Updated date:

What Does it Mean to be "Black"?

I am a Russian Orthodox Christian, freelance writer and photographer from West Virginia. I have a B.A. in Philosophy and Fine Art from ETSU.

what-does-it-mean-to-be-black

What does it mean to be “Black”? Any geneticist can correctly inform you that “race” doesn’t exist. People who have certain features are identified as “Black” as if it is something separate from “White” but that actually isn’t true. You can’t be less related to anyone else on this earth than a 32nd cousin. If being “Black” is determined as anyone who has had ancestors from Africa, then we are all Black, because that is where modern humans came from. If “Black” is defined by appearance, then there are a LOT of “Black” people who would instantly become “White”. If you aren’t irritated or confused yet, hold on…

Is There an Ontological Blackness?

A good example of the racial confusion I am talking about is a little town called East Jackson in Ohio. Apparently, this part of the city was where the Black people and servant class of white people lived over 100 years ago, and everyone in that part of town was called “Black” (or the N word) even if they weren’t apparently black. All the people in the town were ostracized from the rest of the city of Jackson, and they intermarried over the years, but as less Black people moved into the area, the citizens became increasingly white. Today, the residents of East Jackson look like other Appalachian white people, yet they still predominantly claim they are Black.

The idea that even one drop of black blood makes you black was born out of a racist segregation that determined if you could vote, who you could marry, where you could go to school (or even if you could go to school), whether you could own property or testify in court. There was a famous court case involving a woman who was descended from the tri-racial group of people called Melungeons in Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The problem was, the woman stood to inherit a great deal of property if she were white. If she were black, she would get nothing. Her lawyer successfully convinced the court that Melungeons were descended from the ancient Phoenicians and therefore weren’t black. This isn’t true, but at least the woman got what was rightfully hers. At the time of her trial, it was illegal for anyone determined to be black to marry someone who was determined to be white. Your race in Virginia was determined by the opinion of the census takers. If they thought you were light, you were white. If you were dark, you were black. Even someone from Italy or Spain might be “black” if they looked darker than White was supposed to be. You were either white or black, no other choices existed, and whatever you were labeled determined everything you could or couldn’t do for the rest of your life.

On the 1900 census in Virginia, my great grandfather was listed as black. He was an incredibly handsome man with aquiline features, straight black hair and dark skin. As far as I know, he had no African ancestry at all. He was Irish and Native American, but the either/or system decided he was black because he was too dark to be white. This practice continued in Virginia into the 1960s and people were actually able to identify their own race. All of a sudden, many people with two “black” parents became white with the stroke of a pen! It was really strange.

Since we know that “race” doesn’t really exist in the way it is generally believed, is being black merely a cultural term? Does it simply refer to people who’s ancestors were set apart because they came from Africa instead of Europe, or who were slaves instead of free or were darker rather than lighter? Does it refer to people who have even “one drop” of African blood even though they are white in appearance? Does black even have an appearance that is standard or recognizable? Are black people all of the same genetic background or do they have DNA from all over the world? Forgive me for asking these questions, but it seems to me that it is vital to understand what we really mean when we call people black or call ourselves black or someone calls us black. What does it mean? Is there any meaning that is universal? Is there an ontological blackness?

DNA Doesn’t Lie.

I remember when DNA testing to determine where your ancestors came from first came out. The websites all had warnings about the fact that people might not really be what they thought they were. I found this amusing, but really, I suppose they did have to warn some people who strongly identified with an identity that didn’t really exist. These tests are continually improving, and it is much more difficult to identify places where people come from because we are all so closely related. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they correct it as new information is gathered and techniques improved.

Why doesn’t anyone want to be white? If they are anything else, no matter how little, people tend to identify with whatever isn’t white. Is this a way of holding on to the struggles of our ancestors, or paying tribute to them, or taking pride in an identity that was once undesirable because of cultural stigma and legal ramifications? Is it a carryover from the racists who first decided that to be white you had to be nothing but white? I am really seeking to understand this, because think of the consequences if people all of a sudden started accepting themselves and others as what they really are instead of what they want to be or what other people want them to be. Wouldn’t it be better if we acknowledged the fact that there are only people, not black or white or red or yellow people, but just people? People come in all shades, have all sorts of different features, have ancestors who struggled and overcame great obstacles to make life better for their children, people struggle even now because of the illusions that keep us apart and perpetuate the segregation that was once imposed and now has been fully grasped and accepted as real. The emperor is naked, and people are people. Own it, live it, love it.

When we cling to identities that we have created or others have imposed upon us, we serve the cause of racism and sew the seeds of hate. When indentured servants in the American colonies who came from Africa were legally made slaves and their white immigrant friends were set free after serving their agreed upon terms, a divide was artificially constructed and served its intended purpose well. Divide and conquer. Think about it. The best way for the rich to get richer is to keep everyone else focused on other things and fighting amongst themselves for the crumbs that fall from their tables.

What am I?

You may be wondering what my ancestry is. You can see my picture; what do you think? Do you think I look black? Do I look Hispanic? Do I look Native American? Do I look German or Irish? Do I look North African or Arabic? Do I look Dutch or Swedish? Do I look Italian or Egyptian? Would you believe me if you asked me if any of these were part of me and I said yes? Would you believe me if I said I was all of these? Would you try and make me pick one out of them all to call myself? That would make things easy for you, but people are more than the sum of their parts or any part alone. I am what I am, and there isn’t a neat category I can be placed in. I refuse to be labeled like a product on a shelf. I refuse to label others. I refuse to participate in the cycle of hate and violence of racism. I know what it is like to be labeled and made to identify with one part of me against the others. I’m over it. Its a vicious game and everyone who plays it looses something precious.

All of us are made in the image and likeness of God the almighty. All of us. I will not participate in the injustices the illusion of “race” has created. I will defend the defenseless and fight against the barriers that keep us from seeing ourselves in everyone. I know its not easy to abandon a manufactured identity and see yourself as what you are and everyone else as what they are. These things are rooted deep, but they can still be overcome. Just look at us! Aren’t we all strong and beautiful? Lets just be for once and see everything differently. Please?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Makrina Garland

Related Articles