Khalil Kain, late of the brilliant television show Girlfriends, has a fascinating interview on Ebony.com promoting his new role in the classic 1970s Negro Ensemble Company play, The Great MacDaddy.
I was struck most by this exchange:
EBONY: How do you feel about Black theater and Black film right now? Do you feel like it’s growing?
KK: What African-American film? What African-American theater? I just watched Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and Daphne Rubin-Vega, Nicole Ari Parker, Wood Harris, these are people that I know personally, ripped it, it was all good. I love the production, but it’s still Tennessee Williams. It’s still not ours. So now, as opposed to Blackface, it’s Black folks up there doing White work. And I love the opportunity to kind of do a classic piece like that, but at the same time there is a whole bunch of stuff that we already have. Can we do some of that? Paul Carter Harrison is the man. He’s one of those old heads that we have to tap into, because he has so much knowledge. That’s one of the reasons I took the job; the chance to sit next to the man and get up in his head for a little bit and see what I can take away. That’s how it use to go down. We use to learn from our elders, and we don’t do that anymore. I think it’s a huge mistake.
EBONY: Why do you think everybody should go see The Great MacDaddy?
KK: The play is hugely relevant and its part of African-American history. I don’t want to even get into culture because, really, what is our culture as African-Americans? This young man I met in the street, probably in his late 20s, asked me, “So you’re doing plays? Why you doing plays?” And I’m like, “You need to come check it out.” He’s like, “Why would I go?” And I was like, “To get some culture up in you! What does culture mean to you?” He was like, “Culture is annoying.” I was like, “Wow, how do you define where you come from?” He was like, “I know who I am.” I didn’t want to ask. I was just like, “alright bro.” That’s where we’re at now.
I think what Kain is getting at here is really quite remarkable because I don’t feel like we hear enough Black artists articulating forthrightly – Paul Carter Harrison is the man – that to do our own shit is valuable in and of itself. And that we lose something when we don’t.
It reminds me of my favorite quote from Nelson George in his great book, The Death of Rhythm and Blues:
“…it is clear that black America’s assimilationist obsession is heading it straight toward cultural suicide. The challenge facing black artists, producers, radio programmers, and entrepreneurs of every description is to free themselves from the comforts of crossover, to recapture their racial identity, and to fight for the right to exist on their own terms. Such a philosophy would have a positive impact on all the institutions that support the music and, because of music’s special role in the black American psyche, a strong impact on its audience’s thinking. For this to occur, black America has to acknowledge that racial pride is as worthy a goal as equality under the law, and, moreover, that the two agendas still go hand in hand.”
What bothers me about African Americans slotting themselves into White American stories is the sometimes implicit assumption that doing so is more inherently valuable than telling stories about Black people. There can be both a strong undercurrent of trying to prove our American bonafides (as if our own experiences are somehow not American enough) and a reinscription of the notion that Whiteness is inherently American in a way that non-Whiteness is not that runs through the way we as a culture value this phenomena.
And we end up suggesting that the only way for there to be progress is to play parts that are written for a White person or that are written “raceless” (there is no such thing, by the way).
That said, I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. But we do have to articulate the inherent value of Black culture, but not self-consciously so. It has to be black, but also human. Or else we do end up suggesting to young Black men and Black women like the one Kain met that there is no African-American culture.
When nothing could be further from the truth.