This past Thursday, Harvard’s Black Men’s Forum brought radio personality Charlamagne tha God to campus for “Black Privilege: A Discussion and Book Signing”. Charlamagne is well known as the host of the popular hip-hop-based radio show The Breakfast Club. He’s also well known for his track record of transphobia, homophobia, and disgusting treatment of black women. I brought reciepts: he’s slutshamed Amber Rose, compared Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, and explicitly erased black women’s monumental contribution to black liberation. His friendship with Tomi Lahren, the controversial ex-Blaze reporter who’s well known for her racism, is particularly criticized. Charlamagne claims to speak for the black community, but in reality he represents a violent exclusion of the majority of the black community: black queer people, black women, black trans people, black nonbinary people. BMF thought it was a good idea to invite him to campus and purchase 150 copies of his recent book.
I’ve been proud to defend the black community in this column. I love this community with all my heart. But time and time again, I am excluded from it because I do not fit into a narrowly defined, hypermasculine, heteronormative, cisgender definition of Blackness. A wide swathe of the black community continually makes it clear that I, and people like me, do not belong.
This is not a Harvard-specific phenomena. Black cisheterosexual men consistently dominate the Black narrative, and construct Blackness around their own experiences. Audre Lorde, Alvin Ailey, and Lorraine Hansberry are erased because their queerness, their womanness runs against the dominant narrative. One type of blackness has become the blackness, and dictates the membership and identity of the entire community.
This has dangerous ramifications. When intersectionality is rejected for one-dimensionality, the erased identities become vulnerable. Due to a rigid black masculinity, for example, black women and femmes are reduced to Others. Kendrick Lamar is lauded as a hero for the black community, but he consistently erases black women from his liberation project. The revolutionary cover to his magnum opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, portrays black children triumphantly stuntin in front of the White House, representing a righteous rebellion against American white supremacy. But in this pro-black tableau what’s the one thing missing? Anyone who’s not a cisgender man.
Kendrick ignores black feminine-of-center claim to blackness, and in doing so he reduces them to rhetorical strategies, dramatic foils, and male-owned objects. TPAB uses black women as personifications of soul-sucking fame, the Devil, and the American prison machine. The lead single from Kendrick’s newest album (the otherwise genius) DAMN., “HUMBLE.”, thinly disguises the objectification of black women behind “black positivity.” The black community consistently rejects the personhood of any type of intersectional identity. And we, those too complex for their rigid definitions, suffer for it.
Harvard’s not exempt from this. There’s a misconception on this campus that queer blackness, trans blackness, femme blackness, Muslim blackness, are all “special cases” divergent from some “normal” blackness. But that’s simply not the case. There is no pro-blackness, no black positivity, no black community without accounting for our complex and intersectional identities. Organizations like BMF can’t just switch intersectionality on and off as they will. They can’t invite a transphobic misogynist one day and host an open forum on inclusivity the next (we should also have a serious and honest conversation about whether an organization regulated to binary masculinity is even worth perpetuating). We cannot continue to fail to offer queer and nonbinary black students institutional support and space. Black women and femmes cannot be an addendum to our liberation project. Political advocacy for Black Muslims and Afro-Latinx people (supporting an intersectional feminism that lifts up Black Muslim women, defending undocumented Caribbean and African immigrants, fighting the U.S. travel ban, etc.) must be an integral part of our general advocacy efforts. Blackness can no longer be an exclusive club on this campus. Charlamagne should know that his hate and prejudice are not welcome here.
It’s worth noting that this is not an attempt to demonize blackness; the black community is not the sole problem. The white queer community consistently fails to show up for black queer people, and continues to whitewash the past and present of the queer community. Feminism is consistently whitewashed as well, as well as purged of all understanding of the nuances of sexuality and gender identity. It’s also certainly true that transphobia, toxic masculinity, and misogyny are not purely black phenomena—I’ve faced just as much homophobia from white America. I hope that non-black readers of this article will recognize their own communities reflected within, and understand what they, individually and collectively, need to do better.
But it hurts that the community I’ve come to appreciate, to love, to commit my time and energies to, the community whose history and future is rooted in oppression and protest, does not (at least not in full) reciprocate my love or see me as part of their narrative. I hope the black readers of this article think very carefully about how they participate in the exclusion of intersectional identities from the greater community, and how they can embrace a beautifully complex and inclusive definition of blackness going forward.
Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a philosophy concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.