BIG MACHINE author, Victor LaValle, discusses black nationalism in the age of Obama.

July 16, 2009

Beyond the Skin Trade
How does black nationalism stay relevant in the age of Barack Obama?
(from Bookforum, April/May 2009)

When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to "Damage, Inc." and "I Am the Law." If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and me--the only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. I'd watch them pull off this casual magic and wish I'd been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. I'm so embarrassed to admit any of this.
Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I can't really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, let's head upstairs, to my family's apartment in Flushing, Queens. We won't meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.
My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor woman--she didn't understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, she'd stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.
The original American slaves weren't black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves' path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But that's not the only conversion story. There's the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And there's the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother.
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