It is 1972. I am 7 years old. My mother who normally wears her hair in a large easy to care for afro has just gotten back from the beauty parlour where she has had her hair whipped up into an impressive multi-tiered array of cornrows (a la Cicely Tyson.) It sits atop her head like a crown and will be the glory of the ensemble that she will wear to emcee a gala fashion show being held in the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She is dressed to the nines. Her black and gold embroidered gown echoes tudor fashion and quite simply, the entire ensemble makes her look like a queen. It is moments like those that taught me what it meant to say BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.
Why do I return to that moment now? Because, every day, there is a new video, a new story, a new revelation about how black people are being beaten and victimized by police and society in general. There is another mass shooting by a male white supremacist who can’t stomach anything female or browner than him having any sense of public pride. My Facebook feed is full of cries for help and justice. There are arguments about why “all lives matter” and the importance of animal rights and Iran and nuclear proliferation…and in the midst of it all, I fear sometimes we have lost the point.
My brothers and sisters, we have forgotten the simple fact that:
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.
I recall that those three words caused just as much storm back in the day as #BlackLivesMatter does today. White people were not only offended, but downright scared, because just a few years earlier, Huey Newton and the Black Panthers made it clear that they meant business. They were literally prepared to die for Black Power and the idea of BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL was deeply linked to that passion.
But of course there were those who would soft pedal this message. Way back when he was relevant, Bill Cosby, chimed in with a quote that the “all lives…” folks would like:
“It isn’t a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that’s beautiful.”
…yeah, Bill, that seems about right coming from you now.
People, I want to take this moment to unabashedly and most selfishly say that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. I say it not to take away the beauty of any other people…with a family that looks like the United Nations, that includes black, white, Asian, Latino and all variations in between, I couldn’t do that. I say it because, I need to be able to look in the mirror today as a 50 year old living through a media hell that feels like a constant throwback to 1964 Alabama and say BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. Just as I did as a 7 year old in a world where I was frequently surrounded by and asked to live up to whiteness. If you are black, you need this old 1970’s language more than ever to simply get through reading the papers. Say it aloud: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. If you are not black, you might want to take a moment to chime in and support those of us who are seeing nothing but images of ourselves dying and being tortured and an ongoing parade of oppression…try it: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. Consider this, because my education has been here in the United States, where we only learn about the dominant culture history (white and male), I’ve had to promote and support and glorify and praise whiteness my entire life. My college degree is based entirely on how much I know about white history, people and ways of being. I celebrate national holidays praising white men and barter with paper covered with their image. I cross bridges, pass monuments and all but the odd MLK or Cesar Chavez boulevard, is named for white people. I’ve been taught more than enough about “white is beautiful.” Having a moment where we all declare that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL is not too much to ask.
No, we should not turn away from the difficult work at hand, police and prison reform, elimination of public firearms, more comprehensive education, etc. And we need to find ways to get past the black white narrative of oppression in the United States. But in this moment, for me, I have to pace myself through this epic march. I need a cool refreshing, replenishing drink of self love…
#BlackLivesMatter…yes, but let us not forget for one moment that before that, BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.