In “Speaking in Tongues,” her stunning essay on Barack Obama and black identity, Zadie Smith remembers how convinced she was when a student at Cambridge by the concept of a unified black voice. Then the idea faded somehow into the injunction to “keep it real,” an instruction she found like being in a prison cell:
It made Blackness a quality each individual black person was constantly in danger of losing. And almost anything could trigger the loss of one’s Blackness: attending certain universities, an impressive variety of jobs, a fondness for opera, a white girlfriend, an interest in golf. And of course, any change in the voice.
It’s absurd, looking back, she says, because black reality has diversified. We’re “black ballet dancers and black truck drivers and black presidents…and we all sing from our own hymn sheet.”1
But recently, when I asked her—in connection with the Trayvon Martin case—if she still felt that way about the hymn sheet, Smith said maybe it wasn’t possible, because there was so much hostility toward black people in the US. In England, she had thought more about class than race. In the US, she discovered that someone else can rush in and define you when you least expect it, making your being black part of an idea of blackness far outside yourself.
An armed Latino’s suspicion that a tall, thin black youth in a hoodie in a gated community at night must be an intruder up to no good closes for me discussion about a post-racial society. Private citizens can now get on a warlike footing with crime, even if the images of the criminal in their heads are racist. Trayvon Martin’s moment of instruction—as Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls the recognition scene when the black youth realizes that he or she is different, and that the white world sees black people as different, no matter how blacks feel inside—has a history, one that yanks everybody back a step.
It would seem that although black people are in the mainstream, black history still isn’t, because certain basic things about the history of being black in America—American history—have to be explained again and again. At the end of the Civil War, vast numbers of black men were on the roads looking for work, for sold-off family, for peace. In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, black men who could not prove employment or residence in…
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