What it Means to be Black in America

Uzochi Nwoko, Harvard University

To different black individuals, being black represents different things. While there are few ways to measure “blackness,” for example by determining one’s African lineage, there are very many ways to experience said blackness. To me, being a black individual in America not only means sharing this common history of African heritage (or heritage from majority black countries, such as those in the Caribbean), but embracing this history. Not by emulating the plethora of cultures in Africa, but by cultivating and supporting a distinct culture of black individuals in this country. Whether it is employing the “natural” hairstyle, vibing to the rhythm of hip-hop and rap music, enjoying flavorful soul-food, or brandishing our melanin, there are many ways that black people support a culture we have created, as well as embody our roots. Through these (and many other) aspects of black culture, we share a commonality that brings us together. Hand in hand with this commonality lies solidarity, and I think that this solidarity is a large part of the black experience.

Because of the history and culture that black people share, I find myself (and many of my black peers) gravitating towards other black people, and instinctively supporting those of our own race. By lifting other black people up, we ourselves rise, and I believe this intuitive mindset to be one of the most powerful things about being black. Each black individual in America faces a common struggle, and by recognizing this common obstacle originating from slavery centuries ago and working to bring down such barriers created by past oppression and current residuals from said oppression, black people share a common goal distinct from individuals of other groups.

When I step back and put all of the pieces together, all of the things that black people share due to our history, as well as our common culture and support for one another, seem to represent a community, one independent of distance. In truth, to be black means to belong to a macrocosm of a typical family. In any family, there are individuals who hold different views from the rest of the members, and similar to this, there are black people who hold different views from the majority of black individuals.

For example, there are black people who support policies, politicians, and projects that most other black individuals may be against. I think it is important to note that these people are no less black than “dissenting” family members are of a different tree. Just like a family, our history, and our title of blackness, is permanent. A question one may ask is, “what about biracial individuals who are ‘white-passing?’” I think that such people have the unique opportunity to choose their own identities. Because they may not go through many of the same struggles that darker individuals face, this may change how they live their lives, and possibly even how they view black individuals with darker skin tones. I believe that these “white-passing” individuals can still very reasonably identify as black if they choose to promote their history and support their black brethren; if they choose otherwise, that is their decision as well.

In essence, to be black simply means to belong to and support a greater community of black individuals. Even though this belongingness sometimes comes with social struggle, I would never wish to be anybody different; as they say, “black is beautiful,” and the beauty greatly outweighs any potential pain.q