For years now, I’ve been hearing the phrase Millenials or Black Millenials when it comes to the young generation of the black community and our way of navigating the modern world. But recently I’ve begun hearing less of the term Millenials and more of the phrase “The New Black.”
The first time I can actually recall hearing the phrase and having it sink in for thought is when Pharrell appeared on “Oprah’s Prime” and explained his definition of what The New Black is, which he says he’s at the forefront of and embodies.
"The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on," says Pharrell
"I recognize that there are issues. We get judged on our skin….I don’t allow that to run my life. I don’t live my life trying to be black. What I do is, I nurture my curiosity in music. I’m proud to be what I am. The New Black is a mentality. You don’t do things because you’re black. You do things because you’re genuinely interested in something," he adds.
After hearing this, I remember trying to soak in the whole interview and not having time to fully process those statements. But what I do remember vividly was how offended most of my friends were about his statement that The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues, which seemed to completely overlook the effects of slavery and the state of oppression, poverty and violence that black people still live in - especially the ones who aren’t rich and have a “Happy” image.
While I applaud the idea of instilling pride and creativity and self-love in my fellow black people, I also know that’s only half the work. It’s not about just changing the mentality of black people; it’s also about changing the way the rest of the world sees, values and treats us. Because it’s fair to say that many of the black men and women who have been victims of racism, inequality and (police) violence thought well of themselves, but that didn’t stop them from being oppressed or extinguished by racist people.
It wasn’t until I heard the phrase brought up again in a recent Hot 97 interview with Childish Gambino that I heard the phrase, or at least the concept, brought up in a way that seemed to resonate with me. While chatting with host Peter Rosenberg, Gambino talked about the racism he still endures despite his stardom and his so-called non-threatening appearance.
"Being young and black in America is schizophrenic. You have to kind of change who you are a little bit all the time to for people to even respect. Like, for people to even understand you. I have to hold myself a certain way and wear a certain thing to get a cab, and sometimes I may not even get a cab," Gambino explained, later adding that he’s been threatened with violence by cops, even though he’s famous.
“That’s the thing,” he said, speaking about white people being in places of power. “People feel like that’s an attack on something. It’s like ‘I get it. I understand. You guys are in charge. You don’t want to lose the power. I totally get it’…I’m not hating on that. I totally understand. I get it. I’m just saying there’s got to be a sense of balance. Same thing with cops. It’s like ‘I get it. You’re putting your lives in danger also. But what am I supposed to do when a cop who’s a bad person does something? Who am I supposed to tell? I would call you guys, but at the same time I know what’s gonna happen.’”
Despite the overwhelming racism, Gambino went on to say that Black people are the cultural tastemakers and that we need to understand our value in our capability to shift the world.
"We are cultural influences. That’s what black kids are. They really change the culture of not just America, but the world," said Gambino. "The cultural stuff, someone can take ownership of it really easily. Like, "Or Nah?" somebody can trademark that really easily. All of our stuff comes from what we can do…and then it gets appropriated. That’s kind of our job, we just have to quantify the worth of it."
However, Gambino went on to dismiss the idea of calling our young culture The New Black, explaining that naming it would just lead to appropriation.
"Like I would like to think I’m a leader of whatever movement is happening. People call it ‘new black.’ People call it whatever, but I don’t want to name it cause it’s bs to name it. As soon as it gets named that’s when you start marketing it. And it’s like ‘Ah, this is hipster.’ Cause hipster was cool until it became hipster…And then it became monetized. Same thing with Hip Hop. So, whatever this thing is. Whatever’s happening. Like whenever Jaden Smith tells me he’s like ‘I’m real excited for whatever’s happening.’ He can feel it. I can feel it.”
Later on, Gambino appeared on “The Breakfast Club” and talked about race again. While chatting with host Charlamagne Tha God, Gambino explained his controversial Twitter poem about Mike Brown’s shooting, in which he lamented the violence and racism that all black people face, and said he wished he could be “big and white” to overcome such hardships
Although Charlamagne argued that black people focusing on inequality and seeing white people as being somehow above them was instills an inferiority complex in us all, Gambino responded that his words are not really about wanting to be white, but about wanting the freedom that for so long has only been given to those with white privilege.
“Because whiteness is blankness,” the rapper said. “It’s because they look at it as a blank slate. Like when you come in, you can be anything. When I walk in even if I have a bowtie, they might be like ‘Is he Muslim?’ They’re not going to do that with a white dude. White people are a blank slate. We are not. People bring stuff to it because there’s not a lot of us, so they only judge us on the seven or whatever they know. So, that’s what I’m trying to say. I want to be a blank slate. As a black person, I constantly have to know what a person is assuming about me. That’s what I’m saying.”
I can’t necessarily claim to be part of The New Black. I’m not sure that such a phrase resonates with me or honors the black men and women who came before me. But what does resonate with me is Gambino’s honesty about racial issues in America and his belief in himself and other black people that we do have the power to create art and change the world in the process. That we do have the freedom to be interested in whatever we want, whether it be considered black or white or alien or whatever. That mindet speaks to the geek in me, the writer in me, gayness of me, and the blackness of me.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a young or older black person, it’s safe to say that all we’ve ever wanted is freedom to be both infinite within ourselves and have an infinite amount of possibilities and chances, like everybody else, in the real world. That idea goes beyond phrases and time; that simply speaks to being human. Hopefully, with each passing generation of black people, we make our way closer and closer to that goal of equality in freedom.
Freelance Journalist, storyteller and blogger for 50 Shades of BLACK