When I started this project I knew I did not what to talk about race[ism]; but about “self-articulated Blackness”. That’s how I thought about it. I didn’t want to write about policing and criminalisation; housing and gentrification; education and low achievement; or any of the other ways of asking the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” (W.E.B Du Bois, 1903). I wanted to write about Black joy.
I recognise now, as a social researcher, that that drive came in part from the pervasive sorrow in my personal life. This was a process of catharsis and generating hope. I wanted my research to reflect the gaps between the struggle, (against the state, each other, and even within ourselves). To magnify those quiet moments when you come home and take off your cool.
To echo the private laughter we keep from our employers and colleagues, but slip into quick Whatsapp messages to each other. To capture those prize seconds when we love another person, or some object, with complete abandon. Without fear of repossession. If only for a little while. I wanted to depict the power and possibility of Blackness in our words, with our mouths, shaped by our own definitions, NOW. Not 1980s Black Britishness, definitely not Hip-Hop encoded American Blackness; but a spectacular snapshot of Blackness in its current configurations right here, shot by Black identities both behind and in front of the lens.
Before I would get to this however, there were a few inhibitions I had to do away with. Firstly, I did not want to be doing sociology. I felt like it was the snack bar of academia. It didn’t have the seriousness or the legitimacy of say English or History, (both fields I had studied in previously). I didn’t think I could do phenomenal work by just having a chat with a few people and writing about it. I was so fixated on my research being interdisciplinary that I remember desperately holding onto some writing I had done on race and critical geography. It no longer fit the direction and flow of the research, but I didn’t want to give up the credibility I thought it afforded me, as someone with serious ideas. I was completely ensnared by the politics of knowledge production and all the apprehensions that follow. But who was I kidding? I was a young, Black, working-class woman looking for legitimacy in the hallways of white power. Crazy. Once I overcame my imposter syndrome, I quickly saw that the only legitimacy I needed came from honouring the interests of the communities I write to and from. Asking myself how does this serve the Black lives, (our love, fear, and vulnerability) that make this research possible? As well as deeply valuing the intellectual work of Black thinkers. So I started to read the works of Black academics in my field, I found my disciplinary home in cultural studies, and fell in love with sociology. The data collection I am now undertaking is so personally enriching, and full of affect and joy, in a way other disciplines did not allow for.
My commitment to writing about Blackness has been unwavering, but I was so often running from my own consciousness, and trying to write something other than what resonated most deeply with me. I was being haunted by my vision of what a smart Black woman looks like, and I hadn’t reconciled any of that, or even become aware of it before I started my PhD. It was such a cornerstone of my identity, and there was no reflexivity about it because guess what… I didn’t want to write about identity! Ha.
I was very disparaging about the de-politicisation of Blackness through the “politics of identity”. I saw it as the fragmenting of Blackness into a juvenile cry of “I want” that divorced it from some of the things I cherish most. For example, its spirituality and philosophy and collectivity – Blackness, for me, is communion. But I can’t write about that kinship and connection without the identities that produce it. Just as I have had to negotiate my relationship to this research, and allow it to help me cultivate a deeper understanding of myself and my growth, so do Black subjects use Blackness as an apparatus of becoming. In a world that set fire to our souls and turned our hearts and homes to ash, paying attention to ourselves, our wants and desires, is a radical act. That’s what this project of curating black identities is about, it’s the new luxury of time to design our lives.
Leona Nichole Black