Ain't No Half Steppin': Assimilate or Advocate (Part 2)
If there was only one notable lesson that we African Americans could gain from our parents, it would be the fact that we are called to be great. Once again, history has proven that. Because of the obstacles that were faced with regards to race and identity coupled with the resilience to combat said obstacles, there have been countless black men and women who have become pioneers, inventors, creatives, and overall iconic figures.
However, there is a reality that every black person is a part of. This reality called “black hierarchy” is a term used to describe the status and influence that blacks obtain or relinquish as a result of trust that has been established within the black spaces. Similar to the nature of any relationship, if one’s trust were broken, the black male or female’s status and influence would shift to a less favorable position within the black hierarchy. Labels such as sell-out, uncle tom, coon, and bougie are given to those who have, in some way, broken trust.
What intrigues me is the rationale behind the labels that black men and women put on each other. Has trust been broken because they have failed to advocate for the community?
Also, when success and fame is attributed to one’s name, the limelight surely follows. This limelight may also blind these successful black men and women from the reality of the “common man.” Depending on what has propelled their careers, some successful black men may assimilate without knowing they had done so.
A recent online exchange reprised the idea of being black and successful while at the same time being labelled “too black.” During an interview about the film Get Out, actor Samuel L. Jackson said the following about black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya playing an African American without personally relating to having the black American experience:
“There are a lot of black British actors that work in this country. All the time. I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands that in a way. Because Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. Britain, there’s only about eight real white people left in Britain… So what would a brother from America made of that role? I’m sure the director helped. Some things are universal, but everything ain’t.”
This sparked a debate online. The comments were polarizing. But Kaluuya responded:
“When I’m around black people, I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going, ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America, and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
Due to his ancestral ties with Uganda, I cannot assume that he is a child of the African Diaspora, but the plight is still the same. Kaluuya’s responses is a sentiment that many black men and women share. His struggle was to either assimilate to appease those who deemed him “too black” or advocate for his own identity and blackness. Can he just be? No. No he cannot.
When we dissect comments made by other successful black men we find they are doing one of two things: assimilating to those who are in their realms of power or advocating for their culture and community. Morgan Freeman, a well-known African American actor, made some comments about Black History Month that caused some of the black community to feel slighted.
Freeman: I don’t want a Black History Month. Black History is American History.
Mike Wallace: How are we going to get rid of racism until…
Freeman: Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.
Within this exchange lies colorblindness; the inability or refusal to acknowledge one’s race and ethnicity while simultaneously keeping systemic racism intact. Clearly, Freeman is not advocating for a month to celebrate, remind, and challenge our black counterparts to contribute to a progressive future. Instead, he has relegated his own identity to being only a successful man. Negating his blackness while still embracing fame and influence is a result of his privilege of being a successful black man.
Let us tumble a bit deeper down the rabbit hole. At the root of this systemic threat to black folk is none other than white supremacy; the mentality that upholds the racist notion that whiteness is equated to purity. To my white and non-black friends who may be reading this: do not be alarmed. Be challenged. Be aware that standards, desirability, and justice is in your favor.
As a black man or woman, we are well aware of these components that uphold white supremacy because we have been conditioned to measure our self worth by these opposing standards. We are able to assess it from the margin. However, advocacy for equality is still attainable.
To assimilate to standards set by “the powers that be” is simply to stay as quiet and as compliant as you can. However, there are those who have set the standard for what it looks like to be an advocate for rights, justice, and equality. Trust me, those pioneers were not quiet at all. They have been actively questioning the norms and traditions of America.
Some of you who are reading this may be asking: What does advocacy look like today? It is quite visible. Regarding well known black men and women, it happens when you see Colin Kaepernick giving away free dress suits to black men who must present themselves in front of the court of law. It happens when you see and hear Angela Rye contribute her voice intelligently and relentlessly as a commentator with regards to politics and race relations. For those who are less known, it happens when we decide to be ourselves unabashedly. Assimilate or advocate? You know the answer. We are called to be great. To ‘help step’ is simply not putting forth your best effort. In the words of Big Daddy Kane, “ain’t no half-steppin.”
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