Belonging & Blackness
by Diamond Marie Gonzalez St. Baptiste
When we think of what home truly means, we are moved by a sense of belonging, a space that is both physical and conceptual. In fact, throughout history, Black communities have retained pieces of an idea that connects the diaspora to a shared past and a shared homeland. But as we ride out the worst of the COVID-19 storm across the globe, many are contemplating their individual needs and whether their physical spaces – made of brick and stone, where they rest their heads at night – align with their spiritual idea of home. Using historical and artistic milestones of the diaspora, this essay explores the evolution of the Black home as an ideological framework.
Art Credit: “It Starts Here” by Leroy Campbell; Fabric and paper on canvas, 2017.
The world view of early Africans connected the concept of home to a complex relationship between the individual self, the community, the divine, the ancestors, and the gods. (Holbrook, 138) The home was more than a physical place. The physical world as well as a metaphysical, spirit world combined to create a home that the community was a small part of. Equally sacred, these shared values of connecting spirit and land, which has survived through time – and well beyond the rise the Pan African movement – may be our strongest cultural link yet, found amongst many, if not all, of the tribes that make up the diaspora.
Home on the physical plane and home in the spirit world co-exist and are not mutually exclusive in the time prior to enslavement. European interruption and the movement of African bodies across the Atlantic alters the idea, if only slightly, but does not destroy it. On the continent of Africa, the way of life begins to change. Under the weight of colonial rule on ancestral land, negotiating and adapting ritual and other community-centric practices to appease and sometimes to assimilate becomes a matter of survival. And for those who were enslaved, “home” takes root in the idea of family and blood ties, and the desire for freedom, however aspirational the latter may seem.
We see this in Negro spirituals and the prominent poetry born from slavery, like the anonymous “Ouoi? Tu te tais Peuple Indigene!”, also known as the Haitian Hymn, which speaks to reclamation of “home” through Black nationalism and freedom.
“Ouoi? Tu te tais Peuple Indigene!”
What? Native Race! Would you remain silent?
What? Native Race! Would you remain
Silent, unmoved, when hero’s hand?
Avenges you, breaks slavery’s chain,
Return rights from your stolen land,
Return rights from your stolen land?
The poet created a connection between the liberation of the people, the land and a sense of belonging. This establishes a “native” identity creating a home in freedom. This idea reflects throughout the Negro Spirituals of the south, which home is a reoccurring theme in the songs that keep an oral history of African tradition alive. While generations of enslaved blacks were born in the Americas, their tradition remained closely linked to their history. Call-and-response, for example, was used in performance and spiritual practices in African communities but was brought to the Americas. Spirituals are born from this tradition and European religious hymns. Like the Haitian Hymn in the spirituals, home is intertwined with freedom. The idea of freedom in North America adapts to a more religious culture and we see this in the Spirituals collected over the antebellum era. Freedom in the spirituals lived in coded language and was understood in many ways. Freedom through escape or abolition, freedom granted by God or freedom through death. (Levine) Biblical references such as “Sweet Cannon”, “The promised land” were interchangeable with the line “My home.” These religious sentiments were used as a coded language of escape or desire to escape to freedom. (McMickle 2002) Lines such as “This worlds a raging wilderness. This world is not my home” and “Lord, take my mother home” expressed the disconnect captive Blacks felt in their oppressive reality, they pursued comfort and assurance in a home that would not be denied to them like their freedom was in the physical or secular world. (McMickle 2002) (Collected Negro Spirituals)
(Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is”)
and “The Slave Mother” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
“The Slave Mother” (Excerpt)
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.
Francis Ellen Watkins writes of a different home found within the grips of slavery, she discusses how the home can be found through love and familial bonds. Her poem, “The Slave Mother” describes the separation of an enslaved mother from her child, the mother in the piece has no right to claim the home she found in the child she bore.
When freedom is delivered the collective concept of home changes. The migration movements to northern cities and the emphasis of literacy began to shape a new ideology surrounding the Black community. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 and emancipated at the age of 9, because he was raised through an era with a heavy focus on Black education he taught himself how to read, shaping his perspective for the future of the Black race. He was famously known for his ideas to uplift the race through “accommodationism”.(Rudolph, West 54) He believed the quickest way to improve the quality of Black American life was to accept discrimination and elevate status through material gain, his ideas focused heavily on an economic standpoint. Washington would play a great role in carving out the politics of respectability, the concept of assimilating or blending into the white workforce of America to slowly mend race relations. Booker T. Washington’s concept of home relied on American middle-class status and adapting to whiteness. WEB Du Bois was born free in 1868, like Booker T. Washington he believed in the importance of educating the newly freed masses. Still, he openly disagreed with Washington’s belief in accommodating limited rights, citizenship and discrimination at any cost. Du Bois’ famous concept introduced in The Souls of Black Folk, explores the idea of Double Consciousness, he explains it as:
“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world who looks on amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
This fractured identity is where Du Bois places the Black home. A home that is being negotiated between two selves. A home that is both Africa and both America that can not be reconciled on an individual level through economic gain. Du Bois’ work champions for community and the refusal to settle for accommodationism.
Garveyism, the term coined for the beliefs of Marcus Garvey takes on elements of Washington and Dubois but is a very different movement. Perhaps the difference between the movement is based on a difference in origin. Marcus Garvey, was born and raised in St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica, he experienced his first experience with racism at the age of 14, exposing him to the reality of global race relations. In 1910 while abroad, Garvey found a connection to the Pan-African movement of England, at its core the movement was about the solidarity of Black communities around the globe against imperialism. (Stein 29) This would leave an impact on Garvey’s ideology surrounding global race relations. His famous “Back to Africa” movement created an Afrocentric idea of home separate from the previous movements that were established in relation to whiteness. His political doctrine created the idea that the Black home was solely in its ancestral land, Africa or in a separate black state.
While in Brazil, Afro- Brazilian Poet Lino Guedes roots the idea of home in individuality and revolution. Post-emancipation poets took on an individual voice. They separated from the communal voice of their ancestral poetry. Guedes is credited as the father of Afro-Brazilian poetry. The mestizo who was once enslaved by his father began his literary career at the first Afro-Brazilian newspaper founded in Sao Paulo. (Malinoff,45) “O canto do Cysne Preto”, “Song of the Black Swan”, 1927 marks the rise of his poetic career. He is well known for his work in the resistance movement Frente Negra Brasileria in 1931 until the movement was ended by the dictatorship in 1937. (Malinoff, 47) Guedes used satire to comment on slavery and on folk culture with a passive tone focused on suffering. Guedes built the Afro-Brazilian concept of home in traditional rituals but he alters these traditions by putting the individuals search for freedom, for a home outside of the communal perspective.
The Harlem Renaissance began a new era of Afrocentric awareness through artistic expression. The leading poet of the movement, Langston Hughes, was born in 1902 in the center of Harlem. His work centered around the reality of Black life, meanwhile works like A Montage of a Dream Deferred were honest about the black struggle, Hughes shed a new light on the beauty of urban, Black life; the center of his work being the Black home. In the work of Langston Hughes, the Black literal and figurative home served as the site for love, community and cultural expressions such as Be-Bop music and the blues. His work “Neighbor” defines another vital aspect of the home and Black culture, the stoop:
he sets on the stoop
and watches the sun go down.
He shows us a place in the home where Black culture is alive, where songs are sung, music is played aloud, men share stories and women watch children play on hot Harlem, summer nights. This establishes the idea that there is a culturally valuable connection within the black home. This idea was contested by media and literature continuing to spread post-emancipation stereotypes of disconnected Negro family structures and self-imposed unstable home lives.
In his piece, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Langston Hughes connects Blackness to a homeland in both Africa and American black capitals:
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Excerpt)
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Through this work, Langston Hughes begins a radical idea, that both the Motherland and the urban centers of North America, be that Harlem or New Orleans or Birmingham, etc. They are all at once the home of the Native Afro-American because of a connection to a shared past. Knowingly or unknowingly connecting his poetry to the double conscious concept of Du Bois.
Negritude was a movement of affirming black culture, heritage and identity. The movement amongst Afro-French and French-speaking Caribbeans deliberately rejected assimilation. Adopting the term of the Harlemites “the New Negro.” (Vaillant, 93-94) At the forefront of the movement was Martinique’s Aimé Cesaire. After completing his schooling, Cesaire returns to Martinique and writes his best-known work, a book-length poem, A Notebook of a Return to the Homeland, He explores the relationship the people of Martinique have to their homeland, as well as the concept of home being something denied to the people of African descent because of French colonialism, as well as the control that resulted from the historic relationship.
In this excerpt of his piece:
At the end of daybreak,
this town sprawled-flat, toppled from its common sense, inert, winded under its geometric weight of an eternally renewed cross, indocile to its fate, mute, vexed no matter what,
incapable of growing with the juice of this earth,
self-conscious, clipped, reduced,
in breach of fauna and flora.
Cesaire speaks of Martinique as a place stunted by the effects of colonialism. It is a home that is unwelcoming because of race. In the second part of the poem the narrator presents himself as a savior. His work has the values of negritude and the culture of the people of Martinique. Through this Cesaire finds a home in Martinique that his people can connect to through community.
Solano Trinidade was the “Poet of the People” and he changes the movement of poetry in Brazil into an artwork that was confrontational of a system of oppression. Trindade openly accepted Blackness and began a return to African elements of culture. In his autobiographical poem, he writes:
When I was born
My father was pounding shoe-leather
Sister was grinding corn in the mortar
For the morning’s angu
Using Angu, a word of African origin that describes a traditional cornmeal dish, the author connected his birthright and his home to Africa. With this poem he changes the ideology or principles of Afro-Brazilian poetry. Negritude aimed to connect Black Brazilians to a past before enslavement. His poem created a separate identity for the Afro-Brazilian that is rooted in an ancestral homeland. Like Langston Hughes poetry, Trinidad uses the black family to anchor the concept of home continuing an era and legacy of reclamation.
In “Sou Negro”, Trinidad claims his Blackness, as well as his African heritage. This poem captures the essence of the Negritude movement. He connects the children of the diaspora to one sacred past and to one home:
I am Black
My ancestors were burnt
by the sun of Africa
my soul received the baptism of the drums
While there is a literary return to Africa, the Negritude movement was more than written work. Every day, working-class blacks of the diaspora openly rejected the Eurocentric or white standards and the politics of respectability. Clothing like dashikis, kente cloth and pendants became not only a fashion statement but a political one. Hair became a symbol of identity, masses rejected altering their hair. (Vargas, 2-3) Black Panther member Kathleen Cleaver responded to a reporter asking about the Afro movement of 1968. Cleaver said:
“This brother here, myself and all of us were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this because it’s natural.”
Embodying the idea no element of blackness had to be compared to the European beauty standards that had been made a standard. Taking back a natural black aesthetic or look, creates a home in a space that has rejected blackness, It creates a reason to fight for justice. These ideas of reclamation find their way into BAM, the Black Arts Movement.
The Black Arts Movement created a new flood of consciousness or way of thinking around the value of blackness and the meaning of home. The famous expatriate writer Richard Wright held a mirror up to the race relations of America. Wright, using Bigger in Native Son as a symbol of blackness critiques both the racialized society as well as the liberal political agenda. In Wright’s view, liberalism is a tool of whiteness to ignore the impact of race on the future. (Afflerbach 92) In Richard Wright’s Native Son the home is a symbol of confinement and limitations. In fact he begins the work in the small, one-bedroom apartment of Bigger and his family in Chicago. The desolate home is a reflection of Biggers options and of his scope.
“Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands.” (Wright 15)
Richard Wright was apart of the expatriate group. The expatriates were a literary group connected by their leaving of the United States of America, their commentary of American politics, and the consequences concerning race and class. Wright willingly abandons the limited and isolated home created for him and he escapes the confinement through a small amount of access he obtained with education and literary success. Richard Wright’s America was not a home he chose, instead, he chose to live in Paris where many black artists, writers and musicians found a home away from the reality of American confinement.
Black art movement poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, like Wright, used the confinement of the home in her work. “Kitchenette Building” uses poetic phrasing to frame both reality and dreams, within the black home.
kitchenette building (Excerpt)
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Unlike Wright’s Bigger, “kitchenette building” uses Du Bois’ double consciousness throughout the piece. The narrator’s home becomes a space of drab reality and aspects of complex, beautiful dreams. The reality of the smell of garbage is compared with the sophistication of an aria, a solo of an opera. The home is made up of both ideas. Brooks finds the possibility of escape through dream despite the limitations found in the kitchenette apartment building the narrator calls a home.
Home on a modern platform can take on a range of meanings. Within rap music, the home is often referred to as a “hood”. This continues the idea of community as a collective black home. The Digable Planets continued a politicized use of the idea of home. In “La Femme Fatale” the last line lingers:
“Home of the free. Well not me. Not me.”
The music group uses this line to recognize America as a home of political contradictions, using the ideas of expatriate Richard Wright’s work.
Compton’s Ice Cube released “It was a Good Day” in 1992. In the song, he lists all of the things that could have gone wrong in his neighborhood but didn’t, like Langston Hughes he exposes the threat and reality of this home. Despite the possibility of murder or police interaction , Ice Cube recognizes South LA as a part of him by highlighting black culture. Ice Cube’s idea of home is where he experiences joy and suffering beside his community in his hometown.
Then we played bones, and I’m yellin’ domino
Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.
“Today was a good day”
The concept of the Black home has seen its transition throughout the eras following the historical and cultural interruptions of African peoples. In a time when Ghana adopted 126 Afro- Caribbeans and Americans as citizens to mark the Year of Return home and a place of belonging for Blacks of the diaspora is still reflected in the motherland(Asiedu, 2019). The art of Black communities throughout the diaspora and the political agenda of diasporan movements of today continue to view the Black home within community, ancestral heritage and political arrangements between their native nations. Going forward, what will this mean after being separated from all three due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols? How much will the concept of home adapt as politics, art, and literature will be altered by contemporary circumstances?
To download , The Souls of Black Folk, click here
To download, “kitchenette building” click here
To download Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, click here
To watch Kathleen Cleaver’s 1968 interview click here
To watch Ice Cube’s “Today was a Good Day” 1992 click here
To download “Négritude” click here
To download “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” click here
To download Montage of a Dream Deferred click here
To download “Fashion Statement or Political Statement: The Use of Fashion to Express Black Pride during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960’s” click here