A young woman came up to the microphone after another student had had his turn. I was book touring for Stamped From the Beginning at a historically Black university in Dover, Del. Looking freshman young, her darker skin curled around a nervous face. Or a curious one?
“Have you ever thought about cutting your hair?” she asked matter-of-factly.
My locs hung down my back as still and suspended as the room. I sensed the question had less to do with my hairstyle and more to do with my lifestyle choices. Locs after all—like cornrows and huge Afros—make some white people uncomfortable. Not considered professional. Considered rebellious. I didn’t think twice about my answer.
“No,” I replied.
Time paused in the silence. She smiled. An approving murmur shot through the room like a tremor from her smile. They felt my hair love. It was as if she had asked, “Do you worry about what white people think about you?” And I responded, “No.” She was glad I had escaped. Her classmates were glad I had escaped.
I had escaped what Toni Morrison called the “white gaze.” When internalized by Black people, the white gaze functions as a pair of glasses binding our eyes—and thereby our very being. To see the world through the white gaze—no matter one’s identity—is to center white people and their looks, their ways, their perspectives and their actions. A real-life Get Out.
The white gaze positions white people as the perpetual main character of Black life and thought. It colonizes imaginations. It becomes hard to create without what white people think about the creation ever present. That’s because the white gaze situates white people as the audience and deports the rest of us illegal aliens. No Latinx or Asian or Native or Middle Eastern people in the audience. No Black people in the audience even in an auditorium filled with Black students at Delaware State University. It is as if “our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze,” Morrison once said. “And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
In this first Black History Month after the racial reckoning of 2020, I feel impelled to do what historians rarely do: mark history while the story is still being written. We are living in a time when the white gaze remains ever present in American life, but is hardly dominant among today’s assemblage of courageous Black creators. We are living in the time of a new renaissance—what we are calling the Black Renaissance—the third great cultural revival of Black Americans, after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, after the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Black creators today were nurtured by these past cultural revivals—and all those brilliant creators who sustained Black Arts during the 1980s and 1990s. But if the Harlem Renaissance stirred Black people to see themselves, if the Black Arts Movement stirred Black people to love themselves, then the Black Renaissance is stirring Black people to be themselves. Totally. Unapologetically. Freely.
As Beyoncé wrote in 2018, “I like to be free. I’m not alive unless I am creating something.”
A renaissance does not emerge on its own. Structures must be built to allow creativity to truly flourish. During the past six or so years, Black artists formed mechanisms to lift up their own work and that of their peers: Lena Waithe created a mentorship program, and Ava DuVernay a film distribution and resource collective. Leaders in the publishing industry, like Tracy Sherrod and my own editor, Chris Jackson, are running their own imprints and delivering the mighty literature of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the late great Cicely Tyson. Numerous creators are following in Oprah’s and Spike Lee’s footsteps and building their own entertainment and production companies, signing and managing and inspiring young superstars like Chloe x Halle. And all of this has coincided with a moment when white executives, out of shame or guilt, goodwill or good (money) sense, began to seek out our stories and storytellers in greater numbers.
Black novelists, poets, filmmakers, producers, musicians, playwrights, artists and writers got the white judge off our heads. We are no longer focused on making white people comfortable or uncomfortable. We also got the Black judge out of our heads. We refuse to carry the race on our shoulders. We are tired of being race representatives. We’ve escaped the shaming politics of respectability. We are showing that our Black lives have meaning and depth beyond white people.
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance in 1926, Langston Hughes expressed a similar sentiment to the one inspiring creators today: We “now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame … We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
Black people, like all racial groups, are knowledgeable and ignorant, law-abiding and lawbreaking, secure and insecure, hardworking and lazy. The racial groups are equals, and what makes the racial groups equals is our common humanity; and our common humanity is imperfect and complex.
The creators of this new renaissance have been expressing their own humanity in myriad ways. Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and the hosts of The Breakfast Club are modeling our freestyling posture. Issa Rae told our stories about dating and sex and work and friendship in Insecure. Jesmyn Ward shared a story of familial bonds in southern Mississippi in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Kerry Washington, Michael B. Jordan, Billy Porter, Lupita Nyong’o, Daveed Diggs, Danai Gurira, Regina King and Viola Davishave played familiar and unfamiliar—but always unforgettable—Black characters on the stage and screen. In I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck breathed new life into an unfinished work of James Baldwin’s. These creators are constantly breathing new life into Black history—and not breaths of constant woe and pity. Scholar Imani Perry evoked Zora Neale Hurston when writing last summer, “I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.”
We are creating our immensity. No creator should have to tone down their individuality in the chorus of Blackness. We are telling America to tone down its anti-Black racism; and its sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and nativism; and all the ways those isms intersect; and all their violence. So, we can live and be trans and cis and queer and disabled in the moonlight. Because, as Alicia, Patrisse and Opal put it: All Black lives matter.
“For generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden,” scholar Alain Locke wrote in his signature essay marking the Harlem Renaissance in 1925, published in Survey Graphic magazine. “By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation.”
In this new Black Renaissance, we are once again shedding what and who do not serve us. Our plays, portraits, films, shows, books, music, essays, podcasts and art are growing in popularity—are emancipating the American consciousness, and banging on the door of the classical canon. The audience for our work is Black people—or people of all races. Black people are appreciating what J. Cole and Janelle Monáe and John Legend and Jason Reynolds are creating because they see their complex selves. Non-Black people are appreciating the podcasts Code Switch and The Nod, the poetry of Amanda Gorman and Jericho Brown, the novels of Colson Whitehead, the illustrations of Kadir Nelson and Vashti Harrison, and the television shows Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, because they do not see themselves, at the same time that they see themselves in our common humanity. Black creators have inspired Native, Asian, white, Latinx and Middle Eastern creators just as they inspired us. Black creators in the U.S. have inspired Black creators abroad just as those creators abroad have inspired us. Around the world we are becoming.
But our Wakanda, our 1619 Project, our anti-racism is facing resistance. Mobs have amassed in front of our Capitol and told us we are stealing their country, and told us to go back to our “sh-thole” countries, which caused us to lean in and create more unapologetically. When the violence and intimidation did not work, the discrediting began, saying we hated white people since we didn’t worship white people; saying we hated America because we didn’t worship America as exceptional. Because in racist minds Black people either worship white people or hate white people. In racist minds, white people can’t just be people like we are. Black people can’t just be ourselves, like they are.
In the end, the racism has not knocked us out. Our chins are steel like Adonis Johnson’s in Creed, like our real-life fighter, Tarana Burke. In the end, as Kendrick Lamar put it, “we gon’ be alright.” Toni was like our Harriet Tubman before she passed away in 2019. She guided us, willed us to escape the white gaze, until we did.
When I was younger, I often saw myself and other Black people through the eyes of white people. I worried about what white people thought about me; how I was appearing, speaking, acting, being in their world. When I looked in the mirror sometimes, I did not see myself, for myself. I saw what the white gaze saw and felt inadequate or proud; and changed myself or rebelled—and apologized for conforming or rebelling—thus apologizing for being Black. I was not alone.
But by the time I stood before those Black students in October 2016, on the eve of Donald Trump’s election, we were no longer apologizing for who we were. This is our world too. We were calling ourselves “unapologetically Black” like writer Damon Young of the Very Smart Brothas. Whether that was the right phrase or not isn’t important now. Our collective sentiment was important.
Who knows when the Black Renaissance actually started? Perhaps 2015, with a long pregnancy. It was the year that Black Lives Matter, which originated with a Facebook post in 2013, expanded into a movement. In April, Freddie Gray was killed by police officers and Baltimore exploded. On June 16, Trump announced his presidential bid, and the very next day, a white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina after praying with them. “Our mourning, this mourning, is in time with our lives,” wrote poet Claudia Rankine soon afterward. “There is no life outside of our reality here.” There was no reality outside of the death of Sandra Bland that July. There was no reality outside of us saying her name.
As Childish Gambino declared: “This is America.”
But nothing baked our Black Renaissance quite like the heat of the first Black presidency. Barack Obama’s Administration was akin to the Great Migration for the Harlem Renaissance; akin to the civil rights bills for the Black Arts Movement. Our raised expectations collided with the racism of the emerging Tea Party. We witnessed the rising opposition to the first Black presidency, day after day, year after year. We came to know full well that the more Black people uplift themselves, the more we will find ourselves on the receiving end of a racist backlash like Obama was.
As writer and director Tonja Renée Stidhum explained to CNN, “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. But still that wasn’t enough.”
Every cheap shot at Obama shot down our worry about what white people thought. Not because we universally adored him or agreed with all his policies. The lesson was clear: If Obama wasn’t enough, then we would never be enough.
Many of us were taught to protect ourselves through the white gaze—knowing any off-beam move in this America could be our downfall or death. But over the past six years we’ve come to protect ourselves from the white gaze—knowing we could be shot at any point for no reason. So why not live freely and create freely before our downfall or death? Why can’t we be anti-racist to prevent our downfall or death?
When I say we, I’m not saying all Black creators have been thinking this way. I, for one, am not always thinking this way: my scholarship flows from research and evidence, which can lead me anywhere. But there do seem to be mainstream currents driving the Black Renaissance, that many of us swim in and out of, or follow like a stream of consciousness.
I cannot speak for the entire renaissance and all Black creators. I am not a representative. Indeed, we chafe at the idea that anyone can represent us. But just as there are many ideas we disagree upon, there are ideas many of us likely share, or are sympathetic to, anti-racist ideas rooting our art, or watering our art, or weeding our art. Escaping the white gaze is one. Rejecting the politics of respectability is another. Confronting racism while silently kneeling or standing loudly is another. Being our genuine selves is still another. Maintaining an inclusive and complicated view of Blackness is yet another.
But we can be captured by painters Awol Erizku and Amy Sherald. We can be described by 2 Dope Queens in their podcast, or by Roxane Gay in print. Part of the job of creators is to describe ourselves, and our cultures, and our nations, while recognizing we are not bound by ourselves, or our cultures, or our nations. We are not bound by anyone or anything or any gaze. Our imaginations are not bound by racism. The Black Renaissance cannot be bound. The Black Renaissance is fighting for the freedom of being. The Black Renaissance is the freedom of being.
We are free.