The Cleveland Show and the Problem of Black Identity
I recently watched an episode of The Cleveland Show, the satirical spin-off of Fox’s hit comedy Family Guy, which centers on the African-American character Cleveland, and his return to his home state of Virginia to be with his new wife and stepchildren. It’s a funny show, just as crude as Family Guy, and inherently problematic in that once again you have non-Black producers attempting to portray some notion of “Blackness”. Nevertheless, as with most satire, it sometimes hits on very salient issues within society. I want to highlight a recent episode, entitled The Men In Me, wherein Cleveland develops a newfound obsession with Justin Bieber, and after dressing up as a preteen in order to win tickets for a concert, he inadvertently gets voted as the “…whitest Black man…” in America. This launches him into an interesting quest for identity, forcing him to try to overcompensate for his Blackness through a caricaturized 90s get-up, to then discovering that he was actually raised by a wealthy white woman for a time period. With the help of his white surrogate mother he of course realizes that he should find value in his individual identity, though she humorously reminds him “…oh, and you’re Black.”
For me, this episode touches on a tension that admittedly might not be of concern for most Black people in the country, but an interesting one that I am still encountering on a daily basis. Namely, this question of “Black” identity, and how we are to delineate our identities as Black people. Or what social critic Touré deems “post-blackness.” This idea that being Black has changed over a generation, due to (arguably--I know) expanded social, political, and economic experiences for Black people. As I get older and meet new people, I have begun to discover that Blackness is a very nuanced and complex creation. Saying the identity “Black,” could mean African or Caribbean, it could involve Black people who are of mixed race, and there are even Latinos that “look” Black. Then there is the question of class; a Black person raised in the suburbs can have a different experience in “Blackness,” than someone from the ghetto. But race is a social-construction right? So let’s retreat in the safety of the word “culture.” But Black culture can be appropriated and hijacked, (suburban whites pay more for hip-hop than we do), and if we want to talk about “culture” a quick trip outside of the country (if one is so blessed) can reveal how “American” we actually all are.
This poem comes to mind…
Now I am sure many of you might have easy responses to this conundrum. “Whatever,” you might scoff, “if you’re Black—you’re Black. White people see us all the same.” And this is true, and a monolithic view of Blackness is the very idea we need to challenge. But I guess I have concern for those of us who do not necessarily fit into the mainstream notion of Blackness. I have a friend who listens to rock music, and she was chastised as a youth for listening to “white music,” although rock music itself couldn’t not have come about had it not been for the musical stylings of the Blues. Or how do you console the Black kid who “talks proper,” and gets accused of talking “white.”? Even on my campus, when I want to unite with my African and Caribbean brothers and sisters, they have trouble molding themselves into the narrative of African-American identity. (Even though I’d argue that the narrative of African-American identity is a vast narrative of all Blackness).
In short, I endeavor for dialogue and understanding. I want to nuance understandings of Blackness not just to fight against Whiteness, but to incorporate and build connections between the complexity of individuals even within the Diaspora, community, culture or whatever the hell you want to call this ubiquitous “we” of Blackness. And I’m still growing in my thoughts on this.
If there were one thing that I thought I would be able to say unequivocally for the rest of my life, it would be the statement “I am Black.” For me, this identity was supposed to be self-explanatory, and would have the power to carry its own weight. To be “Black,” would entail a notion of a shared history, a collective struggle, shared cultural norms, and perhaps shared suffering. But of course, experience has availed me of this easy assertion, and I am forced to interrogate the notion of “Blackness,” and the force of the present has rendered my identity a bit more destabilized.
I would love to hear your thoughts. What is Blackness to you? What connects us?