What is Black culture?
In Jacobellis v. Ohio, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the Court’s majority opinion that while he could not define pornography, he could spot it. “I know it when I see it,” is probably one of the most famous lines in American judicial history precisely because it reminds us that often times the things we seek to cast judgement on are very difficult for us to define. Black culture, in the same way, is difficult for even the most prodigious scholars to define. However, nearly everyone believes they are able to recognize it when they see it. Black culture is seen, heard, tasted, smelled, but most importantly it is felt.
A person’s capacity to recognize Black culture is often elevated to the ability to critique it. Black people know their culture because they are their culture. On the other hand, one Black person is only one example of Black culture. Just because one manifestation of Black culture appears unfamiliar does not mean it is not Black culture.
But all Black culture, one could respond, is not ‘good’, or ‘high’, Black culture. Black culture want to see the best of themselves in everything the is purported to be a reflection of themselves. The problem lies in the reality that any one thing can never be the best reflection of Black culture, an idea that is nearly impossible to define and impossible for every Blak person to agree on. Any depiction of Black culture will be incomplete if it is held to the standard of representing the entire race in the ‘best’ way possible. The following two clips, taken from Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy, two popular sitcoms featuring nearly all-Black casts serve as examples of this:
The chief problem with both Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy was the fear among the National Association for the Advancement of Color People and others that people would believe the slapstick comedy routines as an accurate portrayal of Black people. Whether or not this fear was rational, it was powerful enough concern to motivate them to rally against the show, ultimately having both pulled from the airwaves. This moment set the stage for, either Black cultural images would promote the very best of Black life and experiences, or they would meet intense scrutiny. This standard, of course, meant that every Black image disseminated in popular culture in the years after the Civil Rights Movement would be scrutinized because all of them would fall short of this ideal.