Some mornings I think, there’s nothing left to say about race or being Black that any literate person should find novel, profound, or even vaguely amusing. For this century it’s all been said and said again, said better, and even said better by me. I am not alone. This I discovered when my editor desperately confessed that no one wanted to write for Black History Month. Apparently the collective was of the same mind as the writer Imani Wilson, who when told of this predicament, said: “Well, who wants to be a monkey for the organ grinder?”
There are other days, though, when I feel like Nikki Giovanni. Not Nikki the cornball nationalist of nigga can u kill, but the other one–Nikki-Rosa. The one who felt compelled to tell the world all her Xmases were merry and bright, even though she knew it wouldn’t stop crackers from hating. The world had to know her humanity wasn’t circumscribed by racism. Need we say more?
Because the late Black Arts theorist Larry Neal told us so, we know that “To be Black in this country is to always affirm something.” Only we’re all out of affirmations this season. Come back next millennium. This doesn’t mean we’ve reached the end of racism or any of that reactionary drivel. The fact that there’s still a market in publishing for proof of Black humanity proves quite the opposite. Don’t look for that day to arrive until Being White and/or Not Being Black accounts for absolutely no social advantage in the world whatsoever (ETA: 1:08 pm., January 15, 2235). But whatever part of I Am Somebody y’all still don’t understand can be easily remedied by purchasing the Eyes on the Prize videotapes or a trip to Barnes & Noble, if not Liberation Books: We got Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for folk of a poststructuralist bent who want to understand the race; Toni Morrison, Lisa Jones, and bell hooks for Black women who want to understand themselves; hiphop and Erykah Badu for the younger, postliterate generation of brothers and sisters. There’s that phenomenal shelf of aphoristic volumes promoting black positivity, which continue to breed like rabbits. (I’m okay, you’re okay, and so was your mama.)
In a world ablaze with so much racial punditry, some feel scant need to continue squirting starter fuel on the fire. If I were pressed into service on the state and fate of the race, what would I write about? After some thought I considered, “Will It Matter If You’re Black in the Year 2076?” Only I realized the more appropriate question would be, “Why Will Projects in the Year of the Tercentennial Be Virtually Indistinguishable From Maximum Security Prisons?” Race plus class equals a beatdown. Same as it ever was. More provocative angles might be how future historians will determine O.J. Simpson, the most culturally significant Black man of the ’90s, or the possibility of an Oprah Winfrey–Colin Powell presidential ticket for the next election, or how Nike’s ability to buy Black celebrity silence and acquiescence in modern slavery desecrates the memories of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X–but who’s to say the point of becoming first-class citizens wasn’t just so Black folk could unshoulder the burden of heroic suffering and become as cash corrupted and media mesmerized as everyone else?
There are more personal notes that could be struck: like how I think less about race and have far fewer racial confrontations when I’m in Los Angeles than in New York. This is for reasons having less to do with enlightened attitudes in the City of Angels than with how the racial dynamic of Gotham has become defined by waves of pushy immigrants having to step all over Black folk in order to become American. Inevitably one develops a massive chip on the shoulder when one realizes the gall of everyone who thinks they’re better than you no matter your income just because they’re not descended from American slave stock. Weathering this contempt means you walk around ready to smash the next arriviste who looks down their nose at you. In Cali, those feelings evaporate and one becomes the epitome of satori. (In lieu of relocation, try yoga.)
Journalism’s racial lexicon doesn’t allow for the complexity and personal nuance available in fiction, poetry, and music. This may account for why my friend Steve said he felt like he knew me better from my songs than from a decade of prose By Greg Tate. (I hardly ever write lyrics that mention race. Most of my songs are about women in love and in trouble. Go figure.) The dwindling space in American magazines for the personal essay also accounts for why you haven’t read how painter Anselm Keifer’s renderings of the ephemerality of monuments made me rethink nationalism, or how my love for Bill Viola and Cy Twombly’s monuments to ephemera derives from their enchantment with the available spectrum of light. (By the way, the next time I’m asked about race, I’m going to talk about Micah Gaugh and me being on the verge of tears in the De Menil’s Twombly chapel in Houston.) But hell–there I go again, being Black and affirming something as routine as my visual sensibility. Today’s remedial assignment: make up a screaming New York Post–style headline. Write 1000 times on the blackboard: Black Affirms Nothing. Says Everything Is Permitted.
Composer Harry Partch used to talk about how we are bewitched by our cultures, and how that bewitchment is deep, mysterious, and not easily eluded. I don’t harbor any desire to be unbewitched by Black culture. I’m just weary of hearing the same old shit. So unless you’re coming at it like the visionary Toni Morrison does in Paradise (in which the race’s moral compass gets reset by transdimensional Amazon warrior-princesses), be advised: just shut your yap and play your guitar.