Claude McKay, Jamaican poet and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance

As a black woman educated outside of the great land expanse known as the continental United States, I am confounded by the citizenry’s blindness to blackness beyond their shores. I contend with this ignorance in daily life, but it is especially highlighted during Black History Month. The takeaway is a message of resistance against oppression, and if you are at all sentient, you realize that the injustice continues even though there have been meaningful strides made. Are some of the ways we observe this festival in themselves oppressive? Every year the focus is on the same few civil rights leaders, whose photos are shared in black-and-white even though color photography existed during some of their lifetimes. Still, black-and-white creates an illusion that these things happened long ago. It bothers me that movies on rotation during February often depict situations in which black people’s respectability succeeds in curing whites of the character flaw known as racism. I am most disturbed that Blackness is primarily presented through a mainland US lens, even though of the 12 million people who were stolen from Africa and shipped across the Atlantic, less than 400,000 ended up here. The defining rootlessness and exile of Blackness are experienced by all across the African diaspora. Those who ended up in Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and even Africans on the mainland who were subject to the violence of separating their nations along arbitrary, imaginary borders with no consideration for existing traditional boundaries also bear the weight of dispossession. We share the oppression, and we share in the triumphs of a too-slow overcoming.

A worker fumigates for mosquitoes during the construction of the Panama Canal. Mosquito-borne illnesses like Malaria and Yellow Fever were leading causes of death among canal workers.

The first place I knew as home is in an African-descended community in the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica. A few white compatriots own much more of the country’s resources than most black people combined. Jamaicans today suffer from police brutality, poverty, colorism, and racism, and we are always looking for a way out. Concurrent to the Great Migration of southern blacks from the Jim Crow South, there was a black exodus northward from the Caribbean to New York and Florida. The late Cicely Tyson’s parents were among those who migrated to Harlem after their ancestors survived the crossing from the mainland to Nevis. There was also a movement of Caribbean bodies westward to Central America. They worked for American interests on the Panama Canal and the banana plantations, mainly in Costa Rica and Honduras. Dismemberment was the fate of many, and thousands were killed without recourse in the aggression on nature and humankind that we hail as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The commodification of black bodies that began in the 1600s was not an American national project. It was very much global, and it continues today. Whether native-born or immigrant, the Global North has always accepted black labor but is yet to consider us citizens.

“The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.”

Marcus “Mosiah” Garvey

A student of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, recognized Pan-Africanism as essential but not many people who celebrate him this month realize that the liberation of all black people in the African diaspora is interdependent. The violence of borders and nationalism continues to divide us. I have recently been exposed to movements that seek to create a hierarchy of blacks in the US, placing immigrants like myself at a lower rung than so-called American Descendants of Slavery. These movements center the US as a cradle of Blackness and focus on othering black immigrants rather than fighting to escape the prison-of-mind that is white supremacy. In this effort to create an authoritative American blackness, they miss opportunities to forge links between black American, black immigrant, indigenous, and Latin-American communities.

We need affirmations and representation, but the heroism that perpetuates Black History Month narratives seems to be sending the message that you have to be heroic to be black. Is it allowing us any vulnerability? Is this causing white people to heap even more injustices upon us because we are the picture of resilience? I love strong black leads as much as the next person, but I do not want you to see me as superhuman. I wish white people would realize that a cumulative trauma exists and that it is a residue of the many overcomings. When I speak to my white liberal friends, it often feels like a transference of weight. They tell me about their relatives who are, sadly, Trump supporters, about their neighbors with thin blue line flags and that their colleagues just don’t get it. They seem to be saying these things to convince me that they, too, are oppressed and that the political variance in their circles is akin to me contending with white supremacy for the entirety of my life. A friend described it best when she said they try to turn black women into their mammies/therapists and dumping grounds for their problematic behavior. Do Black History Month narratives allow us the opportunity to be soft, to be vulnerable, to let go of the self-awareness we carry through life, to tap into the expansive and reckless freedom that others take for granted?

For this peculiar tint that paints my house 
Peculiar in an alien atmosphere 
Where other houses wear a kindred hue, 
I have a stirring always very rare 
And romance-making in my ardent blood, 
That channels through my body like a flood.

.

I know the dark delight of being strange, 
The penalty of difference in the crowd, 
The loneliness of wisdom among fools, 
Yet never have I felt but very proud, 
Though I have suffered agonies of hell, 
Of living in my own peculiar cell. 

from Claude McKay’s “My House”

As an unruly, autistic, queer, black, immigrant woman who is faithful to her individuality, I exist at the intersection of several spaces where I am the only or one of a few. Still, people most often see (or not see) me because of my house- my Blackness. White people often reach out to me and choose to leave the conversation with no evidence of having taken my input to heart. Specifically, last summer, I joined a mailing list with a group of women in Washington’s food systems. My first contribution was about migrant labor, specifically the pandemic outbreaks on local farms, and a leader contacted me to discuss programming on the topic. When the meeting finally happened, it began as an awkward general-purpose conversation where they tried to get me to instruct them on being more anti-racist in general.

I redirected them to the meeting’s purpose as they had initially proposed. They were wholly unprepared and uninformed, so I told them what I was thinking, and one marveled that there were migrant farmworkers who were black and not from Mexico while another concluded it didn’t tie in with women. I explained that women do migrant farm work, hire migrant workers, and eat food. She still did not see any possible positive outcome. Why were they, then, meeting with me? We concluded that we would conduct a panel discussion in January and that they were to reach out to connections and come up with a format. They never got back to me directly during those two months but announced a week ago that they were pausing programming. That meeting was a waste of my time, and I struggle to believe that they intended it for any other purpose.

Marcus “Mosiah” Garvey, Jamaican National Hero and Pan-Africanist visionary

More recently, a white man sent me a link (without commentary or explanation) to an article about the proposed “Justice for Black Farmers” bill. I replied, expressing my support for the bold template but criticizing its failure to address the continued exploitation of migrant black farm workers who, every year, lend labor to our mammoth food system. He was looking for jubilation, but I did not have that. The work of undoing white supremacy is always intersectional, and any measure which leaves behind such a significant chunk of black farmers is oppressive. His reply used the words “temporary” and “foreign.” It highlighted that we rarely consider Blackness unless it relates to people descended from those who the various colonial projects enslaved in the United States.

Let us celebrate our canonized giants in their full humanity. Let us honor the black men, women, and people beyond the binary who have contributed to the United States’ black history. Let us acknowledge that we are only one region in the Americas, and let us hold space for the other survivors of the crossing. Recognizing each other is the first step towards the liberation of our minds. It will help form bonds to better our black present and equip us to realize freedom’s collective dream.

“We protest against any punishment inflicted upon a Negro with severity, as against lighter punishment inflicted upon another of an alien race for like offense, as an act of prejudice and injustice, and should be resented by the entire race.” -Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, 1920

shellieann

2 Replies to “Look Beyond These United States For Pictures Of Blackness”

  1. Love the article, thank you! When we open our eyes (read book or two) then maybe we will realize that there is soooo much more blackness(African) in the world than the little bit we are allowed to discuss over here in this little corner of the earth.

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