"Something about the sound of twigs crunching under your feet; it’s like Massa's coming down." -- a Black Folk Don't interviewee on camping
A few years ago, I walked into a massive athletic shoe store in Harlem. I was kindly greeted by the security guards, but while I was perusing the rows of incredibly expensive shoes, a Black male salesperson approached me.
"You aren't from here, are you?" he asked politely.
"Uh, no. I’m from Toronto."
He looked confused. "Where's that?"
"In Canada?" I couldn't believe he didn’t know where Toronto was. "How did you know I wasn't from New York?"
He pointed at my feet. "Your shoes. Black people around here don't wear those shoes."
What the hell did that mean? He wasn’t trying to be rude or snarky, and his response was well measured and matter of fact. But I suddenly felt a bit awkward, and quickly left the store.
Producer Angela Tucker's Black Folk Don't mixes interviews with people on the street with conversations from notables like MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry and author and MSNBC host Toure. The web series, which began its second season in June, is an often-hilarious -- yet serious -- look at norms that can be either comforting or culturally limiting.
Each webisode takes on one common assumption, such as the ideas that Black folks don't like animals, swim, camp, or ski. Fans vote on topic ideas online, and each episode asks people -- in both impromptu street and formal sit-down interviews) what they think of the assumption. Some interviewees believe it's wrong to generalize about the habits and traits of 14 million African-Americans; others seem to think nothing of their self-imposed limitations -- as if, because they have never seen another Black person ski or camp, we simply don't do it.
So why, or how, do these assumptions happen? In a webisode about eating disorders. Clutch Magazine writer Britni Danielle examines the stereotypical notions of Black women's bodies, which are commonly referred to as "thick," "curvy," and, of course, "bootylicious." How then, could Black women have any issues with anorexia or bulimia? Danielle points out that a different kind of eating disorder may be prevalent among Black women:
"We write off those who engage in such behaviors as lazy and undisciplined, but in order to help our community to tackle our food issues, perhaps when need to start looking at our views toward food a little differently."
The video points out one uncomfortable reason why some women are "thicker" than others -- it's not because we are all genetically built that way or because Black men think that we are more attractive if we have a "little meat on our bones." It's because of overeating, which can be a symptom of depression; or the consumption of over-processed, starchy foods. Stress (which slows down metabolism, making it hard to burn unwanted carbs and sugar), depression and favoring unhealthy foods can be symptomatic of economic and social dysfunctions, which plague people who live not only on the poverty line, but those who live in food deserts where they do not have ready access to relatively cheap and healthy food alternatives.
Depression is another topic that Black Folk Don’t delves into: Black folks don’t commit suicide. While, unfortunately, many of us secretly know of Black folks who have taken their own lives, the stigma of not being strong enough to "combat" our everyday trials and tribulations is commonly perceived as being weak. People who live in faith-based communities are often told to go to church to cure their ills, but what happens when God doesn’t respond to their pleas for help?
Spoken-word poet and blogger Bassey Ikpi, who writes about her life with Bipolar II disorder, recently blogged about the sudden death of her friend, writer Erika Kennedy, who was reported to be suffering from depression. Ikpi related her fear of being "outed" as a writer with a mental disorder:
"My fears that people would read my words and personal feelings and hold it against me in some way were founded. And I was terrified of being told I was unworthy of love or understanding because of this illness that people refused to understand. I didn’t want to be that girl so I paused and went back to creating distance. I started writing about mental illness for other websites but was very careful about how I spoke about it. I kept it safe. Even as I became known as an advocate for mental illness, I still wanted to own the rights to my story and my privacy so I was selective about what parts of the story I would tell."
Other common "Black folk don'ts" include behavior traits that point to not being "Black enough." For those of us raised in non-Black communities, our dialect (or lack thereof), our dress, our hair, and our preferred music signal that we don't belong. For me, it was my love of heavy metal and my group of white, male, metal-loving friends; my dress, my hair, my family (they're White); essentially, everything about me. For a friend of mine, it was her long, naturally wavy hair, patrician features, and upper-middle class neighborhood, which her grade-school classmates envied. For other Black female friends, it was their academic acheivement. The rejection from both Black and White communities was at times unbearable, and our experiences made it hard for us, now adults, to trust that anyone would love us for being ourselves.
When filmmaker Issa Rae began her extremely popular web series, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, it struck a chord. Black folks of all ages rejoiced as Rae articulated the trials and tribulations of people who were socially awkward and didn’t fit into stereotypical norms. On her Kickstarter web page, she wrote about why she started her project (which, by the way, was successfully funded):
"I created this series as an extension of my everyday experiences, as well as my friends. I wanted to change the perception and portrayals of black women in television by creating characters and storylines that moved beyond stereotypes and one-dimensionality."
Black Folk Don’t will hopefully have the same effect. By shedding some comedic light on cultural stereotypes we inflict upon each other, we might see how foolish it is to keep ourselves in boxes. We might start to not only celebrate our differences, but even find new aspects to life that we had been too afraid to explore.
Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com
Visit the Facebook page for my book, What Are You Doing Here?
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