My Blackness, Collective Histories, and the Respectable Negro Fallacy

Amidst my personal history, academic experiences, and intentions for the future is my identity. I find that before all identities, Black, African immigrant, female, student, daughter, “Blackness” is my most conscious section of selfhood.  Though conscious, my “Blackness” ebbs and flows with the tides of nationalized racial injustice and my experiences of interpersonal racism, micro-aggressions and bigotry included. At times I’ve forgotten the systemic struggles of Blackness amidst my comfortable, stable life. Forgetting is dangerous. It invites the individualized racism perspective where racial injustice in America becomes an issue of the good and bad people and less about the historical context: a nation built upon the plunder of Black lives and the pillar of white supremacy. Denied and altered history insulates America from the collective responsibility for racist policies; as such racism doesn’t simply belong to individual white Americans. It belongs to America. 

Coming to terms with history as a Black American is often times difficult. For me, the reality of slavery, residential segregation, Jim Crow South, and the voting rights struggle were not found in the books of my countless American history classes from grade school or through Martin Luther King Day volunteer service. Despite my personal research and exploration into these topics with the texts of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Ta-Nahesi Coates, I believe that I will never be able to fathom the breadth of racial oppression in the concrete. In the abstract I can ponder, think, or guesstimate about the prison-industrial complex, black criminalization, and lynching. But in the concrete, I will only experience my serving of racial injustice. Stinging bigotry or microagressions in close company. I will never claim to be a black mother of five in Detroit, MI, unable to receiving housing assistance. Or a young Black male on the wrong side of Baltimore, immersed in a life of gang and police instigated violence. Amidst my Blackness, I have economic privilege as a middle class university student.

At the same moment, there is an aspect of the Black experience which is continuos and tied among, what I believe, to be most of Black America. It’s the collective pretense that despite how much you educate, eloquate, fashion, articulate, smile, neglect microagressions, dismiss bigotry, or remain a “repectable” Negro on the right side of all white folks you encounter, you are still Black. People will think you are lesser. They will question your abilities. They will call you angry. They will call you a thug. To be black thus means to be criminal.


We see the permanent nature of racial injustice and black criminalization across all educational backgrounds with the case of Martese Johnson. Johnson is a third year African American student at the University of Virginia. Back in March 2015 Martese was charged for “resisting arrest” and “obstructing justice” while attempting to enter a university pub with a real ID, which officers saw to be fake. He was brutally beaten as pictured above. Martese’s case against the officers is currently ongoing. With Martese we see the “Respectable Negro” fallacy underway: Martese is a highly educated Honors Student and leader on his campus. At the core, none of this matters. All that matters is that he is Black. One cannot education themselves out of Blackness and what it means, racial injustice and discrimination included.

I believe that the only way for me to create positive change in my life is to address my future through my Black identity. In the wake of nationalized tragedies, and the persistent police brutality against people of color, my grief has fueled what I recently decided to be my mission in life; to advance the livelihood of black lives through all that I do. This mission came some time after the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson, on an early December morning amidst my tears and feeling of helplessness when thinking about being Black in a majorly white city, Boston, and in a white society. It is the silent scream I emit as the feelings of hatred for white supremacy and utter distrust in the American judicial system permeated my brain.

It is the cry of Black America. It’s like being on an island, stranded, screaming into nothingness and waving for your hands for help from the shore. It only catches the attention of a passing ship when a signal flame is lit. When fire or violence on the island alerts those far out. A scream though scolded and misunderstood when violent, is often times only heard in such context.

I’d like to believe my scream is constructive and conscious. As such I leave you with the words of Langston Hughes.

“Negros – Sweet and docile, meek, humble, and kind. Beware the day they change their mind.” – LH

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