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 “move through social spaces in ways that put white people at ease” and that at one time “it was deemed disrespectful for a black person to violate the white gaze by looking directly into the eyes of someone white.”
Living under the white gaze can be exhausting: always worrying about what they may think, what they may do, how they may react if your subjects and verbs don’t agree – or if they catch you eating fried chicken.
Part of what was so thrilling about Beyoncé’s and Lamar’s achievements is that they seemed indifferent to the white gaze. They weren’t arrested, killed or fired from their jobs. They were applauded.
Consider the gushing tributes to Beyoncé’s performance from many white critics such as Jon Caramanica of The New York Times. Though she was the first black woman to headline the largely white music festival in California, she didn’t adjust her performance to the white gaze. It was drenched in black culture: There were references to the black marching bands and Greek step shows that are part of historically black college culture, and vocal snippets from Malcolm X and black singer Nina Simone. Beyoncé also performed part of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the black national anthem.
And critics such as Caramanica and the mostly white audience at Coachella loved it. Caramanica called it the most “radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon” and said Beyoncé “obliterated” the laid-back vibe of Coachella.
Lamar’s triumph took place on another stage: the announcement by the committee that awards the Pulitzer Prize. He obliterated the stereotype that hip-hop is just a bunch of thugs grabbing their genitals while mumbling nonsensical lyrics. He showed through his dazzling wordplay that hip-hop is art.
And he did it by never toning down his blackness – in his appearance, lyrics or sensibility, says Rashod Ollison, music critic for The Virginian-Pilot and author of “Soul Serenade.”
Lamar “looks like the type of person that if some people saw him walking down the street, they would fear him,” Ollison says. “It proves that there are still people who can get over the stereotypes and get over what they think hip-hop is about and listen with an attentive ear and hear the artistry in what he does.”
They didn’t give into despair
There’s an uncomfortable truth, though, about Lamar’s and Beyoncé’s successes:
Many white Americans have long accepted black people’s humanity when they are performing, says Stephanie Batiste, a performance artist and an associate professor of black studies and English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“If you’re an athlete or a musician, your blackness is acceptable,” she says. “If you’re not performing, white audiences view your blackness with suspicion.”
Part of being unapologetically black, though, is dictating your blackness on other stages.
Which brings us to the scene of the two black men in Starbucks. It, too, was a piece of performance art with its own message.
Perhaps one of the reasons the video of their arrest went viral is that they were literally doing nothing. They were just being black in Starbucks. The incredulous look on the men’s faces and their quiet refusal to leave underscored the despair that some blacks now feel: We are never safe anywhere – even if it’s holding a cell phone in our grandmother’s backyard, as one black man in Sacramento, California, tragically discovered.
Renee Graham, a Boston Globe columnist, captured this despair when she wrote:
“To be black is to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time because, in America, there is never a right place for black people.”
And that includes the White House.
Even though Obama was elected twice and left office with high approval ratings, some black Americans are still stung by the way he and his family were treated when he was President: the racist caricatures, the treatment by some white politicians, the birther conspiracy that took flight.
Blacks saw Obama as a man who came across as unthreatening but was still treated as if he was, says Stidhum, the writer and director.
“He was the respectable Negro. He was biracial, wasn’t dark-skinned, spoke the King’s English, was smart, married and the head of a nuclear family,” Stidhum says. “But still that wasn’t enough.”
Some say Obama was a hybrid figure who alternated between two modes of blackness.
When he first ran for President, there were black critics who said he wasn’t black enough. He was also criticized for backpedaling after accusing police of “acting stupidly” when they arrested a famous black scholar in his home for suspected burglary.
But Obama could pivot into unapologetic blackness on a dime. He quoted hip-hop lyrics in speeches, sang “Amazing Grace” behind the pulpit of a black church and even performed a snatch of an Al Green ballad at the Apollo in a surprisingly competent falsetto.
“He was a very complex man,” says Anthony Bolden, editor of the Langston Hughes Review. “In certain spaces when it was politically expedient, he was unapologetically black. When he sang at the Apollo, that was about as cool as you can get. Nobody imagined that a president could hold a note. But at the same time, he was rather mute about the hard-core realities that affect black people disproportionately. That was a mistake.”
So, too, was the election of what Stidhum calls an “unapologetically white” president such as Donald Trump. She and others say it seems to have triggered a shift in some black people’s thinking:
This country will never love me – time for me to learn to love myself. That, too, is part of being “unapologetically black,” some say.
It’s part of the reason social media is filled with memes such as #blacklove and why so many black people flocked to see the movie “Black Panther,” starring unapologetically black actors with dark skin and African facial features.
“You cannot be unapologetically black if you still assume that if something happens to be ‘black’ – whether it’s a public university or a publication or a person – it’s inherently less than,” Young wrote in his essay on “How To Be Unapologetically Black.”
The notion of celebrating blackness, of course, is not new. It fueled elements of the Black Arts Movement in the late ‘60s when black artists tried to convince black people to love themselves in the face of white racism.
“I remember when James Brown said, ‘I’m black and proud,’ ” says Bolden, the Langston Hughes Review editor. “That was electric.”
Today’s version of being unapologetically black comes with something new – a sense of defiant patriotism, says Bolden, who is also an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas.
He, too, traces it to Trump, who he says has rekindled “old-fashioned bigotry” in America.
“That’s one of the things about the Black Arts Movement in the ‘60s,” he says. “Blacks were saying, ‘We’re African and we want to go back to Africa.’ Today’s people are saying, ‘No, we’re just as American as you.’ It’s an unapologetically black American.”
They don’t exclude white people
“It’s a black thang. You wouldn’t understand.”
That was the slogan of a popular T-shirt I often saw when I attended Howard University, a historically black university in Washington. It captured an earlier version of this unapologetically black sentiment: There are regions of the black experience that outsiders cannot comprehend, so don’t even bother.
What’s different about being unapologetically black today, some say, is that this disdain for whites seems absent.
“There is a population of white people who love Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar who are not bothered by the protest-oriented performances they are creating,” says Batiste, the performance artist and professor. “There are white audiences who are not requiring an apology for black independence, for black self-love and black creativity.”
One of those people is Mark Laver, a Canadian who teaches a course on Lamar’s music at Grinnell College in Iowa. Laver is a jazz saxophonist who also directs the college’s jazz band.
He says Lamar is an extraordinary musician because of his “flow” – the rhythm of his lyrics and delivery.
“There are other rappers who have a more sophisticated wordplay, but the way his flow spills across the bar lines – he sounds like a saxophone player,” Laver says. “He really floats over the top of the music.”
Though Lamar’s music is unapologetically black, others are drawn to it – and the work of other black musicians – simply because “it’s awesome,” Laver says. He cites something the late critic Albert Murray said about blues, another black musical form.
“When Albert Murray talks about the blues, he says it isn’t a music about struggle, it’s about overcoming the struggle. It’s about when you wake up in the morning you can’t get out of bed, but you do get up and move on because struggle is part of life and you handle it. There’s something universal about that, even as it’s important to acknowledge that it’s coming from some really powerful black voices, it’s relatable.”
Black artists tend to thrive when there’s political and social turmoil. Black people look for them to “articulate a vision of what hasn’t occurred yet” and inspire them to reach for that vision, says Bolden, the University of Kansas professor.
“Now it’s hip to be an intellectual, to be an artist,” he says. “Anytime people are engaged in struggle, it’s always cool to be a thinking person.”
And now it’s hip to be unapologetically black, whether it’s onstage, in Starbucks – or even while eating fried chicken in the office.
Expect more unapologetically black moments to come.