Last week, accomplished author and Vassar graduate, Nana Brew-Hammond ’98, delivered a lecture on the intricacies of Blackness. In a style of rhetoric which entwined the intimate and academic, Brew-Hammond explained the monolithic narrative of Blackness and attempted to uncover some of its hidden complexities.
“I was born in America but raised as a Ghanaian,” she began. The personal narrative Brew-Hammond provided framed her discussion of the Black narrative, and her own identity would remain close at hand throughout the lecture.
“It was this narrative that made me want to walk far away from my parents when they spoke our language, Fanti, outside the privacy of our apartment; this narrative that mortified me of the smell of the salt fish that seeped out into the hallway from under our door when my mother prepared it; this narrative that made me ashamed of the stubborn dots of palm oil that stuck to the wall above the stove; this narrative that prompted my classmates to kindly call me ‘African booty-scratcher’; it was a narrative I wanted nothing to do with.” Brew-Hammond said of the African stereotype that is so fixed in the American imagination.
These events pushed Brew-Hammond to seek a new, African-American identity. Yet African-American membership was not easily gained, and by the time Brew-Hammond returned to Ghana she found herself caught between communities reluctant to acknowledge her.
“There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that the community I had come from in America had irrevocably altered my belonging to the Ghanaian community, but in the U.S. I did not belong as myself either,” she said.
These more intimate details of Brew-Hammond’s life and identity helped to concretize the idea of intersectionality for her audience, which would become a central theme of her lecture.
The twitter hashtag, #AskRachel, which arose in response to reports of Former NAACP Chapter President and passing black activist, Rachel Dolezal’s illegitimate claim to African ancestry, provided a distinct example for Brew-Hammond’s study of the way monolithic conceptions of identity are perpetuated.
As African Students Union (ASU) member who attended the lecture, Ehimwenma Osagie ’17, described, “During the #AskRachel period, a lot of Africans and non-American Blacks felt excluded from Blackness because of their inability to answer questions on Twitter.” A prominent survey during this period asked participants to prove their identity by answering questions about Black cultural tropes.
Osagie went on to describe the alienation these surveys implied, “This monolithic view of Blackness excluded several people who identify as Black, including but not limited to: Black immigrants, First generation Americans, and biracial people.” Dolezal proved to be a thorny topic for Brew-Hammond who was caught off-guard by her empathy for the activist.
“One of the things that transfixed me about her was that I could relate to her masquerade on some level,” said Brew-Hammond of Dolezal. The surveys and hashtags generated after Dolezal’s unmasking with the aim of uniting a community held alienating consequences for those outside of the Black majority.
The response to information about Dolezal’s ancestry pushed a monolithic narrative forward. Brew-Hammond believes the problem is our eagerness to find a simple solution to a complex issue. “We know that intersectionality is real, that as human beings, no one is one thing. And yet we find that reality inconvenient,” she said.
“Rachel Dolezal saw the advantage of our expansiveness, and she leveraged it to her advantage,” Brew-Hammond explained in frank terms. She continued, “So why don’t we, as black people, why aren’t we embracing our expansiveness? When we question the authenticity of a biracial person, we undermine ourselves.” Osagie agreed that the black narrative was an important one. She said, “Our hope was to complicate the Black narrative. The notion of Blackness, as it is now, excludes the narrative and experiences of non American Blacks, thus creating Anti-Blackness in the homes of those who are not Black Americans.”
Brew-Hammond did not deny the strong incentives to keep this monolithic narrative alive, especially from the white-power structure. Late in her speech she said, “the dominant culture benefits from maintaining a negative and stereotypical definition of Blackness because doing so upholds the status-quo.” Truthful rhetoric not uncommon at Vassar College.
Perhaps her most personally honest turn of phrase came right after, “Us in the ‘pick-your-pants-up camp’ legitimize the idea that all young black people need to do to succeed in the world is to dress in a certain way. That if they just take off their hoodie, and take the earrings out of their ears they would be respected.”
But Brew-Hammond was not content to let that convenient notion rest. With a nod to history she continued, “Martin Luther King Jr., as we know, was assassinated wearing a suit, as was Malcolm X. Four little girls wearing church clothes were killed in 1973. And I know the nine men and women killed at bible study in South Carolina were wearing black skin.”
Her historical argument gave way to a personal one with reference to questions about her own identity in the workplace. Harkening back to her time at Vassar, she said, “My education at Vassar gave me context for why this thinking was naïve and dangerous to us all, but as I peeled off and entered the work-force, that context became very real to me.”
She continued, “I learned at one of my jobs after college that even with my Vassar degree and my talent, some people at work in a position to nurture me didn’t see themselves in me in the same way they saw themselves in my white counterparts. And that ended up handicapping my progress. I learned that in many peoples eyes I was just like those other African-Americans.”
Brew-Hammond’s visit was a much needed departure for some of the members of the ASU who believed there has not been enough African speakers on campus.
While ASU leader and long-time member, Kenechukwu Nwosu ’16, was pleased with Brew-Hammond’s insight, he believes there are still many more questions to be asked. He said, “She had no sweeping solutions, which was fine; uniting groups without stamping out difference is an unending difficulty in all areas of human identity. I didn’t expect her to solve that in 20 minutes.”