Black & Dangerous
Shifting societal and systemic power dynamics through the alteration of language and meaning
No matter where you are, you can’t avoid it.
Two Weapons, a Chase, a Killing and No Charges: A 25-year-old man running through a Georgia neighborhood ended up dead. A prosecutor argued that the pursuers should not be arrested, (The New York Times, April 26, 2020).
Whether you are informed via social media videos shared by local bystanders, your favorite news station, or first-, second-, or third-person accounts:
'I can't breathe': Man dies after pleading with officer attempting to detain him in Minneapolis, (NBC, May 26, 2020).
The ever present danger of being Black in America never rests.
Forget bad apples: Police shoot people like Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor because of a bad system: The police are failing us. We should ask for our tax money back, (MSNBC, January 5, 2021).
To be Black in America is a constant fight to be seen, heard, and respected. “It’s difficult,” 25-year-old Jacqueline Gilmore writes in her journal. “Yes, very difficult to try to keep it all together every day. Wherever we go there’s always something to watch out for and while we might not be looking for trouble, it finds a way.”
Being Black in America is having systems in place working against your very existence.
The education system teaches children from a young age who America deems disposable, as explicated in Carter Godwin Woodson’s 2010 The Miseducation of the Negro - 1st ed.
At a Negro summer school... a white instructor gave a course on the Negro, using for his text a work which teaches that whites are superior to the blacks. When asked by one of the students why he used such a textbook the instructor replied that he wanted them to get that point of view. Even schools for Negroes, then, are places where they must be convinced of their inferiority...to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching. It kills one’s aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and crime, (Woodson, 18-19.)
This system is the intentional and deliberate mass brainwashing of Black bodies leading with the narrative that they are unworthy and incapable of success. This brainwashing thrived in and outside of school walls as magazines, billboards, and television shows equated success with the Euro-centric standard of beauty.
In Gordon Parks’ 1947 “doll tests” photo, he provides documentation of the standard of beauty reinforced in popular U.S. culture as impressed on the minds of children from a young age, stigmatizing Black children while affirming white children. Caricatures and cartoons mocked the prominent features of Black people, creating feelings of shame and guilt within Black individuals, over things they could not control.
“My presence intentionally was made to defy the odds,” says Gilmore, who stands 5’4 with 18 piercings, 65 percent of her body is covered in tattoos, and 77 locs. “It’s as if the way I do my hair, my piercings, and strong jawline intimidates others existing inside my space.”
The freedom to express oneself as an African-American has always been oppressed by the structure to conform to the American standard of beauty. This standard of beauty often circulates trends initiated by Black culture, which are typically overlooked until non-Black celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea appropriate the behaviors, features, and hairstyles of the Black community as society proceeds to demean and expunge attribution from the originators of many popular beauty and culture trends in the United States.
During the early 1910s to late 1930s, Black families moved north, in what is known as The Great Migration, inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois and his philosophies. Many of these families settled in Harlem, New York, which would become known as the Black Mecca, resulting in the Harlem Renaissance. This culture shift initiated the Black Pride movement and many literary artists emerged from Harlem such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, (History, October 2009.)
With the rise of writings of Black poets and other literary artists, the Black voice became more prominent in America. These works of art were crucial to the cultural importance of blackness and helped shift the narrative of what it meant to be Black during this era. There is power in hearing, reading, and seeing people take pride in who they are. These artists took their talents and showed their community and the world there is power in the Black voice.
Black artists and musicians of the early 2000s such as India Arie, Erykah Badu, and Solange embrace their Black beauty, igniting a movement within the Black community to again appreciate and love the skin they're in. India Arie’s song I Am Not My Hair highlights the journey she experienced and the relationship she had with her hair throughout her life and the role her definition of self-worth, self-love, and beauty played in her loving herself despite what society said about beauty or how she would be viewed based on her appearance. India’s music encourages Black men and women to fall in love with the whole of who they are.
“I learned to influence how people perceive music, what is popular, what is important about music, and why we listened to music,” says Ed Ross, a 21-year-old musician who graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. “I think all those things are important because it's such an accessible and common art form that if we allow it to get mediocre and people put out stuff that their heart isn't really in, then people consume that. And what people consume is in turn, what they'll put out.”
For centuries, the advancements and contributions of Black people in American society have been covered by the constant erasure at the hands of American politics and white supremacy. Americans have been afraid of the look and sound of Blackness for centuries, so they label us as dangerous because they are terrified of our collective power.
Many Black celebrities and historical figures have acted as positive role models for young Black boys and girls; however, history books have often misrepresented them, molding these individuals into frameworks that best serve the American narrative.
Figures such as former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris have been lauded as the first Black people to hold their respective titles. With every “first” in the Black community, it shows there is still work to be done and ceilings to be shattered. The representation of prominent Black figures in powerful political places opens doors for the Black community to continue climbing the ranks of success and towards the promise of the American Dream.
While figures such as former President Obama and Vice President Harris are positive representations in America, the U.S. has manipulated the narratives of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. Malcolm X and Davis were written into history as individuals who condoned violence and were a threat to America. MLK however, has been limited to and praised for his 1963 March on Washington and I Have A Dream speech.
History textbooks in America steadily emphasize this famous speech, which promotes equality and a promising future, but disregards his other prominent speeches and works such as his philosophy on Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience (1961), his public address Where Do We Go From Here? (1967), or his essay Black Power Defined (1967).
In Black Power Defined, King reminds his audience, “Power is not the white man’s birthright; it will not be legislated for us and delivered in neat government packages. It is a social force any group can utilize by accumulating its elements in a planned deliberate campaign to organize it under its own control.”
This speech embraced the political and social agenda of the Black Power movement but denounced violence and Black separatism. He told of ways Black people could elevate their understanding of power to obtain it as a community. He understood that if the Black community were to continue avoiding politics and government, they would remain below the poverty level, in ghettos, without power, and unable to change their situations for themselves.
“I became a threat to society because I don’t accept the bare minimum,” says 25-year-old Gilmore. “We are dangerous because we are adaptable. They can’t phase me nor break me. Every day literally is another push and self-pep talk to exist and get through the day in a world and society not built for me. [We] I’m always competing against the boundaries set to keep me down and oppressed. Some days are harder than others. Some days there’s no movement at all, the thing that scares them though is the resilience that comes with the territory of learning the power of my blackness.”
When a person or group of people are unable to change a situation for themselves, someone else holds their power and can tell that community’s story from a distorted perspective. This cyclical and stereotypical warping of identities has been perpetuated through narratives confining Blacks to the realm of ghettos, with welfare queens, Jezebel’s, and fatherless households.
The welfare queen and Jezebel are two derogatory caricatures that have been used throughout American society portraying the Black woman as benefiting monetarily off of undeserving federal assistance and as promiscuous, respectively. These stereotypes, especially that of the Jezebel caricature, contribute to how society views young Black girls today.
Within the Black community, church-goers repeat the demeaning Jezebel narrative by insinuating that young girls tempt men by wearing inappropriate clothing at church. These narratives do not address the issues that young girls are being sexualized in their youth by older men who cannot control their perverted sexual desires.
In Black households, families have been torn apart as a result of incarceration. After slavery was abolished, newly freed slaves were given civil rights under three new constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, except as punishment for a crime, has been the downfall of many Black families in the United States. and during the early 1900s to mid 1960s, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation as a way to limit civil rights of Black families and communities. Throughout the Jim Crow era is when many prominent Black leaders took a stand by using their platforms to fight for civil rights and change the narrative for the Black community. The government both local and federal, would stop and frisk many Black men for crimes they did not commit, often sentencing them to years incarcerated without justice.
Still today, many fathers are taken from their homes for petty crimes and their families suffer, often creating a cycle for children to follow suit in the school-to-prison pipeline. Many Black families are stereotyped for having single-parent homes when the reality is the system was created to destroy the Black family. Where the Black body does not fit into the ideal narrative of Americanism, society attempts to alienate, transform, or destroy the Black individual, impacting future generations.
Gilmore understands the pressures of having to conform to the world around her. “It becomes hard to stay in one mind,” she writes. “You end up switching into characters or roles to compensate for the world around you. Never fully being yourself.”
W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. This term refers to an individual whose identity is divided into several facets. On a smaller scale, this double-consciousness to which DuBois refers is similar to “The Collective” Gilmore experiences frequently throughout her days.
A modern example of double consciousness is code-switching. Code-switching is a linguistic and behavioral practice in which the user adapts their language and actions to their environment or a given situation.
As the producer of Black and Dangerous, I have sought to understand the various ways in which Black people view and interact with the world around them, as well as their reflections of self. As part of this project, the collaborators were given journals and have written responses to prompts on what they feel it means to be Black in America. From feelings of shame, anger, and hope, I anticipated that my subjects would express similar experiences. I assumed all Black people living in America experience the same transgressions, sorrows, memories, and joys.
This project has helped the participants define themselves as individuals whose purpose is integral to the progression of the Black community. By redefining what it means to be Black and dangerous through journal entries, poetry, interviews, and vulnerable conversations, each individual has expanded their understanding of what it takes to represent the beauty, power, and value of the Black community.
“For me, being Black by definition, after seeing Black people in environments that differed from the ones I was so used to, changed,” writes Ed Ross, a 21-year-old Black man. “I could no longer say it had anything to do with food, fashion, or any other elements of what we consider culture. Instead, I’ve started to think of being Black as understanding and knowing that your ancestors have a common experience with other Black people’s ancestors. I think these shared experiences are why so many Black people seem to have similar traits and characteristics, even though being Black is not a monolithic experience.”
It is not uncommon for Black people to recognize their shared experiences once they have been exposed to oppression. The term “woke”, which has become popular during the late 2010s, means being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice), according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary.
This term holds little power for the Black individual, as onlookers will not recognize if they are “woke” or not, but rather view them through biases based on the color of their skin. The Black body will continue to be oppressed in America, regardless of how woke he or she is, until the Black community finds, embraces, and utilizes the power defined by Dr. King.
The black body is an armor composed of a defiled history etched with beauty, pain, passion, sorrow, strength, and tears. To be armed and dangerous is to be a threat to society. Being Black and dangerous is lending one’s powers to the progression of the Black community.