With this collection of portraits and essays, Blay invites a conversation about what defines “Blackness” and whether we care. I can’t help but appreciate her forwardness. She makes it clear that the project is personally motivated, but it isn’t about her alone — or even about her views at all.
“It is not my goal to tell people how to identify,” writes Blay, a professor at Drexel University. “I am not the Blackness Whisperer, nor am I the Blackness Hunter. However a person chooses to identify is just that — their choice. My aim here is to challenge narrow yet popular perceptions of what Blackness is and what Blackness looks like.”
In all, 70 contributors opened up to questions about their identities as “Black people.” While the majority of those contributors reside in the United States, others are from Cuba, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, and other nations where Americans might overlook other experiences of colorism and racial hierarchy. Even while the book embraces Black variety, Blay organizes their stories into three primary sections: “Mixed Black,” “American Black,” and “Diaspora Black.”
Blay dissects these different identities as she examines the one-drop rule, the social and legal racial classification that insisted that even one ancestor of Black descent in an individual’s bloodline made that person Black with no other qualification.
We come to realize the full impact of the one-drop rule as a type of residue, specifically to the minds of Black people. I am reminded of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which says that, when the oppressed are faced with having to identify themselves, they must first examine and act out their oppressor’s ideals. So the question becomes: Are Black people knowingly identifying themselves by the standards of those who oppressed us, even today?
I sat with other questions, too: Aren’t all Black Americans a type of mixed? Does every color community recognize the ridiculousness of defining oneself simply by an external appearance? How can a person’s identity be completely embodied and characterized by a color?
But as I read, I realized this discomfort defines the discussion that Blay opens for us. Her research is a door into perspectives that Black people may either appreciate or despise. Blay aims to “recalibrate our lenses to see Blackness as a broader category of identity and experience.” Taking in the contributors’ stories and Noelle Théard’s beautiful images of them, I felt myself sitting with these contradictory thoughts and compelled to keep reading.
The very existence of individuals such as Zun Lee and Guma answers some of those questions: Lee is a Korean man who grew up in Germany but identifies as Black. Guma identifies as Afro-Brazilian but had been seen as merely “Black” by the cops in São Paulo. A man named Jozen Cummings identifies as Black, Puerto Rican, and Japanese but became aware of himself as “colored” as he examined pictures of segregated water fountains from the 1950s. Colonized peoples, no matter the color or hair type, are constantly told to understand the oppressor to reidentify themselves, only to come back with results that look a lot like reinventing their very being, even though color itself turns out to be a broad category.
Blay does not refine her subject’s grammar or otherwise clarify their speech for “standard” English speakers. But the reader should have no problem because the same language can be heard on the streets. The movement in and out of what is understood as Ebonics adds to the Black diversity represented in the book and solidifies the idea that identity is not a personality. We grasp this, too, through Théard’s creative photographic direction, seeing Black individuals of all shades, sizes, hair types, and facial structures.
If I have a complaint here, it’s about the large size of the photos, which sometimes overwhelm the text. While this is a design concern, it heavily affects the reader’s experience and breaks up the easy flow of Blay’s writing. Her simplicity also leaves the reader with questions that could influence the ways they comprehend the one-drop rule. For example, Blay deals with the matter of “passing” too quickly, and she breezes over Caribbean social color hierarchy systems without an explanation of who fit where.
While these details would have added to the discussion, this book nevertheless powerfully delivers on its central promise to condense an extensive history of the battle for identity through skin color into a small space. Blay gives the reader time to digest the complex topic of Black identity and provides a catalyst for longer conversations among Black people of all shades, White people of all countries, and people of color everywhere.
This book is a jumping-off point. Whether “we” will jump off is the real question.
Marrissa Lawson is an Arkansas-born writer living in Orange, California. She is also the owner of the up-and-coming micro-press JourneyWriter.