DID I DO THAT?: REDEFINING BLACKNESS WHILE REJECTING STEVE URKEL
Today being the last day for February, the shortest month of the year, which also happens to be Black History Month, I would like to conclude this experimental mini-series “Blerd History Month. You can find the first three posts here: Blerd History Month: Introduction; Blerd History Month: Black Humanism; and Blerd History Month: Black Theology.
In my previous posts, I discussed how religious leaders, both humanist and Christian, redefined what it meant to be an African American living on U.S. American shores. Being black is not something that is fixed and static. It is ever changing, just as all cultures are ever changing and fluid. Problems occur when people of all “colors” (colors/races which are social constructs) try to cling on to a solitary definition of what it means to be from this or that racial identity. To deny the fact that this change occur is a very denial of our very own humanity. Fixed notions of race and social identity in term of nationality make it easier for racist and nationalist gazes to fix themselves upon persons who live on the margins of society. This is why it is ever important for cultural change-agents to continually challenge racial and cultural stereotype as resistance to hegemony.
One such example? Frederick Douglass:
Frederick Douglass, if you ever read his Narrative, was determined to learn how to read and write. He faced consequences for his learning, but he used his education for the benefit of the down-trodden. In my post about theologian James Cone, I mentioned that he worked to redefine African American experiences in the USA, and he stresses that he was influenced by Malcolm X and his notions of blackness. It was Malcolm X that made the label of “negro” (something that was imposed on black Americans by whites) one of shame, and black, a matter of pride, something evil that was reclaimed for good. Malcolm X however did not write and think from some blank slate. No, he was raised by a father who was caught up in the theories of the Harlem Renaissance movement. More specifically, the New Negro Movement; the New Negro Movement was started by a group of writers and cultural creators in the late 19th century through the 1930’s. The New Negro Movement, with persons such as Hubert Harrison, Marcus Garvey, and Countee Cullen, sought to challenge what it meant to be a Negro American in those days. The Negro Churches (African American Christianity after Emancipation/before the Civil Rights Movement) was portrayed as being lead backwater, immoral priests (read W.E.B. DuBois study “The Negro Church”)and the institution was far to ineffective in addressing the economic oppression caused by Jane and Jim Crow.
Some thinkers in the New Negro Movement thought promoting the idea that repossessing Africa by African Americans would be a sign to prove that African Americans were valuable and worthy of being seen as human. This was why Marcus Garvey made a name for himself back then. The New Negro Movement was seen as a threat to the status quo: one example is that Hubert Harrison, senior editor for a New Negro magazine lost his job because he challenged Booker T. Washington’s leadership. Booker T. Washington was seen as THE Negro leader in the eyes of whites, and to confront his power was to challenge his ability to speak for the Negro race.
The New Negro Movement rejected what it meant to be a Negro prior to the Great Depression; the Black Power movement discarded the label “Negro” and all the problems that went with it. One of the problems, like the solution of going back to claim Africa, seems to ring of an imitation of Europe, to colonize African societies just so Negroes “can earn” their humanity. Starting empire would not be the best way to prove how human you were; it would be just another display of inhumanity. The Black Power movement was about Black people loving themselves, accepting themselves as who they were, situated here on North American shores. Afro-centrism was about bringing Africa to the States.
While I won’t get into the problems of essentialism and problems I have with Afro-centrism here, the point of reclaiming Blackness in the late 1960s was a matter of self-affirmation. Yes, the black power movement made tremendous progress in bringing to light achievements by African Americans in history, but with cultural and political backlash, it became impotent in challenging Reagan conservativism, the Southern Strategy, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Blacks’ roles in society were stuck in the quagmire of being “the athlete” and “entertainer” all the while being stereotyped as lazy and evil. That’s why we could have Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey speak for us, as Booker T. Washington spoke for us because of their cultural achievement and choices not to challenge the status quo. Being a black nerd, someone who refused to just an entertainer or jock, was something to be ashamed of.
During the Harlem Renaissance, George Schuyler wrote a science fiction novel entitled Black No More where a business had discovered the cure to racism: a machine to turn Negroes white. If everyone is white, there would be no racism! In the hit 80s show, Family Matters, the program chronicles the awkward misadventures of one Steve Urkel, a clumsy but brilliant black science nerd. Urkel’s nerdiness is the barrier that keeps him from his true love, Laura Winslow, so Urkel has an idea. An invention that will transform him from geek to chic (the character Stephon Urkel), so he can win Laura’s heart. The problem with this is that we never ask if Steve loved himself first. Black nerds were to be ashamed of themselves, as things to be negated; meanwhile, Laura, Eddie, and Rachel Winslow stand as the norms expected by middle class blacks, I mean, Tyler Perry.
The brilliance behind the cult classic movie, “Scott Pilgrim Versus The World” is found in the genius ending. Rather than this being the same old same ole narrative about a guy fighting for the love of his life, Scott Pilgrim wins at the end because he “earns the Power of Self-Respect.” In the same way, I think the Blerd movement is important (for this point in time, anyhow), to return African Americans back to the Black Power movement’s original purpose of celebrating black self-respect. Blerd is also important as a label for me because all of my life I have struggled to embrace my nerdiness and my blackness together. Blerd as a label for me expresses what it means hybridity, to have a complex identity that can’t be simplified. More importantly, Blerd maintains the importance of not just education, but being bookish, well read and well aware of the world around us. Blerd is subversive. Blerd is both the present and the future.
A couple of ideas on how to move BLERD forward:
1st, I think it is important that the face of blerddom not be bound up by popular blerd male figures:
Image taken from The Examiner
Blerd should be viewed as a gender-inclusive term. Part of the problem with the Black Power Movement is that many of its figure heads were down right misogynist, and we need to recognize that history if we are to move forward. Elderidge Clever is but one example, Huey Newton another. When it comes to redefining black identities, it should be an effort by women and men respectfully. And let’s not forget, a lot of the most important “blerds” in U.S. American history were women: Octavia Butler, Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Chisolm, and Ida B. Wells just to name a few!
Secondly, in an American society that has become more anti-intellectual and more hostile toward integrated, public education, Blerd should be willing to make literacy sexy and hott. Books, whether we are talking about on Kindle, iPad, paperback, and hardcover, are the best alternatives to moving forward (except for garbage like the Twilight series, but I digress). Over and against the plantation antics of Lil’ Wayne and Beyonce, Blerd must resist our culture’s dependency on negative black stereotypes.
Blerd for President.
What does you hope for the Blerd movement? How do you see it now?