Playing Black 「黒人を演じる」

Identity is a performance. Whether or not one ascribes to the roles thought to be predetermined by one’s social group, religion or race, people draw things to themselves to try to define who they think they are or aren’t. They believe these visual cues express to others a clearer image of their idealized selves. In the 1970s and ‘80s in America, the Black community witnessed a revival, one that emerged from the solidarity created through the “Separate but Equal” doctrine of the mid 1950s, but somehow different from Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” movement of the ‘60s. The fight for equality [on its face] had been won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that enforced Black rights under the 13th through 15th Amendments. Black people no longer gathered to fight for equality like before, but for a new voice. An identity. “Blackness” had finally gone mainstream.

“Blackness” was at its height in popularity. Black people were represented in film (“Blaxploitation” and other), television sitcoms and politics like never before. But with this new popularity came the need to invent a new “face” for “Blackness.” Although now a tedious term like “synergy” or “the future,” the word “Blackness” guided people into a community as this new identity developed, expressed through Afro-centrism and the eventual hip-hop influences of the 1980s. The goal of the community was no longer to find ways into the system, but to express identity alongside and in defiance to popular culture. Much like the “punk” culture of the 1960s and 70s, music guided the trends of this change and clothing became a recognizable extension of this identity.

Influenced by the styles of artists like Sun Ra and later, Afrika Bambaataa, “Afrocentric-style” was born. The “afro” hairstyle continued its popularity from the 60s and Black people wore dashikis (ornate African shirts), kufis (knit caps) and African medallions. And starting on the streets of New York, the burgeoning hip-hop culture influenced dressing styles and gained popularity as “B-boy” style became the preferred dress of Black youth. These young people wore hairstyles like the “high-top” and “fade” along with Adidas tracksuits, “shell-toes” (shoes), gold chains and “Kangol” brand hats. All these became the veritable uniform of the Black revival. And those that ascribed to this new Black identity became instantly recognizable as members of the community.

The performance was complete. The actors were identifiable and the identity was solidified in items that marked what it “looked like” to be Black. But with “Blackness” becoming mainstream, it became susceptible to outside [marketing] forces. The easier it is for members of a group to be identified, the easier it is for them to face re-definition from cultural outsiders. Outsiders who think they “get” what the group is trying to express. Intention is ignored and meaning reduced to a few signifiers. The identity was being co-opted. And as “Blackness” gained more notoriety it became more of an act. The defiance this new “Blackness” represented made it desirable. “Cool.” And “things” became Black. It was marketable. Generic. Transferable. A costume. A disguise. “Blackness” became a commodity. The uniform was no longer only an extension of the group or a representation of an idea or cultural imperative. “Blackness” was available to anyone that was able to purchase it. And new actors arose to perform their “Black act.”

The difficulty with playing roles is authenticity of performance. Like performances of any kind, you have to wonder if the performer is true to the story it refers, or if intention can lend authenticity to a costume. That is hard to gauge. The embrace from some Asian people of Black culture goes beyond love of hip-hop and “Bomb perms”. Take young people in Japan. We can believe that they are drawn to the “difference” offered by Black culture. Both Black and Japanese communities are similar in that they have experienced an identity crisis marked by an objective lack of variety. Subjective difference was not enough to prevent generalizations of the group as a whole, and some members decided to reevaluate how they wanted to be perceived. Their group identities may represent the need for separation from a seemingly “homogenized” community by expressing difference as credible and equal to mainstream identity. Any “Black” costume may just be an extension of that need, and just one of the many examples of Japanese, and Black, modern identity.

There is a freedom in being able to reinvent one’s identity. The need for change often arises from the desire to escape the confines of group definition, futile though it may be. So identity is always changing. And although identity is an act, it takes more than a costume to make people believe what is being performed. What do these items say for the individual if they can so easily be transferred to another? Items used to express identity are empty. They are at best suggestions to others of who we think we are. They are only lent significance when they make these references, but have no meaning of their own. What is left to claim? A performance is only as good as its actors, and both Black and Japanese people have continued to make statements to assert their individuality. They continue to invent new ways to tell the world who they are. Whether cultural outsiders truly “get” what these groups are trying to express is anyone’s guess.







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