Negritude in the 21st Century
An Obligation of Representation:
Negritude in the 21st Century
1) The quality or fact of being of black African origin.
2) The affirmation or consciousness of the value of black or African culture, heritage, and identity.
In the second decade of the 21st century, life is moving faster than it ever has. News, or what is being passed off as news, reaches us as it happens via several mediums.
Traveling hundreds of miles used to take days or months, but now takes mere hours. The boundaries of human interaction are constantly being stretched and redefined. There is also an interesting set of events occurring concurrently. We now have less personal interaction than ever before. That lack of interaction leads to less understanding of other cultures and less tolerance of other ideologies, customs and norms.
Art, in its various mediums, has always been the major conduit for society to learn about other people and places. Books, music and artwork paved the way for videos, television and social media to show the world that exists outside our own doors. The artwork of the ancients, left in mausoleums, pyramids and caves, told the world their stories, and some were transferred to museums, books and celluloid for others to observe.
And make no mistake, despite attempts obvious and subtle, the most artistic and creative people across the breadth of this planet have been people of color. Black people. Our achievements and our standards have been historically well established for centuries.
The unique world view that an artist uses to portray his or her work is the essence of artistic expression. The best artists of color allow their work to speak for them without a need, consciously or unconsciously, to shout from the mountaintop about race, but we all as artists know that this is our obligation. Whether we like it, accept it, repudiate it or embrace it, and it forms the framework of our sense of negritude. Our blackness.
That obligation of representation is at the heart of everything an artist of color does. It often exists on the periphery of our focus, but that sense of our collective history spurs greatness and carries an added burden of responsibility.
Today, almost a century after the Harlem Renaissance and two generations removed from the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, a diverse collection of black artists the world over present their own versions and visions of blackness.
I believe that the Black American experience is not representative, nor should it ever be considered as, THE definitive black experience. A lot of the issues that black people in America face are also confronted by black people in Africa, Europe, South America and the Caribbean every day. Likewise, the stories of success and achievements are experienced in many other places and ways far from these shores.
For every James Baldwin there is a Chinua Achebe; a Bob Marley and Femi Kuti for every Stevie Wonder or James Brown. All have stories to tell the world, and all in different ways. The duties of black artists don’t change even if their geographic location does; We are universally held to a different standard and undergo different levels of scrutiny and in many cases apathy. Even non-black artists portraying aspects of negritude in their work are held to a different set of rules than black artists in the same medium. Is there a white artist that has ever been criticized for being ‘not white enough’ as Baldwin’s blackness was continuously called into question by other black artists?
The layers become even more complicated when issues of gender, class, sexuality and national origin, all significant in today’s world, are included. Walter Moseley’s world-as displayed through his writings-is quite different from that of Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison or E. Lynn Harris.
With that in mind, every artist of color today works from the initial canvas of negritude. A blank page is not a blank page; every step carries extra weight. The shifting landscape of how we interact and communicate only raises the responsibilities. A black artist’s vision rests on the shoulders and achievements of those who came before; irrespective of what direction they conceptualize.
Wole Soyinka is credited as saying, in a criticism of negritude that “A tiger doesn't proclaim its tigerness; it jumps on its prey.” That may be true, but a tiger is identified by its stripes long before it leaps, as we are usually identified immediately long before our intrinsic qualities are known. Just like a tiger is seen as a threat to every person and animal merely by its proximity, we are seen as black before we are seen as anything else. From that start we let our wings unfold as we set off on our individual journeys, continuing the well established traditions of excellence. Creating, embellishing, interpreting and sharing our gifts to the world, energizing another generation today and tomorrow.