Beyond the Skin Trade: How Does Black Nationalism Stay Relevant in the Age of Barack Obama?

By Lavalle, Victor | Artforum International, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Skin Trade: How Does Black Nationalism Stay Relevant in the Age of Barack Obama?


Lavalle, Victor, Artforum International


When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to "Damage, Inc." and "I Am the Law." If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and me--the only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. I'd watch them pull off this casual magic and wish I'd been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. I'm so embarrassed to admit any of this.

Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I can't really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, let's head upstairs, to my family's apartment in Flushing, Queens. We won't meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.

My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor woman--she didn't understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, she'd stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.

The original American slaves weren't black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves' path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But that's not the only conversion story. There's the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And there's the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother.

With the earliest instances of rebellion against the slave system--whether armed insurrection or covert escape or the liberation of literacy--black nationalism was born. Even before it had a name, it was a practice. Just staying alive was an act of defiance. Thus every black person was a part of the resistance. Up, you mighty race!

My father is white.

As the decades passed, black nationalism created and re-created itself in this country. David Walker and Harriet Tubman's role in shaping abolitionism; Marcus Garvey's model of separate but formidable black entrepreneurship; the civil rights struggle; Black Power; the Nation of Islam; the Nation of Gods and Earths. Each can be categorized as a form of black nationalism. But no matter which era or organization, whether they were capitalists or Marxists or advocates of repatriation, they all seemed to assume one basic truth: We're all in this together.

Rich or poor, southerner or northerner, dark skinned or light, black folks are on the same side. Remember Marcus Garvey's call: "Africa for the Africans!" And Malcolm X's line: "When I speak of the South, I mean south of Canada. The whole US is the South." (Though my mother could've schooled him on that.) Our own schools, our own churches; maybe someday even our own state. But check out the sleight-of-hand America had managed. What really held us together besides the system we opposed? What would black nationalism be without a common enemy?

* * *

It seems all Americans are now contractually required to bring up Barack Obama at least once a week. …

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