The Blackness of Black or, How Black is Really Black?

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 06, 2013

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIn responding to my article of her representation as to who was the first black legislator in Trinidad (see the Trinidad Express, July 26), Professor Bridget Brereton, one of our most distinguished historians, raised more questions than she answered even as she sought refuge in the philosophical theory called solipsism. Professor Brereton is unwilling to concede that St. Luce Philip possessed any blackness (or did he possess just a little bit?) because, as she says, he was of mixed race; light-complexioned; married a white wife and would not have considered himself black, nor would he have been so considered by Trinidad society in the 1830s.

She says Cyrus Prudhomme David was the real deal (the quintessential black man) because he was “a dark-skinned person of mainly or entirely of African descent,” which makes him the first black legislator in T&T. In other words, all that David needed to qualify to be black was the color of his skin never mind the content of his cultural or social attributes.

Let us admit that the use of the word “black” to describe a person’s race or ethnicity (they are sometimes used interchangeably) is not the most “scientific” or felicitous manner by which to define a person of African descent even if we all understand that within certain societies the word black is sometimes used as a synonym for a person of African descent. When I say that a person is black, I do not mean that he is literally black, but that he is and can be identified with social and cultural practices that characterize the African race.

In doing so it is clear that a person, any person, is defined primarily by his history (his position in time), his geography (his location in space), and the social and cultural mix that such positioning embodies. Therefore, if I say a person is an Indian, I intend to mark such a person as being from India and to suggest that his Indianness consists in the content of his historical and cultural experiences which, as we would agree, is different from the color of his skin.

In using such an analogy I admit I am generalizing to make a larger point since a country as diverse as India contains different ethnic groups, religions, languages, and cultures and that even in pronouncing a person Indian may not give the most comprehensive description of who or what s/he is. The generalization, however, is a useful point of departure to define someone from that Asian continent.

This brings me to the main point of my argument: that is, a person cannot be defined primarily by the color of his skin even though in societies such as the United States and South Africa one’s color is a powerful signifier of a person’s identity. Perhaps we can tweak C. L. R. James’s race/class formulation to underscore this argument by saying that the color of a person’s skin is always secondary in determining his or her identity and that to think of identity in terms of color is disastrous. However, to make the color factor merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.

Let us concede then that almost everything Professor Brereton says about Philip is correct but are these statements sufficient to rule him out of the race or to prevent us from identifying him as a person of African descent? She notes that St. Luce’s cousin Michel Maxwell Philip was “light-complexioned and [possessed] ‘European-type’ facial features.” However, Michel was proud of his African heritage and supported the liberation struggle of African-Americans. In fact, he wrote Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), the first novel of Trinidad and Tobago, because he was disturbed by “the cruel manner in which the slaveholders of America dealt with their slave children” (Preface, Emmanuel Appadocca).

I am not too sure Professor Brereton wishes to say that a person should be considered black (or blacker than black) because he or she possesses a dark skin and “Europeans features.” If that were so, then even a Madrassi Indian would be considered blacker (and by her definition more African) than some Caribbean people of African descent. There are other permutations of the question, but the point is made.

An individual’s identity is a social acquisition. He acquires such an identity because he is born into (or is a member of) a social and cultural group that possesses certain social and cultural characteristics. To be sure, he or she may grow to despise his linkage with that group and change his affiliation but that is to argue for the exception rather than the rule and we know that one should not generalize from exceptions.

Philip and David were both men of African descent which, by common consent, make them black. Since St. Luce Philip sat in the Legislative Council sixty-six years before David, logic dictates he is the first black person who sat in T&T’s legislature. While I agree with Professor Brereton that we need greater precision when we use these “slippery and ever-changing terms,” I hope she can allow us to split the difference by accepting that both Philip and David were black men even though David may have been more vociferous and committed to the empowerment of people of African descent than St. Luce Philip was.

Professor Cudjoe is a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

11 thoughts on “The Blackness of Black or, How Black is Really Black?”

  1. People need to get over all this “black” crap. We are all human beings. There is but one “race.” The human race, there are different ethnic groups. This idea of “race” is a social and political “labeling device” used to separate peoples. We are all ‘homo sapiens’, so we are all the same. If ‘homo erect us’ was around still we would have separate distinct ‘races’, but we are all the same. With me living in the US for many years, I am constantly bombarded with the African American concept of blackness that does not represent the true meaning of what it means to be black. At times I wish I could change the color of my skin to escape the negative stigma of blackness. Do not get me wrong, I am proud to be black, I am proud of my heritage, I am proud of the many accomplishments of blacks. We as black people need to return to the model of community and stop being selfish.

    1. Terry I agree with you to a point. But African_American concept of Blackness stem from their experience. And since the US is the dominant world culture, their cultural is always present. People of African decent did not create these label labels, It was pounded into their psyche to the point where a substantial amount just loathe anything that deals with negritude. Do I think some use it as a crutch to get over? Yes, and don’t condone it. But it is only about 50 yrs since meaningful laws were ENFORCED to level the playing field. Is it perfect? No, but we have to move on, We have to fend for ourselves, just like every ethnic group do for their group. When we stick together and preach self help, we are called racist and clanish. But we got to do it. We have to take care of our own. The days for affirnative action and government assitance will soon be limited. So what we go do????

  2. Sometimes we are blinded by our ignorance. Please tell me in clear prose how I flip flop and why is it a diatribe?

  3. ‘When I say that a person is black, I do not mean that he is literally black, but that he is and can be identified with social and cultural practices that characterize the African race’. Names such as Obama, Belafonte etc. do come to my mind.
    Many whites marched with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights including mulattoes, douglas and The 7 prismatic colours constitute white, have you ever noticed when you visit a paint shop the colour black tends to be added to the mix to give some hue in the yellows, blues etc.? What’s the social and cultural practice of JAW?

  4. Its become common practice of the non-Black to ignore a person’s blackness if that person is perceived as exceptional; consider the exploitation of Barack Obama’s White Mama during the 2008 US elections.

  5. I hope she can allow us to split the difference by accepting that both Philip and David were black men

    This is not satisfactory. If one has to suggest “splitting the difference” then it is clear that there is a fundamental confusion of categories. We need to get back to basics to find a resolution.

    Bear with me. I’m not taking sides in the debate as to who was first “Black” in the Trinidad legislature, Philip the “Mulatto” or David the “pure breed”. I don’t care. And I suspect neither really does Cudjoe nor Brereton. The interesting point that merits examination is the question of category: how does one define a “Negro”, or “Blackness”?

    Let me state straightaway that color may be a correlate. But it cannot be defining. Let me also state that a land-mass may be a correlate also, but neither can it be defining. And let me finally state that socio-cultural identification may be a correlate, but that is not defining either. Malcolm X was right when he said that a kitten born in an oven is not thereby made a biscuit.

    What he alluded to was plain and inescapable in its logic. If a “Negro” fathers a son, the son too must be “Negro” in some sense and to some degree, color and place and even self-declared identification notwithstanding. Identity is determined by seed-line.

    That is what God plainly says in the Bible. DNA science would agree, for the father transmits the essence of identity to his son via the so-called Y-chromosome.

    I do not mean to suggest that the mother plays no part in transmitting identity. Certainly, there is mother to daughter transmission of the female “seed”, in the form DNA science identifies for us as the mitochondrial DNA (mt-DNA). Hence, if the mother is “Negro”, then so is the daughter, whoever the father might be. That part is simple.

    What about when the father is “Negro”, but the mother is not? The “Mulatto” son is then “Negro” also, by the Y-DNA, but somehow he is so to some diminished extent. This is the idea in the title to the article: “how Black is really Black?” Suppose the “Mulatto” son to again marry non-white, giving rise to a “Quadroon” and he in turn does the same, giving rise to an “Octoroon”, and so on. At what point, if at all, does the male offspring cease to be a “Negro”? That is the first question.

    At this point, I will assert without proof, that the “Negro” that was brought to the West under the slave trade, is Israelite of the seed for the most part. Those who were not of the seed would nevertheless have been of the house of Jacob. In either case the enslavement of the “Negro” was fulfillment of the curse prophesied at Deuteronomy 28:68, that was to befall true Israel. See for scriptural proof.

    On that basis, I now appeal to the definitions of identity given to us by our Creator, the Most High, who entered into a Covenant, a Holy Covenant, with the children of Israel. As part of that Covenant, God stated how Israelite identity might be lost. Once lost, it also stated how such identity might be regained. And if one didn’t have it to begin with, it also states how Israelite identity might be acquired. I would suggest the same applies to “Blackness”, or being “Negro”, when these terms are used to denote identity.

    Identity may be lost:

    “The children that are begotten of them (Edomites and Egyptians) shall enter into the congregation of Yahweh in their third generation” (Deuteronomy 23:8).

    This means that mixed children of Israelites were denied the privilege of joining the “congregation”. Their grand-children had the privilege restored, implicitly provided they returned to the fold by marrying Israelite women.

    Thus, while seedline rights pass from father to son, unless passed through the womb of an Israelite woman, identity stands to be lost.

    The same applies to “Negro” identity. The “Mulatto” son of a “Negro” man or woman may identify “Negro”. After three generations of marrying “Negro” no one would question the “Negro-ness” of that third generation. Conversely, three more generations of marrying “White” would yield (one-sixteenth) offspring that could usually pass for “White” (passez-blanc was the French-creole expression). Definitely, by the seventh generation (1/128 “Negro”), the son of a “Negro” would by that point be effectively non-“Negro”. But full “Negro-ness” may be restored by the third generation of again marrying “Negro”.

    The matter is only slightly complicated by the fact that some Israelites were turned white, not through inter-marriage, but by the curse of leprosy:

    “The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow” (2 Kings 5:27).

    Some of these “White” Israelites today are thought to be Irish, Danes, and many Brits, among others.

    For sure, Yahweh’s prophecies are predicated on seed-line, rather than color, geographical assumed “origin”, or self-identification. Seedline transcends and trumps all three, and we ought not to get it twisted.

    Mr. St. Luce Phillips may or may not have been “Black” in some sense defined in the eye of some beholder. But if he was a slave descendant brought to the West, albeit of mixed blood, then he had some claim to being “Black”. In terms of real identity, as defined by the Most High, he was either of the house and/or seed of Israel, possibly on the way to his offspring losing same.


    1. Suppose the “Mulatto” son to again marry non-white

      Er… in the 7-th para, I meant to say “to again marry ‘b>White‘”.

      Also, let me add another thought.

      There is no such thing as the “African race”. The races should properly be thought of as branches of the human family tree. The root race is the root (race) of Noah, to which everyone on the planet belongs. Thereafter there are sub-divisions, respectively the race (root) of Ham, the race (root) of Shem, and the race (root) of Japheth. Everyone on the planet goes back to Noah through exactly one of these first-level racial divisions of man. The word “race” simply connotes “root”, a racial root being some actual person (patriarch).

      God divided the races and sub-races as listed in the table of nations given at Genesis 10.

      The races that populated the land now known as Africa included notably the sons of Ham, namely Kush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt or Khamit), Phut (Somalia), and Canaan. They spread out all over Africa, and indeed beyond. (The sons of Kush also populated the place today known as India, and were there known as “Indus Kush”. They constitute a major strain among the mingled peoples who came to occupy the Indian sub-continent.)

      The sons of Japheth spread north and occupied the lands of Europe and northern Asia, notably the Caucasus mountain area, from which comes the designation, “Caucasian”. They seem to have almost all turned white. But not all “White” people are necessarily of the seed of Japheth; see earlier post regarding white Israelites who are seedline kin of the mostly “Black” race of Israelites.

      The sons of Shem populated the so-called “Middle East”, but also spread into inner Africa. The Shemite “sons of Africa” today include notably three Hebrew strains, namely the Hebrew Israelites (from whom derive the so-called “Negro”, and who were singled out as victims of both the trans-Sahara and trans-Atlantic slave trades), the Hebrew Ishmaelites (the core tribe among the Arabs, and originally a dark-skinned, woolly-haired people like the “Negro”), and the Hebrew Edomites, the near-kin of the Israelites, since Israel and Edom were twins.

      Thus, “Black” Africa comprises seven races, with inter-twined but carefully distinguished prophetic destinies. There are innumerable sub-sub-races of these seven that we do not need to get into.

      The distinct destinies of the seven main — all “Black” — races of Africa have been playing out, like it not, in accordance with the Book. Bob Marley was right when he said, “we’ve got to fulfill the Book!”.

      We, the Negro of the West, are not sons of Ham. The actual sons of Ham will know that very well, although in our ignorance (it was propesied; see Jer 17:4) we the “Negro” for the most part do not. We for the most part think and act as though we are amorphously “African”.

      We are not.

      We are not Ethiopian, not even “Ethiopian Hebrews”, whatever the rastas may think. And we are not Khamitic, whatever the “Black” Egyptologists may want to think. Also, we are not Ishmaelites, whatever new Muslim converts may want to think about Islam being the “Black man’s religion”. And certainly we are not Edomites.

      But Black Edomite tribes such as the Idoma and indeed the Ashanti were very much implicated in our enslavement. To the credit of the Ashanti, they have formally apologized for their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and have offered reparations, albeit modest.

      My point is not to create division, it is to recognize reality and Truth. We cannot press a claim for reparations, if we do not identify all the guilty, including some that share with us the same phenotypical features such as skin color and hair texture. We might also want to consider that there were indeed “White” slaves (e.g. Irish) brought to the Caribbean and North America. They too were Israelites suffering the curses.

      I say this without any intent to stir up feelings of hate toward our African near-brethren. I greatly admire the Ashanti for their apology and offer of reparation. God will be the judge whether what they have offered is sufficient, not I. And I have no intent of sucking up to “Whites” and denying the manifest cruelties they inflicted upon my “Black” Israelite ancestors. No.

      It is Truth that will make us free. Blame for slavery etc. must be rightly and justly apportioned, starting with our own ancestors, who disobeyed our God, bringing the prophesied curses upon us (Deu 28:48; elsewhere), and including those who look like us that had a hand in our enslavement (Ps 83:1-8). No one will be let off the hook, that I can guarantee; see Gen 15:14, rev 13:10.


  6. The Leg Co and Gentlemen of African Descent

    By Selwyn Ryan
    August 10, 2013

    We take a respite from Chaguanas West to visit an issue that surfaced during Emancipation week. The question on the table was: how should black or mixed people be described or should describe themselves? The issue raised its hoary head in an exchange which took place between Professors Bridget Brereton and Selwyn Cudjoe. The specific controversy related to the question of who was the first black person to serve as a member of the Legislative Council. Professor Brereton took the fami­liar view which claims that Cyril Prudhomme David was that person and not St Luce Phillipe.

    Brereton argues that St Luce Phillip was a coloured French creole and not a black French creole.
    Full Article :

    1. Diogenes van Sinope, plaudits to you for educating all of us on the blog site of this very article i.e. with respect to the Irish slave trade especially in Monsterrat and Antigua. The practise at that time by the English Landlords seemed worse than the English men entrusting themselves on African women.

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