A New Black renaissance is afoot. Well, I think.
In April during an interview with Oprah, super producer Pharrell Williams christened himself a New Black, 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.” Pharrell’s comments were met with equal parts side-eye and praise across the internet (Feminista Jones created the hilariously on-point hashtag #whatkindofblackareyou that set Twitter aflame for 24 hours). People were curious, if a bit confused. What exactly was a New Black, and who appointed Pharrell king?
Then, earlier this month, actress Raven-Symone declared: “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m not an African American, I’m an American.” Many said her statement reeked of New Blackness. Once again, Twitter boomed with contempt: How dare Raven not recognize her race! Then Black-ish, the new ABC sitcom, became a thing and got people talking about what being black meant to them (the show portrays a family struggling to identify with its past while making sense of the present).
For some black folk, the messages cut deep. It wasn’t just silly statements by out-of-touch celebrities or just a TV show about an affluent black family; it was a pushback against personal truths: how do you choose to identify, and at whose cost?
In an attempt to make sense of it all, I spoke with Michael Arceneaux, culture writer and founder of The Cynical Ones, Stephanye Watts, self-proclaimed New Black and proprietress of iso14below, and Kara Brown, a staff writer for Jezebel. Our conversation appears below.
Stephanye Watts: My history with the term “New Black” began in 2009. The Brooklyn Museum was in the middle of their Black List exhibit and my best friend and I went to check it out. There was a station in the museum where you could record your thoughts on the show and blackness. Never shying away from the opportunity to talk about black stuff, we made a video. In it, we talked about this new crop of black people arising that we called the “New-New Negro,” a play on the term “New Negro” coined by icon Alain Locke. For us, New New Negro meant that you were a person who, by race, was black, but didn’t live inside the confines of the stereotypical notion of what being black meant. We paid the due homage to Pharrell, Kelis, Santigold, etc in the vid and posted it to YouTube where it still lives. My way of expressing blackness wasn’t the norm in Atlanta, where I just moved from, so the day I got to NYC, I felt like I could finally be myself—New Black.
Cut to 2014 and Pharrell is on Oprah and out of nowhere, he starts giving a sermon about being a New Black. I’m one-thousand percent sure he never saw my video, but it was pretty epic that he was saying the things we had said five years before and how I still feel today. I’m all excited, calling folks and then I started to see the backlash on Twitter. At this point, I’d become familiar with the antics of the Angsty Blacks of the internet, but I honestly didn’t expect the anger to be so fierce or carry on to today where any black celeb that isn’t yelling “kill whitey” is labeled New Black. I just couldn’t understand how something that meant freedom to me meant to others that I wasn’t “down”.
Michael Arceneaux: Pharrell’s definition of New Black was not for people who grew up identifying more with Jane’s Addiction than Jodeci or anything else that speaks to “I’m not like the other black folks, but I’m still black.” For clarity, when Pharrell appeared on Oprah to explain his idea of New Black, he said, “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.”
Fuck that fake Yoda bullshit. And fuck it even more now in the wake of recent events. Pharrell was not sticking up for individuality; he was condemning those far more informed about the role racism plays in the average black person’s life. Unfortunately, we don’t all have the luxury of residing in his tax bracket and becoming detached from the black experience. And respectfully, we don’t all share your background either, Stephanye.
More importantly: When discussing race and racism, you need to look at things from the collective. Anecdotes mean nothing—especially when compared to data that proves just how much race still matters.
Kara Brown: I think what bothers me most about this idea of a New Black is the use of that adjective. Of course, “new” doesn’t always mean “better,” but the implication is certainly that that new thing has somehow been improved upon. Listening to them word salad through conversations about race, I can’t help but feel like the Pharrells and the Ravens think they’ve reached some sort of Blackness Enlightenment that the rest of us are still waiting on.
And what’s ridiculous about that, is that living beyond the stereotypes of what a black person is supposed to be and do and look like is not at all new. Most black people don’t live within the confines of a “stereotypical black experience” because it is a stereotype. Outside, perhaps, of someone who explicitly denies their race, I think it’s dangerous to say that some people are “blacker” than others because it necessarily suggests that there is a specific way to be black. I am loving the show itself, but the title of Black-ish bothers me for that exact reason.
Jason Parham: As Michael said, people like Pharrell, Raven-Symone, and Jay Z are in a very different tax bracket and can afford to navigate the world much differently than a large portion of the black population. And yet that doesn’t change reality: Jordan Davis still gets shot, blacks still get arrested at higher rates for selling or possessing drugs than whites (even though whites use drugs at the same frequency), professor Ersula Ore still gets violently accosted by campus police. The world still spins despite this New Black mentality. Having a positive mindset is great, but there are very real and very deadly truths that persists—and being ignorant to them serves no one.
Pharrell says in his interview, “There are certain people who allow the delusion in the mirror, in their own mirrors, to become issues...I recognize that there are issues. We get judged on our skin...I don’t allow that to run my life.” But then, just recently in Ebony, Pharrell acknowledges the ugliness happening in Ferguson and to black lives across the country, and how perhaps these people are not as fortunate as him in dictating who “runs” what. He said, “I don’t talk about race since it takes a very open mind to hear my view, because my view is the sky view. But I’m very troubled by what happened in Ferguson.” Huh?
Stephanye Watts: The wildest thing of it all is that everyone labeled New Black is blacker and more down than most. I mean for chrissake, Angsty Black Twitter labeled Erykah Badu New Black because of her tweets about Ferguson and she’s the reason most of the women bashing her are wearing their hair natural! Just because my emotions aren’t a slave to whatever foolery white people are up to that day, doesn’t negate all of the work I pour into the race daily. No one is saying that racism and inequalities don’t exist, but New Black is saying that whatever silliness white people engage in doesn’t impact who we are or want to be. It’s like the wise words of Brooklyn’s poet laureate Lil Cease, “How you thinkin’ that your cream can affect my team?!” New Blacks will be black and excellent no matter what obstacles are thrown our way.
So before folk try to slap some scarlet letter on our chests, it would behoove them to look inside themselves and see what they’re actually doing to further the race besides yelling at white people on Twitter who are ignoring them anyway.
Kara Brown: My existence has been, in many ways, very privileged. I’ve always recognized that my experience is atypical among the larger black population, but I have never thought that it made me particularly different from other black people. Their problems are still my problems—both figuratively and literally, as Michael pointed out. There are plenty of issues that disproportionally affect blacks that I will likely never personally experience, but that doesn’t make them any less important or less real. So trying to dismiss black people’s responses to racism and racist institutions with talk about colorblindness or “it’s just your mentality,” is both incorrect and wildly irresponsible.
What all these New Blacks fail to realize is that they’re attempting reframe the so-called black experience, when what they should be doing is working to expand our view of it.
Michael Arceneaux: Systematic racism is real and it is damaging. There is ample amount of evidence spanning just about every facet of society. You can live your life through blinders if you so choose to. Likewise, no one is telling anyone to act as if they can’t overcome certain obstacles. However, if you dare to not only deny the role racism plays in present society for black people collectively, but to place yourself above those that do, you deserved to be damned. Repeatedly.
If you can see what is happening to black people in this country right now and still not maintain any nominal sense of community, you are a part of the problem. Period. And if you’re a black celebrity doing it, you’re an embarrassment to the legacy of those black stars who used their platform to combat racism, not recite its talking points like a brainless cheerleader.
As for, “New Black is saying that whatever silliness white people engage in doesn’t impact who we are or want to be”: Good for you, but it still impacts how much money you can make; whether or not you can vote; get hired; how likely you are to be pulled over, or in some cases, shot in cold blood by some coward with a badge; or in Pharrell’s case, how long it might take you to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 because these days black music sells much better with a white throat.
And it’s not “kill whitey,” it’s death to racism.
At one point do you stop putting prefixes on black and prove your point by just existing?
Jason Parham: Stephanye’s words do resonate with me. When she said, “I just couldn’t understand how something that meant freedom to me meant to others that I wasn’t down.” So let’s get at the more troubling issue here: this idea that black people must act and talk and walk in unison. And by not doing so, we are less black. It’s an ugly belief that we somehow measure blackness in protests, Malcolm X trivia, Soul Train dance moves, and the affinity one has for Love Jones. These experiences are very real, too: the film Dear White People proves as much; even the recent incident with Russell Wilson’s teammates saying he wasn’t black enough highlights this on-going litmus test.
Stephanye, is Kara right, should New Blacks—if we are, in fact, recognizing the label as a real thing—work on expanding the black experience, not reframing and limiting it?
Stephanye Watts: Jason, as the sole New Black here, I wanted to quickly respond to everyone’s comments before answering your question because everyone is riled up over an incorrect definition of what New Black is.
I find it so interesting that New Blacks are all described as wealthy, out-of-touch black folk. The embodiment of the meaning of New Black, in a racial context, are my friends and people I grew up with around the way, in the hood. When Pharrell said New Black was a mentality, he was also right! The people of Ferguson/St. Louis are the perfect example of what New Black means to me, how Alain Locke described it in his 1920s essay, and what Pharrell is saying now. Tracy Morgan summed it up perfectly in his memoir I Am The New Black when he said, “New Black is trying.”
That’s all it is. New Black is acknowledging the ills of this country—not ignoring like everyone is saying—but finding a way (mobilizing, voting) or making one (Ferguson October, Black Panther Party Free Clinic) in our own way. To quote Morgan again, he says, “I’m not about to jump up on a soapbox blaming society and the economy and the white-man government of the United States for all of the hardships in my life (you bastards already know what you did). Seriously, hasn’t all that been said already? Don’t we all know that shit by now? We do, right?”
Like I said initially, I do not have the luxury to sit on Twitter or Wordpress and lash out about how this country continues to demoralize and kill us with no remorse. They know—most of them know, the others are blinded by the American dream myth—and could care less. Knowing that, who has time to wait or ask this country for anything? New Black is about action. It’s saying, “White people don’t care, so let me do some self-care until they can’t ignore us any longer.” Look at the civil rights movement. Marching and lobbying was great! It changed policy. However, in the meantime and in between time, these black communities were operating self-sufficiently and in 2014 still do. That is the heart of New Black.
Kara Brown: I’d just like to say that this that definition doesn’t sound particularly new to me. That just sounds like a certain type of black person who has existed forever.
Stephanye Watts: Kara, you just made my point. This is why I don’t understand why there is so much blacklash about this whole New Black thing. There have been black people like this since Reconstruction, so why is everyone acting like Pharrell isn’t saying anything that Garvey or Malcolm X haven’t said before? It’s all Black DIY rhetoric. There is a lot of emphasis on the word “new” and I think that’s where people are getting stuck. I briefly mentioned it before, but the term New Negro was stamped in the 20s. Actually, Booker T Washington edited a book called A New Negro for a New Century in 1900. New Black is just a rip off of New Negro, a one-hundred year old term that still defines a group of people within our race.
In regards to measuring blackness, I think people are making it a bit deeper than it really is. I saw so many arguments on social media about Black-ish with black people asking, “Well what does black enough mean anyway?” It’s really just describing your engagement level with black culture. For example, my mom has a red fedora with Charlie Wilson’s name written on it in rhinestones. That is very, very black. Engaging in ‘call and response’ is very, very black. I don’t believe that people are saying someone is any less black if they don’t do these things, it’s just that they aren’t drowning in age old black pastimes, which is quite alright. If your eyes don’t well with tears when you hear Frankie Beverly scream “woahwooooooooah,” it’s cool. We know that you know that you’re still black.
Michael Arceneaux: I’m sick of hearing about post-blackness, New Blacks and the like. There have always been different ways to be black and given the point has been repeated again and again, at one point do you stop putting prefixes on black and prove your point by just existing?
And sorry, no, there is such a thing as a wrong opinion. Your anecdotal experiences are yours and that’s fine, but when addressing a collective problem, you should be informed. Pharrell is not. It’s cute for him to say the “New Black does not blame other races for our issues,” but the reality remains we live in a society in which white high school dropouts have more wealth than black and Latino college graduates. Remember, though: Education is the key to mobility!
It also doesn’t change the reality that I could go outside right now and no matter if I’m blasting Fiona Apple or UGK, am dressed like Cam’ron or Carlton Banks, I could be shot in the head by some police officer and my entire life can be remade into the image of some menacing black brute and not a single thing can stop that because there is an entire system in place to protect white men at everyone else’s expense.
And again, I could go on and on and on, but apparently, facts and data don’t matter ‘cause of feelings. It’s one thing to say you can rise above whatever unfair circumstances you’re dealt with, and ideally, everyone should operate this way. Still, if you see something is fucked up, you have every right to say that. To express that is not whining or complaining to white people “who aren’t listening to you anyway.” For the record, as someone who does this for a living, they do listen, and believe me, having to continuously write about racism and the lives it ruins is not a “luxury.” It’s a job; an emotionally draining one at that.
Jason Parham: Right. There was a funny response on Tea & Breakfast after Raven told America she wasn’t black. It ended with, “Before you consider going New Black, remember that your mentality might shift the way you cope with society, but it does not change the way society copes with you.” Let that last line sit for a minute. I think it is very important to have agency and selfhood—we should all be confident in our possibility—but it is a very different thing to subscribe to a belief that ignores circumstance.
Kara Brown: Sorry, I cannot allow Pharrell to be compared to Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X. Are we seriously supposed to believe that Malcolm X—the man who said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress,” would agree with a statement like, “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues”?
Nobody is blaming other races—they’re simply pointing out facts and the reality of the situation. There is literally no way to erase white people and white institutions from conversations about racism and still have a conversations about racism.
The reason that people are responding negatively to this New Black idea is because the entire concept, as you’ve explained it, Stephanye, contradicts itself. We’ve all agreed the black experience is diverse and complex, so why do New Blacks feel the need to point out something we apparently all already know? It’s because that’s not actually what they’re doing. They’re not simply celebrating the spectrum of our culture, they’re attempting to separate themselves from the greater black population. If New Blacks didn’t think they were different or unique in some way, they wouldn’t be calling themselves “new” to begin with.
Jason Parham: Is accepting New Blackness a rejection of Old Blackness? Or put another way, is it a rejection of all the rich and wonderful history that made us who we are? Raven certainly thinks so.
Stephanye Watts: I honestly don’t understand how New Blacks are reframing the Black experience. As Henry Louis Gates Jr said in the amazing Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, “if there are 40 million Black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be Black.” With that being said, the New Black mentality is just a segment of those 40 million ways. We have this weird desire for black people to be on the groupthink wave and demonize any retractors. Like that Republican kid said on Ebony.com, there is a huge disdain for diversity of thought amongst us high cotton Negroes. You guys haven’t lived my life, nor I yours, so there is no way that we would agree on everything just because we’re all black. So when I discuss my feelings on race relations, I’m not reframing the black experience, I’m just sharing mine. No one is right or wrong and all of our opinions are valid because they are all birthed from real life experiences. As I said earlier, New Black is the antithesis of limiting. It’s paying homage to those 40 million different versions of blackness.
To answer the second part of that, I feel like you’re alluding to the idea that New Black means that you don’t want to be black, which is the wildest thing I’ve ever heard. If we look at all of the people affiliated with the New Negro Movement in the early 19thcentury, these are all people that we celebrate every February—or if you’re really bout that life, Black 365. They were all titans of our race and we all stand on their shoulders. I never saw a white man in a textbook until I was 11 years old and didn’t learn the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance until that time either. Everything I know about science, art, history, life, is black people. Our history is all I know and it informs my view as someone with the New Black mindset. It is a constant reminder that I have a responsibility to our people to keep trying.
Michael Arceneaux: Republicans are not exactly the best people to quote about groups who don’t respect diversity of thought. But to that sentiment, I’m amused by, “We have this weird desire for black people to be on the groupthink wave and demonize any retractors.” Well, every community has these internal debates—gays, Latinos, etc. That said, to Kara’s point that “the Pharrells and Ravens think they’ve reached some sort of Blackness Enlightenment that the rest of us are still waiting on,” that sort of criticism about black people is essentially what she was getting at.
You can call yourself whatever you want no matter how redundant it sounds, but it’d be awesome if you didn’t act as if you’re above your own when doing so and denouncing a very real problem in this country that affects, Old Blacks, New Blacks, post-post-Blacks, and So So Def Remix Blacks.
And I’m almost certain if I handed Malcolm X a transcript of that Oprah interview, he’d spit on it. If not, I’d do it for him. Again and again.
Kara Brown: At the end of the day, they can call themselves what they want and believe what they want to believe. But what they aren’t going to do, however, is twist complex issues into reductive soundbites under the guise of legitimate racial and political ideas. I will not allow Kanye West to compare being followed by paparazzi to the fucking Civil Rights Movement. I’m not going to sit silently while Raven-Symone equates being an American with being colorless, as if that makes a shred of sense.
If New Blacks weren’t trying to reframe our concept of blackness in this country, instead, as I said, widen it, frankly we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. If there is overwhelming backlash to the ideas and concepts you’re trying to push from the exact people you’re trying to talk to and about, the problem isn’t the audience, it’s the message.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]