When we talk about black people, black culture, black politics, or black music, there’s an elephant in the room, according to Michelle Wright, professor of African American studies at Northwestern University.
“Exactly how are we defining blackness?” says Wright. “When we talk about black people, I always want to ask, well, how are we defining it?”
Wright will explore the definition of “blackness” during a free lecture at the Evanston Public Library this Tuesday, Oct. 8. She’s the first among three speakers in a yearlong series of lectures exploring African-American culture, in partnership with Northwestern’s Humanities Institute.
Called “Blackness When You Least Expect It,” Wright’s lecture takes up the question of what “blackness” actually means. It’s a question she’s been thinking about for years, and she recently finished a book on the subject, called The Physics of Blackness: Rethinking the African Diaspora in the Postwar Era. The book is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2014.
“What I discovered is that ‘blackness’ is not a what, it’s not a thing that’s embedded in our bodies,” she says. “‘Blackness’ is a when and a where.”
In the United States, at least, most people understand the term “black” to mean people who have descended from slaves, whose ancestors lived through Jim Crow laws and moved toward freedom through the civil rights movement, she says.
But, today, Wright says, that definition doesn’t necessarily speak to her students. When she asks them how they would define “blackness,” their eyes light up, she says—because it’s a question many of them have, too.
Many of her students have one white parent, as she does, Wright says. Others have a black Caribbean parent and a black Nigerian parent, or a black African-American parent and a black Brazilian parent. Those are not forms of “blackness” that are traditionally included in African-American studies, according to Wright.
“We have to update our definition of ‘blackness,’” she says. “I want us to start rethinking all kinds of identities. Rather than saying there’s only one way to be black…[we need] to understand that it’s considerably more fluid than that.”
One example of “blackness when you least expect it” happened in President Barack Obama’s lineage, she says. Wright remembers reading a column by historian Debra Dickerson, who wrote in 2007 that Obama wasn’t “black,” as we traditionally understand it, because his father was from Kenya, and not a descendant of slaves. However, researchers from Ancestry.com later announced that they believe that Obama’s white mother descended from at least one slave in colonial Virgina.
This back and forth about Obama only proves that “blackness” is more complicated than we think, Wright says.
“People are not produced by linear histories. They’re produced by a very complex tangle of histories,” she says. “I want us to start rethinking all kinds of identities, rather than saying there’s only one way to be black.”
Asked how she defines “racism,” Wright says she believes that definition is more complex, too.
“Racism, to me, it’s not something that you are, unless you’re stone cold KKK,” she says. “For most people, racism is something that we do, in certain circumstances, and that we don’t do in others.”
For example, when people read about black violence, they often read it as something that specifically black people do, Wright says—even though there are plenty of examples of white violence.
“When you see a white homeless person on the street, when you find out about another white male serial killer, we don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m afraid of white men.’ With whiteness, we don’t homogenize it,” she explains. “But there is no one formula. Black people are human and they cover all sorts of diversity.”
Wright’s talk starts at 7 p.m. in the community room of the main library, 1703 Orrington Ave.