On Authenticity

*This post is part of contributor Marquis Bey’s On Suite series.

The discourse surrounding authenticity is nothing new, to be sure. It has been present all throughout my life, preceding the spawn of my existence, attending generations before me and likely after me. Authenticity is a metric unsheathed for, at base, disciplinary reasons, a disciplinarity meant to of course defend against historical evacuations of meaning but also, not so much intended but to insidious effect, regulate intragroup propriety.

A few weeks ago I attended an enrapturing reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, my second favorite play by the Bard (after Othello, of course). Before Hamlet devolves into his utter madness, which the actor portraying him performs to exquisite effect, Polonius says in a gorgeous monologic farewell to Laertes, Polonius’s son,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man [sic].

Above all, one must be true to oneself, and importantly, too, one must be true — not false — to others. At first blush this is a wondrous reminder not to lie, to, as they say, keep it one hundred. But there is more here, an assumption deserving of interrogation: what does it mean to be true? Who determines one’s probity, and how does one know what, in fact, is non-falseness? Polonius is also saying that one should be, always, authentic.

Demands for authenticity are a scourge. It carries with it an emotional and moralistic valence. Racial authenticity, or on this specific occasion Black authenticity, is never about a neutral request to simply be oneself. To require authentic Black expression is less an openness to Blackness’s manifold iterations and more a coercion. An expectation at best and a threat at worse. Because its demand is popped-bubble-wrapped up in contingent channels dictating what gets produced and hegemonically-trafficked notions of value, it is, as my colleague E. Patrick Johnson wrote when I was only eleven-years-old, “yet another trope manipulated for cultural capital.”

.   .   .

You feel like it’s suspect, how the very things that mark the ground of the folks you purport to be down with are precisely the things that make you yawn, make you want to shut the blinds and hibernate, make you say, “Nah, I’m good.” You have never been one to hit the club, even if it were the Blackest and queerest in all of Black and queer land; you waited twenty-three years before trudging through A Different World and Martin only to find Dwayne Wayne to be deeply problematic and “Damn, Gina!” mad annoying, respectively. And you sometimes think if only you also puffed and puffed and passed the blunt with homies in the cut, talking and giggling and thinking about conspiratorial things, your feelings of inadequacy would dissipate, your disposition unquestionably down. But you hope, despite all this, we still, as they say, straight.

.   .   .

The worry over one’s Black authenticity is at root an essentialist maneuver, and is always an essentialist maneuver. Sure, the quips about revoking one’s Black Card for not knowing that the Kool-Aid flavor is not cherry but red, or that the device used to control the TV is rightly pronounced moken troll, are riotously hilarious (really, they are), but the humor does not absolve them of their insidious attempt to fix Blackness into a certain template with delimited parameters for right and wrong measure. The stultifying force of authenticity rhetoric — which is on the wane, I would say, but nevertheless still persistent — exerts a constricting and narrow conception of Blackness’s range and heft resulting in both “the supposed intranational dominance of blackness broadly and unrigorously conceived (in ways that presuppose its strict biological limitation…),” and, too, “anxiety over the putatively intradiasporic hegemony of a certain mode of blackness.

In short, produced by castigations of insufficient quanta of Blackness is an assumption of true Blackness being contained in one’s very DNA (a pseudo-scientific vestige we would do well to abandon) and conceding the prevailing image of such an authenticity to the most vociferous, most masculinist, most rowdy voices dictating its boundaries.

.   .   .

You find yourself watching more and more white people in your evening Netflix sessions. You see your Spotify recommending more and more white rappers (many of whom, interestingly and surprisingly enough, are from the UK). You scroll through the contacts on your phone and the Anglo-centric names proliferate. But that’s not to say that you do not love Real Housewives of Atlanta (the only one that really matters) or DMX and Black Thought and Meek Mill or texting Sadrach and Amaris and Biko regularly. Just know that, hopefully, mostly, it’s all good. Your Blackness, not at all like but also not unlike Whitman, is large and contains multitudes.

.   .   .

For the discourse to reign, it must assert a genuine, pure, unmarred Blackness that necessarily posits a fake, tainted, disingenuous Blackness. It necessarily prohibits certain behaviors, certain styles, certain traditions or affects or modes of expression as utterly, entirely, expressly un-Black. This “notion of [black] authenticity,” Regina Bendix has detailed, “implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic.” There must always be something or someone who fails to measure up, an inherent exclusionary logic that still demarcates boundaries and sets up criteria for entry. It is, at base, an evaluative logic rooted in telling folks, our folks, our people — people who, too, are struggling with us and fighting with us, perhaps in different, unintelligible ways — that they do not belong, are not welcomed. Your kind need not apply. The authenticity I am describing and that pervades socio-political interaction is not, I need to make clear, neutral or unmediated. There are people with their own particular claims to Blackness’s regulation, their own hangups, their own biases and investments (I’m imagining a very non-diversified portfolio), and those people, I must say, do not get to be the last word on this. I need a background check on them; I need to know who their investors are; I need their pitch and their logs and their five year projections because something fishy is going on.

.   .   .

You meet someone for the first time, Black and from the South, who regularly treks back to the ‘hood, and you feel the urge to change your tongue. You drop a few g’s and add some n-words. You think you won’t live up to your name — or, the name you’ve been given, been made to wear, or rather, again, the name you gladly wear but that is a size or two too small. So you squeeze in. And it’s cool if it fits. The outfit is dope. But it is okay to show up in what you slept in last night too. You, too, woke up flawless.

.   .   .

All of this, every single (one) drop (rule), is motivated by a lachrymose plea for expansion. I want us to have more room to be in the world, to even be outside the world if we wish, to be something illegible to current scripts. Therein lies radical liberation, it seems to me: being able to be, to become, to emerge, into something otherwise than our givenness, a givenness we did not choose but were thrown into, suffering the bruises its left on us. How can we belong without having to measure up? How can we “belong and yet be free of category,” a categorization that demands exclusion and a necessary violence? What I no longer want, and what is in service of living otherwise — where the emphasis on both the living and the otherwise is a space from which critical thought, which is to say Black thought, emerges — is a rejection, unapologetically, of the kind of Blackness that necessitates an adherence to a constrained assessment checking off items including what to wear, how to talk, who to love, where to live. It cannot be a matter, as it often is told to be, of going back (or preferably, never leaving) the ‘hood or the block, as if any departure is a pathologizing escape and retroactive denigration. The matter is one of expanding the breadth, not the reach on some colonial-type stuff, of the capaciousness for which we live as an homage. It must be possible to carry the ‘hood with us wherever we might go, for the block to be cultivated in whatever concrete slab our feet rest on, or even for our own validity to not be contingent on its proximity to the measurements endowed in the ‘hood or the block. How can we be and cultivate a Blackness that dispenses with authenticity and its accompanying overdetermination for a generalized radical inclusivity, a radical refusal of exclusivity, begotten by the specificity of those ‘hoods and those blocks, those Aunties and othermothers and homies? That is what I want, what I am leaning into in my deviation from scriptures of authenticity. This is, assuredly, as Hortense Spillers writes in only a slightly different context, “what I want to see possible for Black people who, God knows, really need freedom in that way, in every way: they need freedom from their oppressors, and they need freedom from their sisters and brothers; the freedom to love freely in the world is the greatest imperative, to my mind, for black people.” And I mean this so damn much, I really do. And I cannot hedge, cannot pull proverbial punches, so this also means it “even includes the freedom to turn one’s back on the experience if one wants to. Even if one ends up passing into another culture, that has to be, in my logic, in the end, acceptable. I’ve got to be able to live with that.”

Can we live with that?

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.