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The "Black" in Black Art

When I tell people I’m a writer, they often ask a reasonable question: “What do you write about?” Usually, I respond with a handful of my most common topics and genres such as nonfiction, poetry, mental illness, and Black art, and that usually suffices as an answer. But this last theme of Black art is one that seems to grab readers’ attention most often. My more successful work is in the form of Black art, and the subject constitutes the vast majority of my writing. In fact, my family has referred to me as acclaimed Black figures like Langston Hughes because of how much I discuss it. But that didn’t sit well with me. I was a poet like Hughes and an artist undeniably, but I wouldn’t have said I worked in the same vein as him. I wrote about new aesthetics surrounding Black artists, ideas that weren’t necessarily Black, and acts of shedding Blackness in favor of an “all-encompassing aesthetic”. In other words, I didn’t feel I was as “Black-centered” as he was. I was simply an artist.

From this background, the question of “What is Black?” often rose to the surface, and during my first semester at Virginia Tech, I began processes of self-interrogation to find the answer. I dove into the historical context of my writing, understanding that many of the qualities surrounding Black Americans come from a history of U.S. racism and oppression. I had written the poem “On Neoclassicism and the Numbing of the Negro Mind” for Philologia, and I felt I had sufficient answers with that kind of focus.

Now, in my second year at Virginia Tech, I am taking a course titled “Black Aesthetics”, and just a few weeks ago, my class had the honor of featuring Pulitzer finalist and poet Dr. Evie Shockley to offer her expertise on Black stylistic qualities. In other words, she talked about the Black Aesthetic. Through the framework of art, she provided enough substance to mentally chew on for days, and even as I write this post I recall the hurried notes scattered across the lined pages of my Moleskine notebook. The most intriguing of these notes said that various types of Black art exist, and one categorization for all Black art is inaccurate.

Rashaad Newsome, When You’re Talking to Someone and You Know They are Lying but You Keep Listening, 2015, collage on paper, 33 ½ x 27 ¼ x ¼ IN

With this information, I developed a new understanding of the style. From my position, the “Black” in Black art is as simple as the “human” in the human experience. What constitutes the human experience is the context that informs the human condition, or in other words, the human experience is the interaction between humans and their environments. Artists often discuss the idea of this occurrence, asking questions like “What qualities define the human experience?” and “What connects all humans in our strivings for very different goals in life?” Documenting this condition is difficult. Any artist can say with certainty that their efforts to capture a piece of our nature is exhausting.

However, I propose this as a connection between humans and further, as a connection between Black artists; we are all humans. We breathe, we eat, we live. That is sufficient in our connection. This same principle applies to Blackness in its welcoming umbrella. And I will speak for myself in this case. I am a Black person and an artist, and because of that, I create Black art. That is what I do. Now, within that body of work, I address different topics (mental illness, love, masculinity, etc.), but that does not mean I create work that isn’t Black. I am Black, and therefore everything I do is a part of Blackness. Especially art.

Of course, the questions of “Who is Black?” and “Who can make Black art?” are valid. In light of research such as Etoroma’s “How I Became Black”, which highlights Blackness as an acquiring of cultural behaviors, I accept that Black folks have different qualifications for being Black, and I want to add this as a point: an appreciation of and participation in a group yields an understanding of that group’s culture.

So, perhaps, when people ask me what I write about, I should make a habit of saying something other than a list of genres and topics. Perhaps, I should say I write Black art and leave the matter to that statement. Then if anyone is still curious about what I write more specifically, we can have a thorough conversation about the different facets of Blackness I explore. And maybe, I’ll tell them about the connection between Black people and anime.

But I digress.

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