power structure.

Following a more recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Freeman responded to a question about the wealth gap and economic inequalities in this country in terms of race.   Freeman responded,

“Today? No. You and I, we’re proof.  Why would race have anything to do with it?”
“Put your mind to what you want to do and go for that. It’s kind of like religion to me—it’s a good excuse for not getting there.”  Freeman ended with a final response, “Making [race] a bigger issue than it needs to be is the problem here.”

Jamelle Bouie from Slate.com remarked after this second interview that “there’s no understanding income inequality—or the disparities in criminal justice, education, health care, and unemployment—without a firm grasp of race, or rather, the economic consequences of past and current racism.”  Freeman’s approach is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into the work needed to get to that point.  I’ll admit, I have some hope that one day we will be a post-racial society, but in a world with seven billion people and growing, it would take an extinction level event for us to be uniformly on the same page.  9/11 did act as an event where suddenly we were “all Americans” and that sentiment didn’t go unnoticed in many segments of the black community because this was a superficial sentiment that was not seen in policies coming from Congress and under a George W. Bush administration.

Contrary to popular opinion, racism can exist even if you choose to ignore it.  Operating as though you don’t see color, or asserting that this is a post-racial society does nothing to disassemble the power structures in place that purport racism.  In fact, to operate through color-blind lenses or to declare one as post-racial now gives you a license of complicit ignorance to racism.  This false hope of rugged individualism espoused by Morgan Freeman and Pharrell Williams is a check drawn on a bankrupt account for many people of color in this country.  This was true historically, and unfortunately is still true today.  When institutional and policy barriers still exist to perpetuate a cycle of poverty that overwhelmingly disaffects people of color, the argument of “personal responsibility” is rendered null and void.

Most blacks can’t afford to be post-racial.

Most blacks watching this triune of celebrities declare their independence from blackness and join the melting pot of America haven’t done any ethnographic studies as historians, sociologists or political scientists to be considered remotely an expert on these topics, so sometimes I want to take what they said with a grain of salt.  But, it’s hard to do that knowing that they have the economic capital to transcend race and speak from the post-racial land of rainbows with big puffy clouds, and unicorns.  Can’t forget unicorns.  People probably don’t respond to Morgan Freeman as an older (and probably crotchety) black man–they respond to him as a well known celebrity.  People don’t respond to Pharrell as a soon-to-be middle aged black man (who still looks 24 some times), but rather as an incredibly talented guy who’s written and produced numerous hit songs.  Despite his lack of live-stage singing skills, he’s very much a modern-day Stevie Wonder as far as the length and number of contributions to the wider music world.  They have enough money that they have metaphorically purchased land rights to set up a residence in the Land of Post-Race.

If Morgan Freeman got pulled over for doing 75 mph in a 45 mph zone, either the officer won’t even give him a ticket or he’ll just grumble and pay it more or less showing his driver license from the Land of Post-Race  There will never be any question about did the officer somehow mistreat him because he was black, and he won’t have to worry about getting out of the car or face an illegal search by cops because he “fit the profile.”  I, on the other hand, do have to worry about these things–I can’t afford property in the Land of Post-Race.  My residence seems to be permanently affixed in the Land of Race, better known as the United States.  My economic capital doesn’t afford me the privilege to not have to worry about those things.

Even if you don’t have the economic capital to take up residence in the Land of Post-Race, be not dismayed, one’s white privilege is also an accepted currency in this land.  Truth be told, this is usually the currency in which most transactions take place.  While some people have permanent residences here, there is also a bevy of seasonal homes that can be purchased next to the Lake of Delusion with deeper depths plumbed daily or log cabins in the Mountains of Ignorance with higher peaks scaled continuously.

To live in the Land of Post-Race, regardless of skin color, eschews the lived reality of millions of people in this country and the billions of people worldwide.  It’s a direct insult to the validity and existence of those who have been forced to espouse their blackness as pride when the vast majority of American history it was seen as something to be shamed.  The Harlem Renaissance was the first time here on these shores that blackness, as a whole was seen as something to be celebrated, not just by whites, but by blacks as well!  The psychological chains of slavery weighed heavy on people who had been kissed by nature’s sun, where the systemic pedagogy of slavery taught blacks to be ashamed of their skin color and their very essence.  To that point, parents and grandmothers till this day tell their children not to play or sit in the sun too long because they will get darker.

The irony is that what blacks may consider post-racial and what white consider post-racial could very much mean two very different things.  If you don’t believe me, check out the BBC article on Orania, an Afrikaaner-only settlement.

Being post-racial ignores the need for reparations.

While Ta-Nehesi Coates article did momentarily reignite the conversation about reparations, with the Ferguson moment trying to transmogrify into a movement, aside from Obama’s path to the White House, this might be the longest time that race has sustained itself in the national media and conscience since CNN’s “Black in America,” but I digress.  Domiciling in the Land of Post-Race absolves all oppressive parties from any responsibility for their past actions and from their current complicity in current policies in place that have adverse effects on people of color in this country.

Reparations, as Coates noted implicitly, does not mean that a check is cut to the descendants of slaves, but rather that injurious practices that resulted in horrible intercultural and interracial relationships that disproportionately maligned people of color–especially those who are still alive–are repaired.  Those reparations, namely, can come from the changing of policies and practices in our institutions and in our halls of justice.  We have the numbers, the data and the statistics to prove it; we know where these people are; we have the power to fix it.  Yet, as a society, we don’t.

The former Chicago police office, John Burge, was released from after serving slightly less than four years in a minimum security prison.  Burge was brought up on charges amounting to lying to a prosecutor about the abuse, because the statute of limitation for the actual abuse itself had passed.  Victims of Burge were convicted under torturous conditions and violent and physical coercion.  Many of his victims sat in prison for upwards of 30 years–and have not seen one red cent from the state, the county or the city.  Yet, Burge still collects $4,000 a month in pension benefits from the Chicago Police Department, and legally there’s nothing, not even the Illinois Attorney General can do to stop it.

A post-racial mentality wouldn’t see that at the center of this relationship between a domestic terrorist and torturer by the name of John Burge and a long list of male inmates is the very simple, and problematic issue: Burge did what he did because he knew he could get away with it because he was white and the victims were black.

******

For fear of being called a racist, many whites stay out of the politics surrounding blackness lacking the knowledge, the vocabulary, and maybe even the empathy to relate, and many blacks grow weary of always being the one to have to bring up the subject and unpacking all of the nuances that go along with it.  Honestly, does anyone have time to publish a 2,700 word think-piece about this every time the subject comes up at the water cooler or in a classroom setting?  I’ll admit, if the millennial Negro is the one who absolves their blackness, declaring independence from race ontological labels, I’ll pass.  If the “New Negro” c. 2014 is one who distances themselves, or attempts to procure enough capital to buy their independence from blackness and escape to whites only plantations in the Land of Post-Race, I’ll pass.

The contemporary black intellectuals of our day (postmodern black intellectualism?) are wrestling with this basic issue of blackness as did our predecessors in the Harlem Renaissance.  Moving away from touting the cultural aspects of blackness as blackness itself, many are wading into those murky waters of whiteness and determining what their blackness will be.  History has shown that DuBois assertion about the number one problem facing the 20th century will be the color line was prophetic in the least, yet one hundred years later, we’re not that much closer to truly solving that problem.

There’s always hope, maybe this will be the generation that finds the beauty in our differences, explore the joy of intersectionality celebrate what makes us unique to one another.  From there, move forward, repairing the wrongs so that all of us can walk together into the future.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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57 thoughts on “The Millennium Negro: The “New Black”

  1. I was with Morgan Freeman up unto a certain point (you really can’t condense black history into a single month, especially not the shortest month of the year), but I find ignoring the idea of race and racism is foolish if you ask me. Racism is a cancer on our country, and you don’t cure cancer by ignoring it or its causes or symptoms. You have to treat it, and that means talking about race and looking for multiple approaches to fix the system.

    Also, that Orania place looks like something out of a white supremacist dystopian nightmare! Why haven’t I heard of this place before? It sounds like something that racist activist guy who ignores the fact that he has sub-Saharan African ancestry would want to set up in Montana!

  2. What do you think would happen if the word “race” disappeared and no one ever referred to themselves as white or black again? As a Canadian, I’ve never understood the State’s fixation on dividing the country into races.

    1. @Anthea

      I think that’s Morgan Freeman’s sentiment, but to understand “race” as merely a word or a label I think misses how it is a system of how the world works. Race, even in the western context has worldwide connotations. Black Canadians are barely 3% of the national population and have in no way shape or form have made an inroads into the politics of the country in the same way that American blacks have. And, flat out, let’s remember, Canada doesn’t have the same long streak of chattel slavery of Africans in their country. The majority of blacks in Canada and their descendants thereof migrated their voluntarily–that’s not the case of those of us as the descendants of slaves in this country.

      1. I see what you’re saying, and I could be wrong, but I think another difference is that, from my experience in and out of the classroom, people don’t think of themselves as “blacks.” They’re Canadians whose family was originally from dadada, just like I’m a Canadian whose family originated from around Britain.

        Also, Canadian politics is more party based than American politics. If a non-European originating person decided to run, they’d get in, or not, because of people’s feelings surrounding the political party. I can’t speak for everyone, but for better or for worse, I always vote completely for the party and not the person.

      2. Also, I feel that if Raven Symone wants to not label herself, she has the right to do that. So I guess what I was asking more clearly is that: “If tomorrow everyone who you consider black told Oprah that they didn’t want to refer to themselves as black, what do you think the ramifications would be?”

      3. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you could summarize what you believe that point to be, and if it renders my inquiry moot, I’ll retract my question.

    2. Hi Anthea,

      For some reason I couldn’t reply to your last comments, but I know some Canadians that are Black (and they do refer to themselves as Black, or Black Canadian, or sometimes just Canadian…so maybe it just depends). You would know more by actually living there, and not saying Canada has the same history with race, but race still exists.

      Also, you asked what if everyone stopped calling themselves Black tomorrow? I think the better question would be why? (As if “being Black” or identifying as Black is the problem). That’s like someone writing an essay about feminism and someone saying, “well what if women stop identifying as women?”.

      I can’t assume your mindset, or intentions but that’s how the question came off to me (at least on some level).

      For the record, I’m not personally upset by Raven Simone or anyone identifying themselves how they choose (so we agree there) but I do get the point of this post. Some people can “afford” to some degree to separate from their Blackness, while others can not. Although I would add that I (personally) wouldn’t want to in most instances: Yes, see me as a human being, a writer, a woman, a Black woman…none of these things are bad. It’s just who I am, and it’s a good thing.

      But to each his/her own…

  3. Notice that no one who is “white” wants to talk about race because if there is any true and actual engagement on the subject, they might lose their jobs, careers, ect. In fact, the subject just keeps getting more complex.

    Give it a few more years and we will see all sorts of new racial identities. We heard of the “white hispanic” and pretty soon we will hear of the “white african” or something of that nature.

    Part of the problem with the idea of “blackness” is the people who don’t think, act, identify within the specific group construct are essentially excluded. One of my my half-white/half black cousins has been told he isn’t “black” enough when it comes to the culture. Apparently growing up in the suburbs removes that. My ex-girlfriend was told similar things.

    “When institutional and policy barriers still exist to perpetuate a cycle of poverty that overwhelmingly disaffects people of color, the argument of “personal responsibility” is rendered null and void.”

    Really? Personal responsibility is null and void?

    I’m half white/middle eastern and the institutional and policy barriers were so severe for my Armenian side of the family that only one of them survived the genocide. In one swipe, 2000+ years of familial resources, knowledge, skill sets, ect all gone. That’s the ultimate form of a barrier in terms of policy discrimination.

    If someone kills my family and refuses personal responsibility and blames “institutional and policy” barriers in society, you can bet that I’m going to call BS and seek vengeance and justice.

    1. You misunderstand what the author means by “personal responsibility is null and void”. He is specifically referring to the argument made by some that, if a black person wants to be successful, they need only apply themselves and work hard, like anyone else. This argument implies that if you are -not- successful, then you must not be working hard enough. What the author is saying is that institutionalized prejudice – that is, racism – has the effect of rendering it impossible for those who are the object of this prejudice to succeed regardless of how hard they work or what choices they make, and in that respect, personal responsibility – meaning the personal responsibility of the person for their lack of life success – is void. It does not at all mean what you have interpreted it to mean.

  4. Hard to argue with anything in this post. Over the summer I read the collected essays of james Baldwin, and he immediately became one of my top 3 favorite authors. I also live in Missouri and see what is happening in st. Louis. Mr. Baldwin basically predicted everything that is happening there back in the 1950s, including white peoples responses. I honestly don’t believe the white cop is going to be indicted for killing mike brown, and honestly as a white person if there are riots and violence I can’t say people shouldn’t have seen it coming. I think its heinous african american parents have to have what Mr. Baldwin called “the talk” with their sons about dealing with police. I also prescribe to his conclusion that the majority of people are stupid and won’t take the time to examine issues and evaluate them on their own.

  5. Love your voice! your article layout,your writing…now I wanna go finish a piece I started concerning…Who am I?♥jjf

    1. I enjoyed reading this article while at work. Personally, even though I am fully aware of the struggles of blacks in America, I tend to lose faith in the black community. I am black, but that doesn’t define me. So i can relate, somewhat, to what Raven is speaking on. However, why do we even take into consideration on what any celebrity says about social issues. I know for a fact its simply because of their “status” in America. Also, I’ve always felt that reparations for current blacks was wrong because none of us were slaves and have no right to accept money for our ancestor’s struggles. Plus, the culprits already got away with it. Now “niggas” (apologies to anyone who is offended by the word) ruin it for everybody. I know blacks get wrongfully accused and harassed but, i know for a fact a lot of blacks cause their own problems, then blame the cops for being racist. Government assistance is necessary but abused on a daily basis. The only way I see any change happening is by first changing the people in power. I’m not talking about Obama, I mean Congress. That means ignoring political parties and just voting for the individual who is “qualified” and perfect for the position. Then, we as whole (Americans), need to accept we have a serious problem and brainstorm on fixing it. I would go on but after editing/reading my comment I realized I’m not famous, so nobody cares. Random thought, ever notice why weed is considered worst than coke? You do know what race is notorious for smoking weed is right? Until you see how the government dictates almost everything blacks and other minorities are capable of doing, my words don’t mean a DAMN THING! Once again, great article and i agree with you about 70%. Peace!

  6. I love the idea of a ‘new black’. When I was growing up, mg parents drilled it into me that I had to be that much better than the equivalant caucasian, because they apparently always have the upper hand. Although racism is a massive problem in our world, I personally think that nowadays race does NOT give one any advantage when it comes to personal and professional opportunities. But to dismiss the problem of racism is dangerous. Great read.

  7. SO insightful! I was born in 1986 to an African American mother with Mississippi roots and an Afro Latino father with Honduras and other Afro/Spanish/Caribbean roots. I believe my bloodline flows back to the Congo and even to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. I don’t care how much money I make or how many countries I travel, I’m Black and I’m proud of my heritage, unashamed of my appearance, and refuse to divorce race from spirituality. People who transcend their “blackness”… hmm. I’d rather be connected to the struggle so that I’d stay humble and keep working in the right direction. Excellent read.

  8. I think the primary issue is past grievances and emphasis on “sins of the father.” It is a but racist to overuse race in the public realm. Identifying anyone as “guilty” of being white, even when their ancestors arent even from this country (let alone slave owners) is not jystice. It is injustice. To be frank, it is itself racist labelling.
    Martin Luther King Jr (to cite a symbolic example of a wider movement) succeeded because of forgiveness, not grievance.

    They say they “Millennials” are sekfush and self centered. Maybe. One benefit if that is that they are less tied down by past mistakes and ancestry. They dont feel ibliged to do what their parents did for work, worship like them, or vote like them.

    They accept gay marriage. They are far more apt to see the merot if individuals not simply groups. They put the past behind and look to the future.
    They forgive.
    Perhaps the Millennials simply see that more clearly than us older folks.

  9. Very interesting read. I agree with you about the danger of dismissing racism, and the danger of looking towards those who don’t necessarily have to face the many problems that come with racism and other deprivations as examples for moving ‘forward’. I think this is an idealistic way of viewing the word, that is, through the lens of celebrities, and in my opinion it is a great way to idealise and popularise celebrity culture – “they have risen above what the rest of us are still dwelling on”.
    After reading some of the comments above I feel that many have misunderstood what you are trying to say. Racism is an ongoing issue that should be dealt with. Of course the idea isn’t to grieve and dwell on the past, since that suggests a blaming game, but if we are still seeing these divisions between people in our societies, then clearly these mentalities have not changed. In fact, they have been carried through to our modern societies. They have grown, developed and weaved their way through social norms and what not. It is a present day issue, not one of the past. Ignoring it, or dusting it under a carpet with ‘the new black’ written on top of it will not change a thing.

  10. I agree being black shouldn’t be an excuse to not achieve anything. However I.don’t see why black or African Americans see it fit to say that they are not black or African. White celebrities or Americans are proud to say they are Irish, Italian, German etc. I don’t see why there is any news to deny a part of yourself even if you do not understand your cultural history or background. Rather it is incumbent on an individual to strive to learn of their pasts to improve their future. With all the talk of being American I find it funny that most Americans fail to realise that the American culture is a melting pot of different cultures. I also.wonder how the native American community feel about Americaness as we know it today, the few of them that are left?

  11. Very succint. I love your writing. I agree racism is a nasty thing. No one should be treated differently because their skin color is darker or lighter. I personally believe it should be embraced. No one should be made to feel ashamed of their skin. Black is beautiful and unique. Your skin glistens in the sun and you all look radiant and young well into your advanced years. Same with asians or hispanics/ latinos. We are different and that should be celebrated because our differences compliment each other rather than take away. I wish we lived in a post racial society where racial targeting is not present and “driving while …insert race here” was not a common practice. Hopefully we will live in a society where we are not seen as different races but unique, celebrated human beings.

  12. Reblogged this on The Vindication of Verbosity and commented:
    The author says, “I think it’s worth noting that money can afford a certain level of blindness to some of the everyday issues that pervade our everyday lives.”

    It’s more than that. Money is the ultimate trump card. If life were a poker game, the wealthy have 5 jokers every hand.

    If you don’t have money you have to gain social worth some other way: heritage, talent, intelligence, good looks, etc. All these things are social capital, but if you have enough money you don’t need any of the other things. If you have enough money, nothing else matters; you’ve got an automatic invitation to every social sphere in the world regardless of your race, gender, education, or heritage.

    The problem is once these “new wealthy blacks” have 5 jokers in their hand every deal, they want to go around saying suit doesn’t matter anymore.

    Oh, I beg to differ.

    If you were born a club into a poker game where 70% of the cards are diamonds, you aren’t going to be a part of very many winning hands. You’re going to find yourself discarded nearly every hand.

    Your only hope is to find a way to trump your suit and your face value — and in this world that is money.

    Money doesn’t end racism, it just makes it a non-issue for those who have it.

  13. I think it will be only a matter of time where some members of our community are faced with how others feel about them. Money has allowed people to reach a certain post racial society and it never matters until they are hit with a situation.However, its funny to me about this post racial society, they have not been watching the news.

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