mark corece on some other ish: on the inside of a black outlier

October 16, 2012

What is literal about being Black? Probably nothing. Sembene McFarland’s existence challenges every thought on Black identity from her external uniqueness to her thoughts on the contradictions of internalized racism placating as liberationist-thoughts. Which as she describes it being a “disservice” to the Black experience—or what I like to say: the Black experiences. 


By Mark Corece, Contributor 

Column: Mark Corece on some Other Ish

Black has always been about three things: the antithesis of hegemony, cultural abiding (assimilation), or some blend of both. No one can deny the influences of Africa on any given colonized Island or mass of occidental land because of phenotypes, which cannot be erased, and cultures that are tightly woven for Anglos and Afros alike. Without getting too historical and, quite frankly, played-out it’s important to note since before Black was Black—think maroons, colored and Negro among other epithets—the idea of identity is about the diaspora, movement to something else, whether intentional or not is an entirely different story.

In the middle of a Brooklyn bar-coffee-bike shop trio, Red Lantern, with oak-brown interior and ample space, for bicycle wheels and booze drinkers sat an effervescent Sembene McFarland (drinking, simply, mint tea). Sembene was brought to my attention because of her involvement with (1)ne Drop, according to their kick starter page is,  “A photo essay book that explores the ‘other’ faces of Blackness.”

It’s no secret she has something different about her. Not just her depigmentation disorder, vitiligo, which she points out is something that causes adults to ask her ridiculous questions like: “ are you Black or White?” Or make assertions like ” if you get rid of the rest of the Black you’ll look like a pretty Asian girl,” she states. But her inspiring spirit and infectious laugh is imperative for a nurse and a person who champions health and wellness for the body and her realization that her being is a gift to challenge and teach the uninformed, while using her background as a sociologist to be a part of the front for life-long education.

Growing up in Mississippi, and living in places like Arkansas, Ohio, Maryland and Baltimore—now residing in the NYC-area—she has had her fair share of challenges and shocking cultural about-faces.

“A White kid told me once hey: ‘you talk proper, you don’t curse and look at you, you’re sitting up straight. And you make good grades. You don’t act Black.’ I remember thinking, wait that’s your definition of Black?  The opposite of that is Black?“ She explains, reflecting on the dualities of rising above expectations in the United States. Never being Black enough and having to navigate multiple worlds in order to crack the glass of possibilities in a White-centric society.

She’s very candid about her trajectory, Mississippi once being her safe haven whereas moving to Arkansas was a bit of a cultural shock because of her immediate, and unusual, interaction with White Americans. She describes, “We moved to Arkansas and it was completely different. We moved to an all-white neighborhood and it was crazy. I only had to be around Black folks before.”

We are now in an age where we are continuously discussing the dimensions of Blackness. It’s clear we are not Post-Race—Sembene’s and many others experiences quickly debunk this notion—but are we in a different place?

Sembene revealed her father never spoke to her about race relations growing up no matter what the situation was.

“He didn’t want to influence our lives with his opinion, she elucidates, he didn’t want to raise followers.” Her father, who has had his own bouts with race in his time, didn’t feel the need to shelter them nor cloud their thoughts with the ills of a time when Mississippi was a lot worse.

She explains, living in New York isn’t too dissimilar, “The only thing that’s different [in New York] is that they’re [racist folks] dressed up in a suit that’s all. Down south they fly their confederate flags and let you know, which I like better.”

What is different though, are the many ways to be Black.

Places like New York have always been rooted in self-identification in a way that many other areas can’t readily identify with. It’s always been an international hub for ethnic stop-offs. Whether it is social theory or personal insight, locale is imperative to keep in mind when reflecting on any racial story.  Especially when looking at truths that are often filled with contradictions and “otherness” which we tend to overlook because it doesn’t fit on the placemats that keep the tables of our society decorated so well or “The scripts we read and recite,” Sembene imparts. 

The richness of stories like Sembene, but hers in particular, will, and should, be told in order to highlight the vastness of identities.  We live in a time where we can pull from the past and shape the future differently. A framework for labels like race, gender and sexual identity is needed, but being bound in them are not.

To say everyone has a choice to physically—and figuratively leave an environment that doesn’t lend itself to a safe and open type of self, and group identification, that places like New York has, would be wrong. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced that the United States doesn’t have ideas that are being created that are just as nuanced—or even more so else where—it just isn’t packaged as sexily.

We are a far cry from the twentieth-century racial experience in this country yet we are even farther from that of the imagined future of the next century.

Sembene wants it to be known she is and has always been Black, even if her condition becomes more visually apparent. Black has many shapes and forms and isn’t limited to the popular notions of Black presentation—although it feels like a lot of people don’t want to know that just yet. In fact, she says, “I can’t think of anything that can’t be black [well some people aren’t Black]. I’m not going to limit myself or anything else like that.” We’ll just have to pick up all of the pieces and continue to create identities for ourselves even if it pisses purist off.

Photo credits: Mark Corece


Mark Corece is a radio personality for WWRL where he discuses world issues, he’s a film director, writer and a pragmatic thinker, among other things.