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What Does It Mean to Be Black?

Posted on Oct 7, 2011

By Gwen Ifill

“Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now”
A book by Touré

“Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America”
A book by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

I am just old enough to remember when having someone call you black, rather than Negro, was considered a serious slur. Still, when it did occur, my parents taught me, even then, to say “thank you” in response. This turned out to be a highly effective way to disarm the insult and the insulter.


book cover


Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America


By Melissa V. Harris-Perry


Yale University Press, 392 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now


By Touré and Michael Eric Dyson


Free Press, 272 pages


Buy the book

In this way, I learned the power of not letting others decide how I would be defined. I did not need James Brown to tell me to be black and proud.

Decades later, Americans are still struggling with racial definitions. Is the president black or biracial? Are we Latino or Hispanic? Is the n-word an insult or an affectionate term? What does it mean to be authentically black? And does any of that matter anymore? Didn’t the 2008 election signal that the country that elected its first black president is now post-racial?

Two new books take radically different approaches to these questions of race introspection—one academic, the other anecdotal. Both are mature and serious works that seek to get us past our laziest assumptions about race. Each managed to expand my notion of what it means to be black in America, and why it matters.

The more readable and entertaining of the two is pop-culture journalist Touré’s “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” With liberal doses of personal experience, Touré demolishes the notion that there is only one way to be racially authentic.

He is, after all, a black man who went to prep school, jumps out of planes, interviews rock stars, raises biracial children and pretty much sets out to explode a new black-male stereotype every day. He is well aware of what it means to see someone cross the street as he approaches after sunset, but he resists assignment editors at music magazines who believe he is equipped only to write about rap. “Why’s blackness validated by a trip to jail,” he writes, “and challenged by a stint at Yale?”

Touré very specifically rejects the notion that America is now post-racial. Instead he makes an argument for what he calls post-blackness. America is not (and should not necessarily be) past race, he writes. But black people need to expand their notion of what it means to be black to include a new generation that embraces the “racial ambidexterity” defined by entertainers like Dave Chappelle and politicians like President Barack Obama.

But he skips lightly over the unique experiences of African-American women. For that, it’s better to turn to “Sister Citizen,” in which Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, applies a social scientist’s rigor, complete with focus groups and regression analysis.

Escaping the bounds of false definition, she writes, is a tougher task for black women than for men. Throughout history, they have often been shoehorned into three constraining stereotypes: the nurturing mammy, the lascivious Jezebel and the stiff-necked, unyielding matriarch. Each of these archetypes, she argues, imposes a crazy quilt of limitation on anyone striving to decide for herself who she is. “Strong is the default category for describing black women,” she writes. “But the myth leaves them sicker, less satisfied and more burdened than any other group.”

Harris-Perry’s central premise is that African-American women are “misrecognized,” not only by society but often by themselves. This misrecognition morphs into stunted expectation that in turn breeds shame and racism.

But Harris-Perry does not hold white people solely responsible. Like Touré’s, her work is introspective. She directs pointed critiques at black churches and at the civil rights movement, which relied on women to organize and execute, but seldom welcomed them to the stage.

To see long excerpts from “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” at Google Books, click here.

Both books cover an important new front in America’s continuing battles over black and white. It turns out there are dozens of shades of gray. That gray is rooted in misunderstanding, misapprehension and misrecognition, too. Each of these provides unique challenges, and neither Touré nor Harris-Perry seems particularly convinced in the end that Americans are prepared to tackle these redefinitions.

To see long excerpts from “Sister Citizen” at Google Books, click here.

I can’t say I am, either. But at least now I know what my parents were up to when they told me to thank the insulters. Getting to define oneself can be the ultimate victory. But to fully appreciate that win, we first have to acknowledge the limitations we have placed on ourselves.

Gwen Ifill is a PBS correspondent and the author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”
© 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group


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By JMD, October 10, 2011 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

Gwen Ifill,      10/10/2011
          “Smiling Faces Sometimes”

    James Brown was a part of the same effort to
“fight” racism as were Frederick Douglass,Martin
Luther King,Jr.,Juanita W. Goggins and many
others.You dismiss one individual,among many,is
    Getting us past our assumptions about race,is
tantamount to wanting to convert everyone to one
    Would you rather be white,being deceived and
    Thanking you for this opportunity to comment -
    James M. de Laurier

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By Greg Whitener, October 10, 2011 at 11:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What it means to be Black is to know that your presence in this country is a visual “stone in the sandal” of those that mythologize America’s foundation and who deify the founding fathers. At its root Blackness is a curious mix of rebellion and survival. It can’t be defined by appearance or action but by living with the knowledge that we who are the opposite of “white”( pure clean Godly..) have defined rebellion in this culture by simply living well and pursuing happiness without anyone’s permission. We accept our role as Ham in this culture knowing the propaganda to be false. We laugh at the dominant cultures drunken nakedness and sidestep the unjust punishment for the sin of living without the shame that the script assigns to us.

A phillipino woman asked me a few hours ago, why I didn’t think much of Columbus Day. “You not like Spanish?” she said. I laughed. I could have talked about his role in Genocide or the Slave trade, but I didn’t feeling very Black at the time nor did I feel like teaching history. I just said “He was Italian”. and changed the subject.It’s Okay. I’ll be black again tomorrow.

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By drbhelthi, October 10, 2011 at 2:20 am Link to this comment

” - - rather like that old time-heals-all-wounds adage.”  felicity

The intensity of feeling engendered by hate does not seem to be ameliorated.

Nor does the old adage seem to work for the clan that call themselves “Jews”,
which Hebrew scholars say they are not.  Several thousand years later, the
trickled-into-miscegenation, Zionist conclave is still at it.  The money and
power combination seem to be their “life-blood”.

Take the Rothschild chief puppet, Bernanke, and the (non-US) Federal Reserve,
for one basic example:  “Listen to what I say, ignore what I do”.

Folk of the genuine, Jewish belief are only puppetry, misused by the Zionists,
as U.S. Soldierdom is misused by the US MILITARY/industrial complex. 
Either entity, manipulated by a double-handful of satanist-types.

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By felicity, October 9, 2011 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

Years ago a group of sociologists studied the
‘plight’ of the Black in America.  They concluded,
among other things, that it would take three
generations for the effects of being Black in White
America to disappear.

Specifically, from the end of (legal) Jim Crow laws,
Brown vs Board of Education, 1954, until roughly 2014
enough time would have transpired for Blacks to think
of themselves as actually equal to Whites - rather
like that old time-heals-all-wounds adage.

It will be interesting to see if they were right. 
And, I recall what Malcolm X said many years ago when
asked by an interviewer if X had one wish, what would
it be, “To be born White.”  I’ve often reflected on
those words when ‘race’ is at the forefront of the

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By c.hanna, October 9, 2011 at 1:14 am Link to this comment

“But to fully appreciate that win, we first have to acknowledge the limitations we have placed on ourselves.”

That is very true. We should also acknowledge when we do have real limitations. Let’s face it, almost every human being has one limitation or another. It might be better to acknowledge those limitations we THINK we have but don’t and acknowledge those limitations that maybe are real and we cannot change.

Even with limitations people can learn to navigate around them.

But no matter how good a person gets at overcoming fake limitations and learns to navigate around those that are real, there will always be people doing everything they possibly can to make your life harder.

I’ve noticed in the media AND on the many comment threads on the internet that more people are bashing and kicking (metaphorically) those that are “failing”. It is getting soooo bad. There is no shame with these people; they openly and many times more subtly have turned the tables implicating the victims, those that are down and out, the poor, those that can’t find jobs (usually they are lazy or too stupid to CREATE a job out of thin air) and so on…Then the tirades against the Muslims.

Oh, it is so bad. As the economic crisis continues on and worsens the whole theme (or maybe its a meme?)is now about people taking responsibility for themselves. No matter that 22% of the population (thats conservative) are unemployed now. IT’S THEIR FAULT because they ARE THE BIG LOSERS IN THIS WHOLE CHARADE.

I think most people try hard to take responsibility. It’s just most of us are not Doug Casey (thank God). He’s that big investor. Go read a bit on his site, you’ll know what I mean.

Then you have The Daily Bell and other Libertarians pushing for total free market (a nice ideology, but not possible with 7 billion people). Anthony Wile, the owner of that site (another investor) talks about how we need to go back to tribalism. smile)  I mean, he is welcome to go join up with the Taliban or build a hut in the Amazon.

I’m a believer that we are all part of Web; humans, animals, plants, earth, etc. The people of the Daily Bell, the Doug Casey’s of the world, etc, like to think their own “success” and wealth was created all by themselves. They look at themselves as little islands, when reality proves that almost nobody gets wealthy on their own. There is NO SUCH THING as an independent human…except if you live in the mountains by yourself..who’d want to do that?

People that find their niche…I’m glad for them…But don’t trash everyone else. Don’t blame 50 million people that its their own fault they don’t have health care; and if they would just be MORE IN CONTROL of their life then perhaps they would have health care.

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By Cliff Carson, October 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm Link to this comment

Racism exists, there is no doubt about that.  I do not intend to argue that it doesn’t.  What the article infers is a claim that the major reason there is a higher percentage of black people in prison, losing houses, or anything white people suffer, is basically due to latent racism.  I think that Lewis Farrakhan had the right approach:

“The Black man needs to stop blaming Whitey for his shortcomings and improve his family attitude.”  You may remember his saying this in a speech during the Million Man March.

From the critique one of the books:

Harris-Perry’s central premise is that African-American women are “misrecognized,” not only by society but often by themselves.  But Harris-Perry does not hold white people solely responsible.

From my perspective:

One of the greatest arguments against “It’s the White Man’s fault”,at least for me, is the Delaney Family of North Carolina.

This family was the result of a child, a daughter, from a White Plantation owner and a Woman slave.  He refused to deny his child and stated that his children would not be slaves.  He then freed all his slaves and publicly recognized the little girl as his daughter.  One of his neighbors saw the actions of the Plantation owner and as a result freed his slaves.

A young male slave taking the name of Delaney from his former “Master” the second Plantation owner, ultimately married the mixed race daughter of the First Plantation owner.  They had 10 children.

Rather than blame “Whitey” for the former travails, Mr. Delaney raised all 10 children to believe that their future relied directly on themselves and he told them they must learn everything they could.  All the children were excellent students and all of them received College scholarship offers , but Mr. Delaney had his children refuse the offers, telling them that they had to earn the money needed to finance their College education.  All 10 of them graduated College and all 10 of the them became professionals such as Dentists, Politicians, Writers,Educators.  They were children of the marriage of former slaves.

The family developed wealth and respect Nationally.

As an alternative this family could have wallowed in pity and never set lofty goals, and then worked to achieve them.

Sadie and Bessie Delaney after retiring from their careers became writers and published their last book together “The First Hundred Years” at the ages of 104 and 108.

This is a story that needs to be told to children -Black and White - as a perfect example of self development.

When human beings are born they have no choice concerning their origin, but they can go about overcoming these often humble beginnings.  Blaming someone or another race is a losing course of action toward taking control of one’s life.

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By diamond, October 8, 2011 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

What the black ‘radical’ Eldridge Cleaver had to say about this is still every bit as true today as when he wrote it in ‘Soul on Ice’:

“When the black man began his search for self he first became intensely aware of his status as a ‘nigger’. Of course, I had always known I was black but I’d never really stopped to take stock of what I was involved in. It is even more true that the white worker has never seen what his true position is in American society. He too is a ‘nigger’ and the discrimination against him is as deliberate and systemic, as devastating in its consequences as that practiced for so long against his black brother.”

The great illusion of the white American working class is that they are free and have a higher status than ‘niggers’. But, in fact, to those in America’s elites all workers are niggers and every government policy they press for and pay for proves it. The entire American national narrative is built on a myth of liberty and equality while erasure of the working class from its history, whether slave or free, is the norm. That’s why politicians only ever refer to the ‘middle class’ as if that covers firefighters, waitresses, construction workers, truck drivers and all the others who are not middle class. Meaning the 70% of Americans both black and white who are working class.

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By zonth_zonth, October 8, 2011 at 1:42 pm Link to this comment

“I learned the power of not letting others decide how I would be defined. I did not need James Brown to tell me to be black and proud”

Cheers Gwenn.  As it is obvious that pride is a charicature of someone actually lacking self worth.  The less promise and confidence one has, the more imperative the need for Pride.  At the core of pride is self-rejection.  Pride is predicated on an ‘imaginary self’.  It further sacrifices individuals to cluster and follow. People will “proudly” follow a cause (Nationalism), or leader (Obama, Palin, Stalin, Napolean etc)

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By drbhelthi, October 8, 2011 at 8:50 am Link to this comment

“My position was all that sounded good and felt good but that what actually makes a more achieving Graduate is the attitude of the student and teacher, nothing else.  Would anyone agree with that?”  Cliff Carson

I spent my first year in psychology in Title I ESEA schools. Out of my eleven years in public
schools, it was one of the most rewarding, if not the most. The remainder was in integrated
schools.  In my experience, the attitude of the student and teacher are basic to a successful
classroom.  That “nothing else” contributes, is a bit impinged for me.  Ones orientation to
other humans is basically important, as is the desire to learn.

As mentioned by Gwen Ifill, “ - - my parents taught me, even then, to say “thank you” in
response.”  The level of self-confidence that one brings to the public schools is a factor of basic importance.  An intense feeling of inferiority is not overcome by the attitude of the teacher, regardless of racial background.  Although, the attitude of the teacher can make the feeling less painful.  Similarly, a self-confident pupil who displays racial animosity is a continuous problem in the classroom, regardless of racial background.

“- in my opinion, what we are seeing is a result of the attitude of the individual - not just the
color of the skin. I realize that it is not politically correct to point this out,- - “  Cliff Carson
The stronger the reason for pointing it out – calling attention to the artificial and invalid
concept of political correctness, thrust upon us by the disinformative news-media over the
more recent years.  And, reinforced by the political shills of today, whose numbers seem to me to be increasing.

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By Don Thomas, October 8, 2011 at 8:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr Carson, Studies show despite a person’s level of education, motivation or best intentions, mitigating factors, such as racism and discrimmination by a majority society can and does purposely thwart the best intentions and highest ambitions of those in the minority. How else is power maintained? You mean those black research scientists who were recently given significantly fewer research funds than their equally qualified white counterparts had some kind of bad attitude? Do you mean a more educated and positive minded James Byrd and Troy Davis would not have been executed by racists? It’s not your lack of political correct you should apologize for, it’s your denial of and blindness to the racist elephant in the room.  Get real.

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By Cliff Carson, October 8, 2011 at 5:20 am Link to this comment

Many years ago as a young Arkansas white man, I used to spend about 30 minutes each day discussing the problem of education with a Black Lady who was a Teacher in the Local Black School.  It was called the Negro School then.

The crux of our discussion was whether an integrated school would yield better graduates academically than segregated schools.  Her position was that it would and mine was that it depended on the student and the Teacher’s attitudes- white or black.

Her declaration was that an integrated school would change the social psyche of all students and that the result would be a more confident student giving the teacher a better teaching environment with the end result a more educated achieving high school Graduate.  Now that School Integration is a fact for the past half century, is that position proven?

My position was all that sounded good and felt good but that what actually makes a more achieving Graduate is the attitude of the student and teacher, nothing else.  Would anyone agree with that?

So when we look today at the disparity of prison populations and more black guards at “Occupy Wall Street” than black protesters , in my opinion, what we are seeing is a result of the attitude of the individual - not just the color of the skin.

I realize that it is not politically correct to point this out, and therein, I think, is a part of the problem.

A former Roman Emperor once opined “Enough of what a Good man should be, be one”.

Now there is an idea to take to heart

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By Peter Knopfler, October 7, 2011 at 7:23 pm Link to this comment

Less than 200 people present Troy DAVIS EXECUTION

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By melpena, October 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I will read both books because they both sound very interesting.  I agree that black women have it hardest because of the contradictory sterotypes which everyone seems to believe.  Hopefully these books and such articles as Gwen’s will foster intelligent conversation.

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By Jason Pacifico, October 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

Sign the Petition for a “Guaranteed Living Wage Job Bill” for 25 million unemployed workers on

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By EmileZ, October 7, 2011 at 4:08 am Link to this comment

Ice t - Funky Gripsta

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By EmileZ, October 7, 2011 at 3:56 am Link to this comment

Cynthia McKinney tells RT America that the US needs to take care of domestic issues. The financial debt debate has many wondering what is going on with the US financial situation. Many are demanding that the US stop spending on the wars and bring that revenue home to help with domestic issues. Does it make senses to spend billions of dollars on our defense when we are so close to default? Cynthia McKinney, former US Representative and target of O’ Reilly, tells us what’s really going on.

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By EmileZ, October 7, 2011 at 3:46 am Link to this comment

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” - James Brown

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By EmileZ, October 7, 2011 at 3:35 am Link to this comment

“More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.”

-The Sentencing Project

“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander told a standing room only house at the Pasadena Main Library this past Wednesday, the first of many jarring points she made in a riveting presentation.”

“The study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that whites made up the majority of the 2.5 million foreclosures completed between 2007 and 2009—about 56 percent—but that minority communities had significantly higher foreclosure rates.

While about 4.5 percent of white borrowers lost their homes to foreclosure during that period, black and Latino borrowers had 7.9 and 7.7 percent foreclosure rates, respectively. That means that blacks and Latinos were more than 70 percent more likely to lose their homes to foreclosure during that period, the study found.”

Thank You!!!

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