Tonja Renée Stidhum was working at a law office one day when she found herself facing an agonizing choice.
A container of hot, crispy Popeyes chicken stood untouched in front of her. Around her were cubicles and hallways filled with white office workers. Stidhum had just purchased the chicken and was about to dig in when a question popped into her head:
What will all of these white folks think when they see this black woman chomping away merrily on a fried chicken leg in a classy corporate establishment?
Stidhum was so vexed that she quickly called a friend for moral guidance. They both decided she couldn’t allow her desire to appease white people to shape her actions. She had to be what Stidhum calls “unapologetically black.” Stidhum started chomping away.
“There’s this sense that we have to placate what white America believes is an appropriate way to be black,” says Stidhum, a writer and director who wrote about her Popeyes-induced panic in a playful essay on transcending racial stereotypes. “But it’s not white America’s right to dictate to us what is appropriate blackness.”
I thought about Stidhum’s epiphany when I considered the remarkable highs and lows America recently experienced concerning race.
Last weekend, Beyoncé “obliterated” a rapt, mostly white audience at Coachella when she became the first black woman to headline the musical festival. On Monday, the black rapper Kendrick Lamar became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for his album “DAMN.”
Around the same time came a discordant note: news that two black men had been arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for what many describe as “waiting while black.”
On the surface, these moments may not seem connected. But after talking to a chorus of black poets, writers and activists, I began to wonder if all three incidents are actually glimmers of a new mood filtering into the black community.
As many try to find their footing in the Trump era after eight years of seeing President Barack Obama in the White House, some have decided they aren’t going to worry so much about what white people think. They are not going to apologize for their blackness – whether it’s on the Coachella stage, before the Pulitzer committee or even in Starbucks.
They are saying it’s time to be “unapologetically black.”
Being unapologetically black means not expending energy on what white people think, say Stidhum and others. It means loving yourself and your people because some whites sure won’t. It’s an act of racial self-realization, as the writer Damon Young says in his essay “How To Be Unapologetically Black.”
It’s reaching a place, Young writes, where “you’re both unscared to be your black-ass self and embracing of that black-ass self.”
“It was inspired by this sense of being fed up,” Stidhum says. “We’re trying to assimilate into a culture that does not welcome us.”
Being unapologetically black is a relatively new term, but it has a long history. Here’s how Beyoncé, Lamar and two black men waiting in Starbucks gave it new meaning.
They stepped outside the white gaze
Sly Stone, the legendary black musician from the 1960s, once wrote a hit for Sly and the Family Stone with the refrain “Thank you for letting me be myself.”
It was fun song for people to sing; harder, though, for many blacks to live. For much of their history in America, black people have struggled under what some call the “white gaze” – looking at the world through the eyes of anxious and racist white people.
George Yancy, a philosophy professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, described this experience in a 2013 New York Times essay. He said black people have to “