black maybe, black definitely

January 2, 2019

The act of being othered is not only political, it is spiritual. And the strange fruit that grow from the wholesale othering of a people out of existence are never reaped. Othered bodies often find themselves in a delicate predicament. Dipped in melanin, or steeped in queerness, or attached to womanhood are the very qualities that make these bodies targets and hyper-fragile; yet they are also the characteristics that beg to be seen as beautiful, powerful, and worthy, rather than questioned. Instead, we are often making declarative statements about them, and Black people — myself included — are constantly using periods instead of getting to truly explore the question mark. But if there’s been a primary medium to explore such questioning — the probing identities and ideas stained on you, instead of elected by you — it has been Black art.

In 1972, Syreeta Wright sang, “Black maybe or maybe you just talkin’ trash.” Produced and co-written by Stevie Wonder and recorded at Manhattan’s iconic Electric Lady recording studio, Syreeta’s song, “Black Maybe” feels like being welcomed into a mythical garden where beautiful questions and musings bloom. For me, hearing Syreeta’s “Black Maybe” as a child who was blossoming into a young adult, created a sonic space to question and to be uncertain in public, on wax or paper, or in Black skin.

Slogans designed to assert Blackness as valid and worthy know the Black tongue better than saliva: Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud. Black is Beautiful. Black Lives Matter. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. These phrases are often true, but because this is the most popular way Black people appear in the public vernacular, it robs us of the interrogative space that is a fascinating and imperative place to explore ourselves as growing artists. We are often creatively declaring Blackness, queerness, and gender and its place in our lives — Black definitely.

But the ‘maybe’ Syreeta offers us in the lyrics that read “maybe you’re red, maybe you’re green, but your real color, I’ve never seen”, is freeing in a world where I feel as if I must be so sure about who I am. Because any type of doubt could cost me ever being engaged with as human, even by other people grappling and living with the queer status of being Black in America.

Captured simply with angelic, almost floral, distinctively warm ‘70s production, “Black Maybe” animates the odd feeling of being an alien species to the grander infinite universe, and to the people that share 99.9% of your DNA, in the vast void of darkness that holds planets, stars, and you. “Black Maybe” offers us space, as Black people, to wonder why we are. And who we are publicly and privately outside of being reactionary to the oppression and violence we face? Or, is that the very nature of being Black? Is it only exclusively an invention that needs assault to generate? It offers us room to wonder what is the nature of being human, as well as a human marked with marginalization. But it declares nothing, and questions everything much like this essay — black maybe.

Common resurfaced Syreeta’s “Black Maybe” for his song, “U, Black Maybe” which directly politicized and radicalized the music and lyrics of the original by making it something more declarative and informative, yet soulfully grappled with the sociological and political status of Black folks. Like your local daily news being told by The Last Poets. Common’s “U, Black Maybe” is beautiful, but it loses what distinguished Syreeta’s song from a lot of other music that wrestles with Blackness: the refusal to be a compass or an educator like many Black cultural and intellectual offerings, but just a shovel that digs and explores Blackness without looking for any specific treasure. This is what makes the original song golden.

Declaring yourself as an artist is often necessary, but questioning everything — even the things you are sure inform the reasons you are an artist — is exquisitely uncomfortable for artistic expansion.

To question, the centering and elevation of curiosity, is not a lazy ephemeral practice that ones does while high and looking at the ceiling. It’s a lifestyle, one that Black people are often robbed of, if it is not consciously pursued. In my case, the pursuit started with hearing Syreeta, another Black person, freely question the status of the identities offered to her community, without feeling as if she was compromising her own self-love or wisdom. Even if I was ignorant to it, I’ve been pursuing that question mark ever since my mother submerged my little imagination in Syreeta’s gorgeous classic.

This type of questioning is difficult for a people that have been fighting to be seen as human, resisting symbolizing brutalization and nothingness to many in the public imagination. Because we’ve been tethered to Black and we’ve made gold out of it, it is often forgettable that Blackness as we know it, too, is an invention that does not mean love or doubt in your community. We’ve forgotten to question its modern functionality and historical origin, or to plainly admit that it feels strange to have to take something so seriously that is scientifically such a myopic difference. The feelings towards what you discover do not have to fit in a binary — depending on how you feel you’re either Kanye West or James Baldwin — but to be given the opportunity to be validated and inspire other work that has its own set of question marks.

What’s even more curious is that while for most static humans — especially those who’ve had their genetically informed aesthetic transformed into their political burden by white supremacist patriarchy — the space to question it all in public is intellectually, spiritually, and creatively satisfying, for Black artists it also darkens and deepens the shade of black they can metaphorically paint with. To think: questioning everything strengthens your belief in self, community, and your ancestral legacy — maybe.