34 Women Explain The Complexity Of "Blackness"
and what it means to them
Issa Rae once said, "The very definition of 'blackness' is as broad as that of 'whiteness,' yet we're seemingly always trying to find a specific, limited definition." For me, "blackness" is a term that I continue to wrestle with. The Oxford Dictionary offers three standard definitions for the term: 1. The property or quality of being black in color. (Complete darkness; the absence of any light.) 2. The fact or state of belonging to any human group having dark-colored skin. (The quality or character associated with black people.) 3. A state characterized by despair or depression. (A state or condition of being evil or wicked.) Blackness, for the most part, is associated with negative connotations.
Many of us were taught about the concept of "otherness" in school. If the opposite of good is bad and the opposite of white is black, then the message is that white is good, therefore black is bad. In his 1903 novel The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." To be black is to be hyperaware of everything and everyone around you.
If I had to select one thing that I would like people to take away from Black Girl Power... The Future Is Bright, it would be an understanding that there is no such thing as a singular black experience. We all have our own stories to show and tell, and each and every one of us deserves to have our voices heard. So instead of relying on a dictionary, I asked 34 black women what the term "blackness" means to them. Read all of their personal responses in the gallery, above! (And stay tuned for more spotlights through the rest of the month!)
they do not see color.
you are invisible.”
― Nayyirah Waheed
Photo courtesy of Morgan Debaun
"Blackness means music. Rhythm. Belly laughs. Mom’s curry chicken. Black-and-white photographs of Rosa Parks. Afros. Strong men. Strong women. Triumphant innovators."
- Morgan DeBaun
Photographed by Hannah Sider
"History. Blackness is our history—there is no way to define us without knowing our roots. We are a forward-thinking, strong, dedicated, perseverant, royal people. They just don't teach you that shit in school. We are creators, innovators, game changers. We are leaders. We are a kaleidoscope of shades because of our history and melting pot of textures as its effect."
- Cachee "Kitty Cash" Livingston
Photo courtesy of Rawiya Keimer
"Man, I think it’s not that deep. I think blackness is waking up black, getting through the day black, and going to sleep still black."
- Rawiya Kameir
Photo courtesy of Bee Walker
"I don’t have a definition for ‘blackness’. I honestly don’t think about it as a concept beyond its political and social implications which are significant. There are millions of black people all over the world many of whom share culture and many of whom do not. I think defining ‘blackness’ just reduces and conflates what are countless cultures and perspectives. And for what? One difference I’ve noticed from when I first moved to the U.S. is that being black, brown, other, and immigrant, whatever—all those labels are less important than a person’s expression. The Internet makes it possible for a Ghanaian who loves Korean fashion, for example, to connect with a community and find their style. I’m not going to be the one taking people back by defining what their 'blackness' means relative to my arbitrary definition of blackness."
- Bee Walker
Photographed by Miranda Barnes
"I define blackness as having an inherent sense of resiliency. Being black in America, although complex, is beautiful. We have such a diverse community and culture."
- Alyssa Neilson
Photo courtesy of Doreen St. Felix
"It's a little bit of a contentious idea for me. I'm sensitive to universalizing or flattening black experiences. My family is West-Indian so I didn't necessarily grow up with a whiteness-as-center mentality, which I think informs this American way of lumping up our massiveness into a legible package. I think I tend to use the term 'blackness,' though, when I'm trying to, and then fail, the sensation of being in a black body that is beyond language."
- Doreen St. Felix
Photographed by Anna Ottum
"Blackness is who I am, how I move, reason, laugh, nurture, love—its definition is infinite."
- Elise Petersen
photo courtesy of Amanda Seales
"Blackness is your innate connection to the ancestry, responsibility and artistry that has come before you and that continues to live through you. (So no, Rachel Dolezal cannot just 'BE' black because she feels like it!)"
- Amanda Seales
Photo courtesy of Sasha Boykin
"Blackness to me is empowerment. I am fortunate that I have made friends with people from all different cultures, ages, and backgrounds, and one thing that I've learned is how American the word 'black' is. When describing people of color or of the diaspora, 'black' is everything. 'Black' is an umbrella; a unifying word that is not specific to what island, country, or city you are from. It is a movement of power. Blackness is strength, hope, and resilience like no other. It is a legacy of fortitude and being GREAT in a country that told us, and the world, that our ancestors were not human beings. It is knowing the history of my people and still moving forward with love, acceptance, and honor towards those who came before me and those later."
- Sasha Boykin
Photo courtesy of Kameelah Janan Rasheed
"In her Lenny interview, Kimberly Drew said, 'Blackness is a technology in and of itself. The way we survive and thrive has always been contingent on building technologies against the system that sets us up to fail.' I agree. Blackness is and can be a network of strategies for self-determination and radical imagining of new social relations. In considering all the ways that black folks have built worlds in the Americas is a reminder of the limitless permutations of blackness across geographies and temporalities. The articulation of blackness among the black folks in the Appalachian is a different cadence than the blackness articulated amongst family in Crenshaw, Los Angeles. The variation is not an aberration. Blackness remains nuanced and deeply rooted in historical conditions even in the face of attempts to commodify it or flatten it into palatable bite-size consumer goods divorced from specific contexts."
- Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Photographed by Kaye McCoy
"Heritage. Power, seen and unseen. Strength. To me, blackness reflects a beautiful, complex birthright. You have to live the truth of it every day to understand."
- Maricia Josephs
Photographed by Kevin Watkins.
"Jericho Brown says 'What you call a color, I call a way.' That’s the best description of blackness I could find anyway. But on top of that, there are many blackness-es. There is the blackness of playing spades with my uncles in my stepmother’s basement surrounded by tons of black art and African statues. There is the blackness of saying, 'what’s up?' to other black people on the street. There is the blackness of being the only black person in your graduate program at Yale. There is the blackness of listening to punk music and the blackness of going to Russia at 16 to study Muscovite architecture. There is the blackness of a stank face. There is the blackness of always knowing someone in jail. I’ve recently experienced a new kind of blackness: the blackness of dating a white man and fearing my children will come out too light and won’t identify as black. Joy, pride, fear, family, love. It’s all in there. The real question is what does it mean to be human? Blackness is simply an exponent."
- Alysia Harris
Photo courtesy of Sable Boykin
"To me, blackness is the true test and crown. It means understanding and exemplifying our past and how it's the key for us [to] being even better. It's proof that we can handle it. Being the controlling force of culture in a world that has rejected us, is something to never forget; It also isn’t something to be mistaken for thinking that we’ve met our goal. Blackness is perseverance, it's life, it's greatness recognized, it's diligent progression, it's demanded respect, it's the beauty of the universe, it's the earth, blackness is everything, it's infinite."
- Sable Boykin
Photo courtesy of Jasmine Mans
"Blackness means 'wealth' to me. My blackness represents the wealth of undocumented slaves from Africa who weren't called by their tribal names, but 'black.' Blackness, for me, is consciousness of my history. My black is an ode to both my mother and foremother. Blackness means wealth to me, but it has always meant struggle as well."
- Jasmine Mans
Photographed by Lesslie Hassler
"For me, blackness is powerful, intelligent, creative, unique, and often poorly imitated. Blackness isn't a trend, it's the trendsetter."
- Franchesca Ramsey
Photographed by Richard Ramirez Jr.
"Blackness to me means strength and empowerment. That beyond the conflicts you face from the color of your skin, you allow it to empower you rather than belittle you."
- Natasha James
Photo courtesy of Rewina G. Beshue
"Blackness is a term used by the individual for the individual, to express themselves through their experiences, interests, creative process, and gender. Blackness is an internal and external quality in which I am. Whether it is my appearance or my personality and passions. My idea of blackness breaks social norms, stereotypes, and boundaries of societies' views on black people. Whether it is associated with culture, ethnicity, sexual orientations, or personal interests, blackness is for the individual. You cannot box the black identity into one stereotypical view because there are so many different types of black identities. For me, it is the empowering force I exude through my art, my culture, my pride, and my personality."
- Rewina G. Beshue
Photo courtesy of Francheska Madina
"No matter what part of the world I've been in, from the Bronx to favelas of Bahia, there's always a thread that seems to connect us all. From sounds in the music, certain flavors in the food, natural remedies passed down from generations, childhood stories, mannerisms, scents, skin tones, the faith, the laughter, the fight—you name it. Regardless of the tampering. Regardless of the location. Blackness is an essence that somehow always shines through."
- Francheska Medina
Photo courtesy of TK Quann
"Blackness doesn't resonate with me so much, as what does being black mean to me? I could give you a long-winded reply but a classic song by James Brown comes to mind when I think about what it means to be black. 'Say It Loud.' When you hear the lyrics,—'Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud'—that to me epitomizes my stance on being black."
- TK Quann
Photographed by David Oh
"Blackness to me means unity. Blackness means that people of many shades can come together and uplift each other, because everybody from the lightest of shades to the darkest are all black."
- Stacia Suttles
Photographed by Gina Nero.
"If you are black, you're experiencing 'blackness.'"
- Quinta Brunson
Photographed by Sungwook Kim.
"It is an opportunity to embrace your culture and who you are. It is being proud of your heritage and the unique things about you, such as, your kinky hair that you can style in so many ways and the shapely shape of your body. Blackness is not a thing, it is just loving the skin I’m in. I’m just being me."
- Karen Civil
Photographed by Vivian Luxx
"I wouldn't like to put a definition on blackness because if you're black, you just are. That's a thing, people feel like 'black people are this way or that way,' but I know so many different kinds of black people. So many different kinds that I can't even define it. The umbrella is so big. Blackness to me is just being."
Photographed by Joshua Allen.
"Blackness to me means strength, a celebration, a struggle. Everything that comes with it, whether it be qualities, features, culture, history, community."
- Clarissa Henry
Photographed by Brad Ogbonna.
"To define blackness is kind of saying 'Well, this is what I think it is,' but we're so many things. I couldn't just say it in a few words and feel like that's the definition of it. Blackness is whatever you make it, whatever you feel you are as a black person."
- Kai Avent-deLeon
Photo courtesy of Michaela DePrince
"If I were born African-American, blackness might mean something more to me. If my native country had not been engaged in a brutal war, and its culture had remained intact, it would mean something more to me. In both of those cases, it would mean a history and culture as well as skin color. However, in my case, blackness just means physical features, such as the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, and the shape of my facial features. But I think that is enough for me to say that I am black and proud of who I am. However, I would hope that I would be proud of who I am, no matter what color I might be, because that’s the way I was raised."
- Michaela DePrince
Photo courtesy of Azha Luckman
"Blackness is me. I was born black. Blackness is that look you get when you’re the only black person on the bus, in the restaurant, at the school but it's also this spirit that never gives up and is so amazing. I guess you could say hard work, never giving up, and strategy are magical. We work very hard to get to the places that we want to be as black women and girls."
- Azha Luckman
Photographed by Ben Rosser.
"Blackness is a shade and to me, I feel blessed to be a part of the black girl magic. I am constantly trying to redefine it as I want to break down stereotypes that have previously been associated with black people. All I can do is lead by example and continue to talk about education and opportunity."
- Hannah Bronfman
Photo courtesy of Chynna Rogers
"Being of African-Caribbean descent, that's where it ends for me. If you're literally black, everything you do contributes to the culture. It's up to you whether that's shining negative or positive light. It's also up to you what's truly negative and positive, but don't be a dickhead. There are no boxes to put it in. There is no definitive explanation. Acknowledging your roots and living your life as true to you as possible, that's blackness. Stay woke."
- Chynna Rogers
Photographed by Robert Charbonnet.
"I believe that words carry great energy, so for me, the meaning of blackness is power and protection. For too long the color black has been associated with negativity. I made the choice long ago to give it my own personal meaning and that is what it is. If I have to choose just one word to define blackness then that word is POWER."
- Mala Bryan
Photographed by Hannah Siegfried
"Blackness means family, community. Blackness is a connection no matter what city or state you're from. You can go anywhere and have a community to welcome you with open arms. You have common interests and shared experiences with people you've never known. Blackness to me is a deep connection that transcends time, upbringing, social standing and location."
- Barf Troop
Photo courtesy of Marjorie Lacombe
"Easy question! Just kidding, this is definitely a tough one! All I can clearly say is that my 'blackness' refers to the embracement of my skin color. Anything beyond that is unclear, and is often just conflated with other interpretations or understandings defined by greater society. From an outside perspective, some might say that blackness is an identifiable culture or set of shared experiences that connects all black people. However, based on what I've encountered from traveling to New York, Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Brazil, the incredible diversity among black people makes it hard to ever make such overarching claims. After all, there is no concrete definition of 'black' anyway. Some people may disagree, but I think it’s important to remain cognizant of the fact that race is a socially-constructed concept that groups people together who, in reality, are incredibly diverse and different from one another."
- Marjorie Lacombe
Photo courtesy of Sarah Nicole François
"Blackness is me. Blackness is whatever I’m into, whatever my thoughts are. Blackness is whatever I want it to be, and that’s the power in it."
- Sarah Nicole François
Photographed by Geoffrey Black/EBONY Magazine
"Blackness is the presence of everything. It’s magical. Wondrous. Multihued. It is a sense of obligation to history, to a tradition, and an entire diaspora of people through a shared connection."
- Jamilah Lemieux