In the introduction to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole asks a question that is at once simple and profound. Melodically chanting like a griot at the beginning of a mythical tale, he asks the listener: “Do you want to be free?”
Upon first glance, this seems an uncomplicated question. It is not.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon wrestles with the existential angst that can descend upon an oppressed mind when set free:
Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
Once we are aware that our conception of self and community is filtered through the lens of white supremacy, how do we respond? Are we willing to ask difficult questions and pursue new ways of thinking, or do we look for ways to survive in spite of our oppressive conditioning?
Since reconstruction, black people have asked to be seen as human beings — to be treated with dignity. We asked at the turn of the century amid race riots and lynching. We asked in the 1960s with the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. We asked in the 1980s while policies were enacted that marginalized black economic possibilities and created a criminal justice system that disproportionately imprisoned people of color. We were saying then, like we are declaring now, that #BlackLivesMatter.
Yet a question remains — one that is rarely spoken, but needs an answer. In all this fighting and protesting, amid declarations that our humanity deserves recognition and respect, do we have the ability to live free of white supremacist thinking? Can we see and appreciate black beauty without the oppressive lens of euro-normativity filtering our gaze? Are we able to validate achievement without whiteness as the standard for excellence?
We must be bi-focal. As we demand a white supremacist culture to see our humanity, we must fight the internalized racism that prevents usfrom seeing our own.
We have been taught that we are inferior. We are ignorant of our history, so this was an easy task to accomplish.
History serves as a buffer against notions of inferiority. If a nation is in distress, people will reflect upon the past to remind themselves of their lineage. Pride in self is partly communicated through the telling of history.
There is deafening silence surrounding the state of Africans prior to enslavement. For many, that silence means there is nothing significant to say. Black people in America look back at a historical narrative that marginalizes their contributions. As a result, Black people are cut off from their African intellectual tradition and taught with a philosophy of education that is hostile to black bodies and minds. Historically, we are taught to see people of color as subplots to the main narrative of white behavior. We center ourselves in whiteness and look back at black activity through an oppressive lens.
We must realize that the way we understand history is important. It is our responsibility to become educated about who we are as African people in the diaspora, but in order to do this properly, there is an ideological hurdle that we must clear.
Too many black people are ashamed of their blackness. They have internalized white supremacy to such a degree that their goal in life is proving they belong among white bodies. In this vein, their lives revolve around embracing European norms of dress and behavior. They consciously or unconsciously eschew anything that might be African in origin. What they do not realize is this cannot be done.
We are an African people. The percussive nature of our music is African. The way many of us speak from the back of our mouths when comfortable and say ‘brotha’ instead of ‘brother’ or ‘weatha’ instead of ‘weather’ is African. Even taking a racially charged word like ‘nigger’ and replacing the ‘er’ with an ‘a,’ thereby removing the European use of the front of the mouth, is African.
There is so much shame attached to our African ancestry that we do all we can to distance ourselves from it. We are ashamed of our hair. We are ashamed of our body types. We cringe because we are descendants of the slaves that survived. If we are here, it is only because they were resilient. We are ashamed of what should make us proud.
Black people need a revolution of the mind and spirit. Our history was stolen from us. We were conditioned to see our bodies as unattractive. We devalue black critical intellectualism as being too ‘angry.’ We need to embrace who we are— who we have always been.
Marcus Garvey would often say: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” He may have been wrong concerning many things, but about this he was right. We must admit that we are mentally enslaved. Once we admit this, we can do the hard work of freeing our minds.
But the question remains…do you want to be free?