Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

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Edited by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah

As relevant today as when it was first published in 2009, here is a book of essays that asks: What does it mean to have, or to love, a black body? Taking on the challenge of interpreting the black body's dramatic role in American culture are thirty black, white, and biracial contributors—award-winning actors, artists, writers, and comedians—including voices as varied as President Obama's inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, actor and bestselling author Hill Harper, political strategist Kimball Stroud, television producer Joel Lipman, former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts, and singer-songwriter Jason Luckett.

Ranging from deeply serious to playful, sometimes hilarious, musings, these essays explore myriad issues with wisdom and a deep sense of history. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's unprecedented collection illuminates the diversity of identities and individual experiences that define the black body in our culture.

With contributions from Elizabeth Alexander・Stephanie Covington Armstrong・Tonita Austin-Hilley・Anne Beatts・Annie Burrows・Kenneth Carroll・Nzingha Clarke・Meri Nana-Ama Danquah・Werner Disse・Lynell George・David Goldsmith・Hill Harper・Susan Hayden・Carolyn L. Holbrook・Kenji Jasper・Brent Jennings・ A. Van Jordan・Steven Kotler・Joel Lipman・Philip Littell・Jason Luckett・Susan E. Matus・Tajamika Paxton・S. Pearl Sharp・Kimball Stroud・Greg Tate・Kenny White・Gail Wronsky・Yolanda Young

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“ "An intimate collection of thoughts about a subject which too often causes people to retreat across distances seemingly too wide to cross." ”

“| "Danquah's literary libation to the Black body consists of a collaboration of folks—Black, White, and both—all of whom seek to convey what it's like to live in one, be a part of one, and be affected by one. Before opening The Black Body, I already had preconceived notions of how I thought it would read, considering the fact that I have a Black body, myself. I should have known better. It wasn't necessarily the topics covered that surprised me, but the way in which they were interpreted and the eloquence with which some of the authors conveyed the subject.”

“| "Meri Danquah has taken the race debate to another level, deeper and more provocative than we've gone before.”

“This singularly brave book recounts with poignancy, wit, and fierce passion the ways that Americans, black and white, have come to understand the black body. These are exquisite stories of what it is to see, and love, and to be seen, and be loved. They make an utterly compelling collection.”

“| "Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's The Black Body is a bold, cutting-edge and ultimately uplifting anthology destined to become a classic in African-American literature. There is a hunger for redemption in these ethereal essays which is triumphant.”

blog — February 22

Body Language by Nana-Ama Danquah

Body Language

by Nana-Ama Danquah

The idea that eventually became this book was rooted in my fascination with the black body, which began when, at the age of six, I emigrated with my family from Ghana to America. I don’t remember ever being aware of my blackness before then; I guess that was one of the privileges of living in a predominantly black country.

In America, it was the exact opposite. I was always keenly aware of my blackness nearly every second of every day, of how the adjective black suddenly seemed to precede every nominative description of me—black student; black girl; black friend. I even got into the habit of counting black bodies—in classrooms, on buses, at parks and beaches, wherever two or more were gathered. I don’t know what the point of doing that was, what conclusions I expected to draw; I just know that I felt compelled to do it.

Back then, I hadn’t formed any opinions or judgments about the black body. I was a child, a stranger in a strange land. What did I know of the history of the black body? I hadn’t yet learned of chattel slavery, of the countless numbers of black bodies—Africans, like me—that had been brought to America. I hadn’t yet learned of the chains and shackles, the brandings, the auction blocks, the plantations, the beatings and rapes. When I looked at a black body, what I saw was myself. It was an assurance that I would not disappear, that this sea of whiteness into which I’d been submerged would not somehow swallow me.

As I got older, it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one who paid attention to the black body. In fact, people seemed to be obsessed with it.

There were so many jokes about the black body; so many stereotypes that were whispered, passed around and perpetuated.

What do you call a black man in a three-piece suit?

There were so many representations and misrepresentations.

All black men have big penises.

The black body had its own mythology; it had its own language.

Rub a nigger’s head for good luck.

The black body, whether whole or broken down to its parts, was “ized” in every single way something could be. It was racialized, fetishized, romanticized, demonized, infantilized, criminalized, dehumanized, sexualized, criticized, ostracized, ritualized, and, much more often than we think, it was also prized.

I loved how black people always found a way to celebrate the black body, even as it was being denigrated by what seemed to be a majority of their white counterparts. The white girls I went to school with would sneer or scrunch their noses disapprovingly when they talked about black girls’ bodies: the plump lips were not to their liking, the nose was too flat and broad, and forget about the butt—oh, it was way too big. A lot of the black girls pretended they weren’t bothered. They promenaded around the hallways switching their bubble butts to the rhythm of Experience Unlimited’s go-go classic, “Da Butt.”

When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion . . .

That’s right! Shake your butt.

If only it was that easy. More often than not the pride that was being celebrated didn’t go below the surface. Deep down those of us who couldn’t boast a “typical” ballerina’s frame or fit easily into the mainstream society’s standard of beauty, felt the sting of exclusion. We wondered if there was something wrong with our bodies. We were taught that our butts were supposed to be hidden. We were encouraged to wear clothes that “flattened” our figures. We were made to feel inferior.

Saartjie Baartman had a big butt—which is one reason, the only reason, she became the ultimate icon of racial inferiority. In 1810, when Baartman first met the British Marine Sergeant William Dunlop, she was a twenty-year-old South African slave. Dunlop told her that if she went with him to England, she could earn both of them a fortune. What he failed to tell her was that she would earn that fortune with her body—or, more specifically, her buttocks. How? It would work like this: members of the European elite would pay top dollar for the chance to either glimpse or gape at Baartman’s naked posterior which, based on their standards of physical beauty and normality, they considered to be perversely large and uncivilized. It was something of a high society pay-per-view, and it went on for four years, until Baartman was sold and moved to Paris, where she was then exhibited by her new owner, a French animal trainer, as part of his traveling circus.

In addition to the constant public peek-a-booing, Baartman was also subjected to a series of intrusive and degrading examinations by the eminent French scientists of the day. Once the sensation of the “Hottentot Venus,” as Baartman had been dubbed, had lost its titillating thrill amongst polite Parisian society, she was abandoned by the animal trainer and forced into prostitution in order to survive. She died in 1815 at the age of twenty-five, an alcoholic, suffering from syphilis and tuberculosis.

The story of Saartjie Baartman’s butt doesn’t end there. After her body—just her her butt, her brain and other organs, actually—was preserved in formaldehyde, it, along with her skeleton, was handed over to the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind). There, in the museum, Baartman’s skeleton and all her parts were displayed for the next century. Yes, you read that right: her ass was pickled and bottled in a jar and exhibited for public viewing in a museum for 100 years.

Don’t be fooled into dismissing this as a tale of how the black body was treated in the past, in the 1800s, when Western society was not as “enlightened.” What this story does is confirm that even after two centuries the black body, as evidenced by the treatment of Saartjie Baartman’s remains, continued to be an object of much curiosity, of much controversy.

Let me explain:

In 1994 then-South African president Nelson Mandela submitted a formal request to have Saartjie Baartman’s remains returned to her native country. By that time, a number of international campaigns attempting the same results had already been mounted. Despite all of those efforts, the Musee de l’Homme asserted its ownership of the remains. They claimed that it was in the interest of “scientific research” for them to keep her remains. In other words, they said they owned her ass and they weren’t going to give it back.

Then-French president Francois Mitterand made a personal promise to Nelson Mandela that he would do everything in his power to make sure the matter was resolved. And though Mitterand eventually made good on his promise, it took several years for the necessary legislation, including a special act of parliament, to be passed. Finally, in April 2002, Saartjie Baartman’s skeletal remains, along with her butt and the other organs that had been preserved, were repatriated and given a proper burial.

For Christmas in 2001 a white friend, for reasons I still don’t understand, presented me with a copy of the book Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. It is the story of a twenty-three-year-old Congolese pygmy who was brought to America in 1904 to be “displayed” in the St. Louis World’s Fair. After he had been “displayed” in the fair for several months, Ota Benga was taken to the Bronx Zoo where he, his hammock, and his bow-and-arrow were placed in the Monkey House with the monkeys, chimpanzees, and gorillas. There he stayed—sharing a cage with an orangutan and a parrot—on exhibit for the zoo’s visitors as a way of affirming current racial myths and stereotypes. The director of the zoo insisted that there was no difference “between a wild beast and the little black man.” On some days Ota Benga attracted as many as 40,000 visitors. They—children and adults alike—would stare at him, poke him, and chase him around the park.

The public outcry against Ota Benga’s situation—or, one might say, incarceration—was immediate. Ota Benga himself also did much to help his own case, securing a knife on one occasion and brandishing it around the park at those who tried to chase him; using his bow-and-arrow on other occasions to retaliate against people who threw things at him and poked him. Within a short period of time, he was removed from the zoo and placed in an orphanage asylum, where attempts were made to formally educate him. He eventually settled into a job at a tobacco factory and became somewhat independent. He also became extremely depressed by the realization that he might never be able to return to his homeland, that he might remain in a country where he was the subject of freakish fascination. He borrowed a pistol and shot himself in the heart.

The book was captivating, but I found the story of Ota Benga incredibly disturbing. It reminded me of Saartjie Baartman and her plight, especially since the return of her remains was making headlines around the same time that I was reading about Ota Benga. I wondered about the people who’d gone to see them—Ota Benga and Saartjie Baartman—when they were on display. What were their fears and prejudices? What emotions had spiraled through them when they’d seen those black bodies? Had they looked at those bodies and deduced that those people were human beings? Or had they reached another conclusion altogether?

A few months later, in the summer of 2002, I stumbled on an article about Merriam Webster’s official addition of the words booty and bootylicious to the dictionary. I was drop-jawed. How bizarre, I thought. On the one hand, it had taken years and an act of parliament for a country to return one black woman’s well-preserved ass to her homeland, and on the other hand, here was Destiny’s Child, three curvaceous black women shaking, loving, and owning their asses straight into Webster’s dictionary. Is that wildly ironic or just plain ignorant?

I don’t think you ready for this jelly.

’Cause my body’s too bootlyicious for ya baby.

Isn’t it remarkable, the black body’s nimble curvature of white space? That is, after all, what happens; or haven’t you noticed? The black body seems to exist in white space in such a way that it—white space—has to transform itself in order to either receive or reject it. Popular culture, especially music and sports, has always been the best way to see this curvature in action. Then came the phenomenon known simply as hip hop, which took it to a-whole-nother level.

The prism of hip hop reflects the light of pop culture attention onto the black body more intensely than anything before it ever has. That is to say, hip hop has brought to the fore the power of the black body to not simply command the attention of the world but to also create capital. Think about the commercials you now watch on TV, the print ads you now see in magazines. Everywhere you look, the black body is there—even when it’s not there, when its presence is merely suggested.

One company that utilized the black body to rock many a boat (and sell a whole bunch of clothes) is Benneton, whose United Colors campaign’s print ads, which rarely featured any of the store’s products, ventured into the arena of provocative photo journalism. In 1989 the company hired the celebrated photographer Oliviero Toscani to capture the image of a bare-breasted black woman nursing a newborn white infant. In the photograph, the black woman is headless and faceless. She is just torso, cradling arms and dark, engorged nipples.

Essence, a magazine for black women, refused to run that ad, as did a number of other publications in the United States. “The black community in the US,” the Benneton company noted on their website, “reacted strongly . . . because, in their opinion, it perpetuated the stereotype of the black nanny, relegated to a subordinate role. The true spirit of the photo—that equality goes beyond the kneejerk reactions and conventional perceptions—was, however, understood internationally. The photo received awards in Austria, Denmark, France and Holland. In Italy, it won the Confindustria prize for the best print campaign in the textile category and the overall Grand Prix for the best photo in print advertising. [It] became the most-awarded image in Benneton’s advertising history.”

Was the outrage in the US over the photo truly the opposite of the praise that it received elsewhere in the world, or were they simply different expressions of what was actually the same impulse? The impulse that caused those crowds to stare at Saartjie Baartman in Europe and go to visit the caged pygmy, Ota Benga, in the Bronx?

What is it about the black body that draws people in, makes them so fascinated?

Obviously, this isn’t a new question. I’ve read more theory on this topic than I care to admit. But this go-round, I wasn’t all that interested in theory; I wasn’t searching for an academic angle, some new slant on history and its implications. People don’t live inside of textbooks; we live in the world. Thus, I found myself extremely curious about human experiences, human emotions—which are often complex, illogical and sometimes defy reasonable explanation. But that’s the way the world works. I guess you could say that what I wanted was story, not theory. And not the same old stories, either. I wanted contemporary anecdotes, ones that would take the black body and transform it from object to subject.

I’ve always been more reader than writer, publishing to support my expensive and time-consuming habit of reading. So I went in search of a book that would satisfy my curiosity. I wasn’t able to find one that was quite right for me. To make matters more difficult, I wanted a text that also included white people in this discussion because after all, what would the black body be in the Western world without white people? Would we have ever been acquainted with the black body of Josephine Baker had she performed her “Danse Sauvage” in Liberia or Cameroon? Or the black body of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, had he been running in Kenya? Owens, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, became an overnight sensation in Germany—the Germany of Adolf Hitler, the Germany whose exclusion of non-Aryan athletes from their teams sparked an international boycott of the games that, as it were, would be the last Olympic competition for a dozen years.

You see, in my opinion, if you try to have an emotionally honest conversation about the black body without the inclusion of white people, you’re not only ignoring the racial dynamics and history of this country, but that of the entire Western civilization. So, when I couldn’t find exactly the book that I was looking for, the one I wanted to read, I decided to put it together myself.

I began working on this book, The Black Body, in 2003, long before most of the world had heard about Barack Obama, the man who would become the 44th president of the United States of America. President Obama has often called his journey, as the first black man to hold the highest office of the land, an improbable one. In his celebrated speech on race, Mr. Obama said, “[It] is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” He called upon Americans to have an open and honest conversation about race. He was certainly not the first to make that declaration. It seems that after every major event or incident that brings to light the county’s racial or social inequities, we citizens are suddenly called upon to “talk about race.” It happened on the heels of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, then immediately following California’s 1994 passage of the anti-immigration Proposition 187, and in the midst of the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial. In 1998, President Clinton even launched what was intended to be a series of national “conversations about race.”

Despite these various attempts to jumpstart this all-important conversation, we never seem to move past “go.” Surely not because there is nothing to be said. Black folks and white folks alike have a whole lot to say about race. We just don’t seem to be speaking openly or honestly; we don’t seem to be speaking to each other, across the lines that we’ve been told divide us. The feelings we confide to our friends and family members (of the same race) are not the same feelings that we offer in public forums, where we tend to talk around race, stick with the status quo, regurgitate platitudes or resort to pretense, acting as though it’s not a significant issue, one that affects our everyday lives. The topic of race simply does not lend itself to truth-telling. Black people don’t want to be perpetually portrayed as angry, and white people don’t want to risk being viewed as racist. Editing this collection has given me a glimpse of how deep those fears really are. I’d always felt really privileged to be surrounded by people, of all colors, with whom I could speak candidly about race. I soon discovered that this candor was, disappointingly, quite conditional.

The first prospective white contributor I spoke to was a colleague and friend, a respected and well-known author who was extremely interested in the topic and had an awful lot to say. A gay man, he’d slept with a number of black men and the stories he told offered tremendous insight into race, representation, and desire in that segment of American society and culture. He and I spoke at length about the gay white photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, published in 1986.

It’s a collection of black and white photographs that Mapplethorpe took of black men. A significant number of the photographs in the book picture completely nude black men, their faces covered; they are posed, literally, on pedestal-like objects, or they are wearing loincloths and holding spears. Regardless of what the black male subjects of Mapplethorpe’s photographs are standing on, what they are doing, or what they are wearing, one thing they all have in common is their exposed genitalia.

“Would you write an essay about this for the book?” I asked my colleague/friend toward the close of our conversation.

“Oh God, no,” he responded, rather emphatically. “Are you kidding? I would never commit anything like that to print.” He was afraid his words would somehow be used against him, that he would either come off sounding terribly “PC” or inexcusably insensitive.

I got different variations of this same answer again and again and again from so many of the white writers I approached.

“You want me to write an essay about what? The black body? Oh.”

No matter how many assurances I gave these writers that it was not my intention to “set them up” as racists, they ultimately refused.

“All I need,” one writer, a New York Times bestselling author laughed, “is for a reviewer to quote something out of context. That could be disastrous, with the Internet, blogs, Facebook; it would spread like wildfire. You just can’t undo damage like that. It could wreck someone’s career.”

The first white writer to say “yes” to the query was my friend, Anne Beatts. Thinking back on it now, it makes perfect sense. As one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, for which she won two Emmy awards, Anne was used to breaking new ground and tackling controversial topics. But that wasn’t why I thought to ask her. I decided to ask Anne because of the fearlessness with which she approached the topic of race in our friendship.

Anne and I met nearly two decades ago when we were regular attendees and sometimes-featured artists at a poetry reading series in Los Angeles. She’d once heard me read a poem entitled, “An African American,” about being an African immigrant. One of the first gifts she gave me, which was clearly inspired by that poem, was a tiny woven basket from Africa. Inside the basket was a watermelon brooch, along with a note from Anne that read: In celebration of both of your cultures. At first, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended; but, knowing Anne, I figured that she’d intended it as a loving and light-hearted gesture, so I laughed. It was the beginning of what would become one of my most emotionally honest friendships with a white person. Nothing about race is off-limits in our conversations.

I knew that Anne, having worked as the original director of The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, had a lot of wonderful stories to share. She’d also recently adopted a young African-American girl who’d been in the foster-care system. I was thrilled when Anne agreed to contribute to The Black Body; and Anne’s essay about her relationship with her daughter is as brave as it is heartwarming.

Though it continued to be a struggle, in time I was able to convince others to say “yes,” which enabled me to meet my goal of including a fair number of white contributors in The Black Body.

Steven Kotler sheds some light on black blood, from the one-drop rule to the heredity of hipness. Susan Matus’s move to Harlem offers her the opportunity to overcome fear and recognize the not-so-obvious humanity that exists within others, and within herself. Werner Disse’s observations about growing up in South Africa under the system of apartheid sum up the concept of race in a new way: “Suddenly, something clicked. This was my opportunity to find relevance. . . . This was my opportunity to explore truth.”

Annie Burrows remembers how in the Louisiana of her youth, blacks and whites were united in their love of food and music, but little else. Kimball Stroud recalls how in her hometown of Texarkana partying with the black kids was cool, but kissing them was taboo. This taboo is precisely what Philip Littell explores in his meditation on the black body as a source of inspiration, as an object of desire. When her Jewish father disapproves of her budding relationship with a young black boy, Susan Hayden learns that there is sometimes a price to be paid for that desire, and she discovers that even those who are sensitive to discrimination can fall prey to their own prejudices. Hayden shares how she used soul music to bridge the divide in her family; Kenny White recognizes that had it not been for soul music, he might have missed his calling and found himself on the wrong side of the dial.

David Goldsmith details the push-and-pull of a passionate interracial love affair. “I liked being the white guy,” Goldsmith confesses, “who was man enough for the beautiful black woman, because that meant that apparently I had somehow managed to leapfrog over all those available black men. And who’s to say who should be at the head of that line?”

Gail Wronsky tells why, as a college student, she chose to work as a nurse’s aide in a hospital with a staff and patient roster that were both predominantly black. She writes: “It had something to do with being raised in a middle-class, white, suburban world in which the body was almost systematically denied and ignored.” At the hospital, Wronsky learned to see and understand the body, its strength and its fragility, in a way she hadn’t even known was possible.

Joel Lipman tackles the world of sports, and explains what it is that makes someone a hero. “Society and race,” he writes, “are a fucked-up set of twins, scared of their own shadows. But the athletic public, the crowds, the fans, the rabid—we don’t care if your color is black, blue or white—just do that thing you do—and do it for US. Fuck Jim Crow, kick his skinny white ass back in the closet with his kid sister—he hates to hate and hates EVERYTHING, including himself.”

Recently, a friend who was unimpressed with the inclusion of white writers in this collection said to me, “White people have been writing about the black body for centuries.”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “That’s true. But they haven’t been telling the truth. They haven’t implicated themselves in any of the mythology or lies; they haven’t shed any light on their own personal relationship to blackness.”

Make no mistake: I do not mean to suggest, in any way, that I find the contributions and admissions of the white writers to this collection more courageous, revelatory, or enlightening than those of the black writers. “Until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes,” Whoopi Goldberg wrote in her book, which was aptly titled Book, “you can’t know how deep the snow really is.” To write, no matter how sincerely or respectfully, about the black body; to encounter, experience, or even love a black body, is one thing, but to live in a black body is something else entirely. To write about what it’s like to live in a black body is no easy task. Many of us African Americans are just learning to claim ownership of our bodies, to see and appreciate them for what they really are, not what the mainstream (read: white) society would have us believe they are.

In this collection, so many of the essays by black writers are about negating or negotiating the harmful effects of stereotypes and negative imagery. They are about trying to undo the damage that was done by the dishonest documentation of the black body by white writers, the damage that is still being done by the advertising and entertainment industries.

“Imagine a black woman in 1925 who wanted to be a scholar,” writes Elizabeth Alexander. “. . . Now imagine that woman wanted to study the black body—that which has so persistently been reduced to perverse stereotype—and who imagined its study could teach black people something important about themselves. What would it mean to scrutinize the disarticulated black body with love, to put it back together, in a sense, and do a new arithmetic that attempts to bring light to the study of who we are?”

With the white writers, my editorial objective was merely to have them address, in a raw and open and deeply personal way, the experience of the black body in their lives. I felt that was more than enough. With the black writers, my editorial objective was to have them “scrutinize the disarticulated black body with love,” and in so doing, to “bring light to the study of who we are.” Nearly all of the black writers were invited to select a part of the black body to which they felt especially connected and write about it. The rest were invited to write about more specific themes like imagery, health and healing.

Greg Tate waxes poetic on the historical and biological brilliance of the black brain. Brent Jennings writes with grace and aplomb about the vagina and how he learned to view it as much more than a thing to be conquered, enjoyed, and then discarded. Peter J. Harris takes on the myth of the well-hung penis and talks about what it really means to be a sexually empowered black man. S. Pearl Sharp tells the story of how ignorance and racism distorted and animalized the black body in the imaginations of many white people. Meanwhile, Kenji Jasper recounts his childhood fascination with a classmate’s butt. “Yet and still,” Jasper writes, “I found myself moving my knee toward the back of Tosha’s desk until it kissed her soft and cushy prize. I felt the cap of the joint sinking into the warmth of the junk in her trunk. And then I pulled back, having held just long enough for it to be dismissed as a mistake, written off as the unintentional side effect of me reaching down to retrieve a lost pen or pencil.”

Nzingha Clarke describes the world she inherited from her parents that exists in her hands, a history written into her palms; Tonita Austin-Hilley traces her lineage through the journey of the feet, proudly claiming the freedom of movement as a right earned for her by her forebears. Meanwhile Lynell George talks about “good hair” and all the ignorance, insults, implications, and innuendos it seems to invite. “My hair is not remarkable,” she writes. “. . . My hair, juxtaposed against my skin, however, is just different enough to tally up silent questions, quiet judgment, or merely confusion. I don’t have to open my mouth. My hair speaks for me, unbidden.

Back in the day, before the ubiquity of weaves and down-to-the tailbone extensions, my hair said to some:

She stuck up.

She lost.

She self-hating.

She trying to be white.

And now: She white.”

Kenneth Carroll and Stephanie Covington Armstrong both explain their relationship to the stomach and the particular hunger that it produced in their lives. “My son knows nothing about the days when my stomach was flat and barely full,” Carroll confesses. “He knows nothing of the agitated conversations of parents who fret about job security, evictions and a future clouded by the twin evils of racism and poverty. Back when my stomach was flat, like the world, when my seven siblings and I lived so close to the hungers that poor children are faced with that we could hear them whisper at night. Growing up in the sixties and seventies in DC’s rapidly disintegrating public housing, I never knew a really fat kid. They were the oddities, the kids to pick on. Fat kids either had a medical condition or their parents were able to secure extra food by hustling.”

“What I wanted,” Covington Armstrong recalls, “was to be admired, to be adored and revered. Rarely had I seen that happen to anyone in real life, certainly not the women I knew and certainly not by anybody in my neighborhood. It happened to the waifish women on television and to the butt-less, stick-figured supermodels who graced the covers of fashion magazines. To me they appeared sacred, glamorous, absent of any flaws; it was as if nothing bad could ever happen to them. If I couldn’t be like them then I wanted to be ignored, just left alone.”

The lack of admiration, adoration and reverence for black women is exactly what Carolyn L. Holbrook condemns in her narrative. Hill Harper envisions a future in which the presence of successful, high-profile African Americans in all fields, not just entertainment and sports, will send a powerful message of possibility for all children and encourage the creation of positive, constructive images of black people. “But what good are those images if black people don’t have soul?” asks Yolanda Young as she laments what she believes is the loss of that untouchable, all-powerful part of our anatomy. A. Van Jordan, on the other hand, makes visible what so many refuse to see: the black male heart, its capacity for love.

“I am always captivated,” A. Van Jordan insists, “by the squirming of the world under the heartbeat of a black man. The world calls for this level of self awareness, for this level of self assurance, in order to get ahead, but, in the chest of a black man, it carries with it the misinterpretation of a man who is either threatening or crazy. He isn’t employable because he isn’t easily manipulated; he isn’t desirable as a son in-law because you fear for the future of your daughter; he isn’t ideal for a son or a father because his expectations are too high—at least, this is all we’re seasoned to believe.”

My own contribution explores how such limited and limiting expectations factored in my daughter’s experiences with overt racism, experiences which ultimately led to her self-abuse. Tajamika Paxton provides insight into the ways in and through which healing can take place, for the mind, the spirit and, yes, the body.

One of the most thought-provoking conversations I’d had about race in the recent past was with a group of white acquaintances. All supporters of Barack Obama, we were applauding his victory, stating all the reasons why we felt his election was a sign of great things to come. “He’s the first black president,” I beamed.

“But is he?” one of the men in the group asked. He went on to explain that technically President Obama is just as white as he is black, so it wasn’t really accurate to call him our first black president. I wasn’t having any of that; I did not want to hear it. “He’s black,” I snapped, folding my arms across my chest and crooking my neck.

“No, he’s not,” the man snapped back.

“Oh, yes he is,” I yelled. He issued the same response, and we went back and forth for a few minutes, each of us growing noticeably angrier and more defensive. Gone were all the feelings of hope and change that had ushered in the discussion; he and I were a few minutes away from coming to blows.

“What makes him black?” the man asked; he was trying, no doubt, to use biology to back me into a corner.

“The people who decided that one drop of black blood makes a person black,” I told him. “I think they were white.” He wasn’t ready with a response, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need one to realize that the reason I’d just given to justify my position was the same argument generations of white people have used to justify segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement. I was truly disgusted with myself. For days afterward, I kept wondering, what makes a body black? Who gets to create that definition, set the standard?

Jason Luckett takes us on a guided tour of the many paths he traveled to figure out whether he could or should define his body as white like his mother’s, or black like his father’s. “The summer I would turn eighteen,” he writes, “before my second year at UCLA, I went to get the gap in my teeth fixed. The orthodontist pulled out diagrams of black and white norms and showed I was in between. It calmed me in a peculiar way. Being called the “black guy” always felt so inaccurate. Here I finally had skeletal proof that in fact I was different from my father and whatever the monolith of blackness was supposed to be. But truly this ‘evidence’ just determined I’m neither fish nor fowl.”

Will race ever be irrelevant in our society? Who can honestly say? I would’ve never guessed even four years ago—especially four years ago—that a man of color named Barack Obama could become president at any point in my lifetime, let alone in the next election cycle.

Be that as it may, race is a relevant issue right now. I hope the essays in The Black Body will do what I believe all art should do—inspire dialogue. Some of them, I know, will express opinions you agree with and swear by; others, I suspect, will make you clench your fists and ask how somebody could a) feel that way and b) have the nerve to write about it. Perhaps the inclusion of white writers will encourage black readers to speak about race with their white friends; perhaps white readers will be introduced to new ways of seeing and understanding the black body.

With any luck, we’ll start talking to each other about race. The more we talk, the more heated or confrontational or provocative our conversations become, the closer we might get to a time when race really will be an irrelevant issue in this country.

—Meri Nana-Ama Danquah

Los Angeles, California

April 2009

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Nana-Ama Danquah’s books include the groundbreaking memoir Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression and two critically acclaimed anthologies, Becoming American and Shaking the Tree. Danquah earned an MFA in creative writing and literature from Bennington College and currently divides her time between Los Angeles and Accra, Ghana.