Repost: Black Like Me, in honor of Brazil’s Black Consciousness Day (20 Nov)

I originally posted this essay in May of 2009, as I was wrapping up my fourth year in Colombia, specifically in the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla. I now live in Brazil, a country with half of its 190 million people considered to be of African descent, many of whom live in poverty. I’m eager to see how my outlook on this topic changes during my time here. More remains to be written…

Day before yesterday, I posted this as my status on Facebook:
Acabo de caminar del gimnasio. Hoy es un día brillante de sol tropical. Y bajo de ese sol iluminante, se me dió cuenta que yo era el único negro/moreno/mulato en la calle que no era obrero, vigilante, mulero, vendedor de cocadas o aguacate, o muchacho de servicio. ¿Qué vaina tan desesperante?

I just walked home from the gym. Today is bright with tropical sun. And under that illuminating sun, I noticed that I was the only black/African-descended guy in the street who wasn’t a construction worker, security guard, mule driver, coconut treat or avocado seller, or servant boy. How depressing!

An immediate response from a FB friend:
Interesante, pero qué negro? Vos no lo sos o no pareces.

Interesting, but what do you mean black? You’re not, or you don’t look it.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been plagued by the eternal question, “What are you?” I won’t lie and say that I’ve always had a solid racial identity, but for most of my 31 years, I’ve lived life as a black American male, albeit one of obvious mixed phenotype. Growing up in the American South, my identity was never questioned by whites, only by the other blacks I went to school with, often pointing to my curly ‘fro and calling to me in faux-Spanish, “catada-potodo” and all that jazz. My mother, herself the recipient of much vitriol from her darker-skinned peers during her years in segregated schools and at an HBCU in the late 50s, told me how she had often been mistaken for white during the pale winter months of her youth. But despite her recent European ancestry and light-bright-damn-near complexion, she was born in 1938, under the equalizing rule of hypodescent in the United States, with the requisite single drop which once and forever placed her on the dark side of the color line. And it was under the same culture and climate of that rule that I was born in 1977, reddish-brown, darkening in summer, with features sitting halfway between two continents.

That did not mean, however, that I was raised culturally confused à la Diff’rent Strokes. I grew up in a black neighborhood, in a black Baptist church, in a black family with members “from coal to cream.” My youth was always a little bit Cosby, a little bit Good Times, a dash of 227, and a whole lot of Amen. I was surrounded by institutions of black middle-class success, not quite Atlanta-level entrepreneurial luxury, but the fruits of striving, college-educated Southerners who marched in high-stepping bands and continued to serve the Greek letter organizations they joined back when it meant something; and always within a ten minute drive of the ‘hood and the cheap Chinese take-outs and barbecue joints. I was a member of a black Boy Scout troupe and learned about W.E.B. Du Bois and Madam C.J. Walker and Charles Drew as a part of the McKnight Achievers Honor Society. Curly hair notwithstanding (receding, actually), I grew up black. And I know what it means to be followed around in stores, to attend a high school with 50s-era library books, and to be harassed by the police.

I’ve come to reconcile my phenotype the way I reconcile my interests, that to be black—physically, culturally, emotionally, spiritually, politically—is not to be monolithic. That we are, in every range, dimension, and manifestation imaginable. It took me going through stages of emotional maturity, attending a mostly-black high school (where I was hated for being a fat Oreo nerd) and an HBCU (where it was finally cool to be smart, diverse, and culturally inquisitive), and traveling through the realms of my brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, most notably Latin America (where I initially had the naive expectation that people who looked like me also thought like me).

“Why you wanna be a black nigger?
I was asked that once by a Colombian woman who had lived for a while in the United States and couldn’t get her translation right; Spanish subtitles for American movies and TV shows give “negro” for both black and nigger. Though I’m sure she was educated in the proper derogatory terminology during her time in New York. Anyway, her question was prompted by my response to her original query of whether or not I was Latino (that catch-all term which incorporates Spanish-speaking cultures from Mexico to Argentina and truly means absolutely nothing outside of an American cultural context, and even then…), something often asked of me. My answer is always either negro americano, afro-americano, or a mix of the two. More often than not, this answer is never accepted at face value, hence her perplexity at why I would choose to identify myself as something A) seemingly unpleasant, judging by her tone and facial expression, and B) apparently untrue.

See, in Latin America, the race issue is less, pardon the pun, black and white than it is in the US. The Spaniards and Portuguese, already a mixed lot, had much less reluctance than their British counterparts in planting their seeds in foreign soil, so to speak. In fact, an entire range of interesting names developed to accompany the corresponding array of skin tones, hair textures, and facial dimensions, the most prevalent being mestizo (white/indigenous), mulato (white/black), and zambo (black/indigenous). Along with this color gradation came social value, rated according to your position: African slaves, invariably, at the bottom. Underlying this system was the exact opposite idea of hypodescent—one drop of any other blood kept you from being black (though not necessarily enslaved), and some places even allowed enterprising mixed-bloods to purchase whiteness (don’t worry, folks, I’ve included a bibliography below). Wrap all this in the typical European colonial social matrix that privileged whiteness above all else (repeated throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia), and you can understand why no one in their right mind would actually choose to be black in Latin America if they didn’t have to. Why would anyone want to identify with a group of people who, still in 2009, maintain the lowest position on the social ladder in the countries where they are greatest in number, and whose color is a euphemism for poor, dirty, and ugly? Where a Spanish word for cute (mono) is default for blond and where one “German” or “Spanish” grandfather is enough for people who look like Denzel or Oprah to claim, “I’m not black, I’m mulatto,” as if that were a badge of honor (of course, there are no Colombian Oprahs or Denzels because maybe they don’t want to be on TV or in movies here in Colombia, right?).

It’s this same lack of identification that keeps the colonial structure in place, because there’s not enough unity or anger to incite any type of focused paradigm shift reminiscent of the American Civil Rights Movement. The segregation here is most certainly economic, but that functions as a proxy for race when the majority of the lower-class, with no access to adequate education or jobs, is indigenous or of quite obvious African-descent, and the number in the upper classes is negligible (of course, everybody always seems to know the one exception that proves the rule). And people here tend to think that their mixed-raced societies indicate the lack of racism; I’ma tell you that fucking your dusky, voluptuous maid (or paying her to deflower your 15-year-old son) is not the same as legitimate socioeconomic mobility.

100% Negro
Here in Colombia, I’ve been called racist for even talking about race, and for pointing out inequalities that had theretofore gone unnoticed. I’ve been called divisive and off-putting for being proud of my own heritage by people who think nothing of invoking their Italian or German or Norwegian ancestry. I even had a fellow professor once ask, exasperatedly, if we had to talk about race on a Friday afternoon just after I discovered a student had included “nigger” in an academic paper! (Must be nice to have the luxury of scheduling life’s inconveniences, you douche). Still, people can call me any number of things, but it doesn’t reduce the ingrained responsibility I feel for educating and raising the consciousness of my own people as well as others.

When asked why I care so much, I answer that it is because of sheer luck and cosmic grace that my ancestors’ slave ship docked in Charleston and not Cartagena, Santo Domingo, Kingston, or Salvador. Because the United States proves over and over, despite severe and deeply-ingrained problems, that it is, in my opinion, the only country in the hemisphere where people of African descent have a decent shot at unfettered success regardless of skin tone, last name, foreign parentage, or bank account balance (Canadians, correct me if I’m wrong). And like the Afro-Colombians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and some 90 million Brazilians, to name a precious few, I am the descendant of Africans brought over to the Americas as property, speak a European language, and have been acculturated to European mores and values. The language may be different, but the history and heritage unite us. That is why I care about what becomes of a bright 12-year-old black kid who has to stop school to sell chewing gum on the side of the road in Barranquilla to help his mom pay rent. That is why I care about what becomes of the 20-somethings who should be studying law instead of selling their bodies to the highest bidder at the clubs in Rio. That is why I care about what becomes of the Caracas street pharmacist with the business acumen of a Fortune 500 executive. Because under a different set of circumstances, they all could have been me.

There are varying levels of black consciousness throughout Latin America, with Cuba leading the pack and Brazil, Panama, and Venezuela at least showing up to the conversation. But there is still a huge dearth in the number of socioeconomically successful Afro-Latinos/negros/morenos/mulatos/whateverthehellyouwannacallem to serve as examples for younger generations to aspire to, or for non-blacks to see as proof of a people’s abilities. So I willingly accept it as my duty to be an example to my people in the Diaspora, regardless of language or nationality, that black does not have to mean poor and uneducated and ugly (or shoe-leather dark).

My aim is not to pit groups of people against each other; it is to instill sufficient pride in a marginalized and victimized group of people to have them demand better for themselves from themselves, their governments, and their communities. To insist on equal opportunities for quality education and employment, and to see their broad features, kinky-curly hair, and dark skin as signs of resilience and fortitude, not something deficient and needing to be “improved” with each successive generation. I’m young, gifted, and black. I’m black and beautiful. I’m black and full of flavor. I’m black and proud (and uppity to boot!). And I want them to know what it means to be black like me.


Aside from the four years I’ve spent living in and traveling through Latin America, there are a few pivotal books that have deepened my understanding of the people and their societies:

Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press USA, 2004.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Newest printing – Wilder Publications, 2008. (Originally published, 1903).

Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves (Casa-Grande e Senzala): a Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. New York: Random House, 2000. (Originally published, 1933).

Robinson, Eugene. Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Whitten, Norman E. and Arlene Torres (Eds.). Blackness in Latin America & the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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Feliz Na Vida: Sou Vai-Vai

Vai-Vai was my first. In January of 2006, during my first trip to São Paulo, I became washed in the downpour of sound and energy that is the open-air rehearsal of the Vai-Vai Samba School.  I fell in love with Brazil that night.  With the cadences that were only two or three beats away from the black high school and college drumlines I grew up with.  With the beautiful people – women and men – who sang and danced and invited anyone and everyone into their tight-knit community with a wink and a smile.  With those same beautiful people who represented every age and color, trending heavily, of course, to the profound darker hues of the spectrum: black people from coal to cream, rehearsing for a Brazilian cultural institution as steeped in African ritual and interaction, maybe even more so, as any other in the Diaspora.  Vai-Vai was my first, which is why you’ll find me carousing with her every Sunday from now til Carnival.  She’s what brought me to Brazil.

“Meu Povo.  Minha Gente.  Minha Raça.  Minha Escola.”

Video from this Sunday’s practice:

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Global Juke Joint: Subway Sounds (Classic Lounge Edition)

Next time you’re on the train…

Berlin: U8 to Hermannstraße

Buenos Aires: Línea C to Constitución

London: Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters

New York: 2 Train – Uptown & The Bronx

Tokyo: Ginza Line to Shibuya

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Berlin to Brazil: A Suggested Itinerary

8:00am  Wake up after having gone to bed at, oh, 3:30am.

8:15am  Run out the door of your friend’s apartment, down five flights of stairs with two large carry-ons and a briefcase, and down three blocks to the U-Bahn station.

8:24am  Board the subway at Hermannplatz, pushing your way through the morning commuters to grab a bit of hand-space to hold onto while balancing your bags precariously over the head of a commuting toddler.

8:50am  Exit eighteen stops later at Jungfernheide Station (wha?), then stand freezing and coughing in a 50-degree Fahrenheit cloud of second-hand smoke at the bus stop.

8:59am  Board the TXL Express bus for Tegel Airport.  The bus name makes me want to throw up a three-finger gangsta sign and bark “Tee-Ex-Ell!”

9:15am  Arrive at the airport, the excitement of flying back to the States tempered by the sorrow you feel at leaving one of the most interesting, avant-garde cultural centers on the planet, and notice that your 11:30am departure has been pushed back to 1:30pm.  WTF?

9:35am  Go to Burger King and have a sausage, egg, and cheese croissant.

9:50am  Walk around the airport.  It’s small.

9:55am  Score in-flight magazines from Air Berlin and Brussels Airlines.  Air France is nice and at least checks to see if there are any mags available in the back of the office.  Lufthansa looks at you like, “moron, you get them ON the plane.”  Iran Air says they don’t even fly to Berlin and looks at you like, “I’m just ready for it to be five o’clock.”

10:30am  Sit down and start to read the in-flight magazines.

11:55am  Go to Burger King and get a couple of cheeseburgers, no fries.

12:30pm  Go through security and wait for boarding.

12:50pm  Board.  Bored.

1:40pm  The captain explains that there had been a technical problem in New York which forced a departure delay for the in-coming flight.  In addition, because of the strike in France, no planes could fly over French airspace (which I never knew lay between New York and Berlin along the Great Circle Route), so the plane had to fly further north and would have to do the same on the return, adding an hour of flight time.  Wup, bye-bye connection to see yo mama-nem in Jacksonville.

1:43pm  Take-off.  Somewhere over the North Atlantic, watch the Wanda Sykes comedy special (that shit was funny) and an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (the one where Vivica Fox breaks up with Larry David).  The rest of the movie options are crap, so try and watch Death at a Funeral, but turn that foolishness off ten minutes in; it’s ridiculous.

5:00pm  Arrive at JFK.  Sit on the ramp for 20 minutes waiting for a gate.  Be indignant that no one at the JFK branch of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had the foresight to ensure a free gate for a two-and-a-half-hour late flight.

6:00pm  Get re-booked on the 8:30am nonstop from LaGuardia to Jacksonville.

6:30pm  Get on Skype and try to find someone who lives near LGA to crash with.  One friend has her couch occupied by a bed-bug victim.  Another friend lives in a matchbox with a too-short loveseat and the ugly prospect of having to take the M60.  The friend you end up staying with won’t be home from work in New Jersey until 1am.  Remember, you have three bags with you.

6:50pm  Bullshit around Queens for a few hours before settling in at Sanfords in Astoria.  At this point, it’s already past midnight in Germany, where your body still thinks you are.

12:35am  Put toothpicks in your eyelids to keep from falling off the barstool at Sanford’s.

1:40am  Your friend shows up a bit late because of single-tracking underneath the Hudson River and New Jersey Transit has lowest priority.  Walk the few blocks to her house and catch up for a bit.

2:45am  Finish catching up and fall unconscious onto the futon.  Sleep lightly, though, because of the big-ass cat she has that likes to climb onto people’s heads.

6:00am  Wake up, wash up, and check email for any flight delays.

6:15am  Run outside to catch the black luxury sedan your ordered from Pedro’s or Pepe’s or somebody to take you to the airport.

6:30am  Shake your head at the traffic already clotting on the Grand Central Parkway.

6:45am  Get to LGA, but run through the terminal looking for an ATM since the luxury sedan driver doesn’t take credit cards – it’s not an NYC taxi, after all.

6:59am  Check into the flight, standby of course.  Cross your fingers and hope you can snag one of the two open seats on the regional jet flying down to Florida.

7:20am  Be indignant that the Burger King in the Delta terminal has been replaced by some other bullshit you never heard of.

8:25am  Thank Jesus and four more white people that you made the flight.

11:15am  Have some sweet tea and Cocoa Pebbles cereal at yo mama house.

11:30am-until  Do random family things for two days and have a pre-birthday dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack where you’re forced to do a chicken dance on camera.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Two Days Later~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

10:00am  Arrive in Atlanta, see friends (including Jay Travels), and do a bit of shopping for things you know you can’t get cheaply in Brazil.

8:30pm  Arrive at the airport for your 9:15 flight to Brasilia because you thought it left at 9:35.  Take an extra-long time at security.  Run to the train that takes you to the various concourses in the airport.

8:45pm  Because of Murphy’s Law, the train gets stuck at Concourse C.  Run the two miles to Concourse E, then the other half-mile to the very farthest gate in the goddamned terminal.

8:55pm  Thank Jesus and the other white folk again for having made it to the gate just as the standbys were being called.

9:45pm  The captain announces that there is a technical problem with the wing and that they have to switch aircraft.  New departure time: 12:30am.

12:30am  On a larger aircraft, the captain announces that you’re Number One for take-off.  Really?  Could we not have guessed by the absence of other moving aircraft on the ramp and taxiways?

11:20am  Arrive in Brasilia waaaaay later than the scheduled 8:15 arrival time.

11:55am  Retrieve your bags when the conveyor finally gets fixed.

12:00pm  Get to your old apartment, load the car, take a shower, get lunch.

2:00pm  Hit the highway for São Paulo.  Total distance: 716 miles, half of which is on a two-lane road.  Do the trip in 9 hours.  Find a Burger King.