Post Black celebrates its one year anniversary this month. Interview with Ytasha L. Womack conducted by NV Magazine's Christopher Chaney.
CC: Post Black initially graced the shelves of bookstores nationwide on January 1 last year. Reflecting on your interactions with audiences as you toured our nation what have you learned that has intrigued you the most?
YLW: For one, I learned people really enjoy talking about identity. I also realized that people enjoy gaining new insights and finding reasons to have conversations with people who they typically might not run across. Something else that was reaffirmed for me, is that people enjoy seeing themselves in media. They like to see their opinions and thoughts reflected on a larger scale and realizing that they aren’t alone. Their very livelihoods are somehow validated when people see themselves in media.
However, I’m also really fascinated by the cultural diversity among black Americans and the efforts to understand it. For example, I spoke at a Black History event at an agency in New York and the organizers were very careful to label if an African American and Black History event, to be sure to incorporate all aspects of the black experience including that of recent immigrants. They used both African American and Black because everyone, depending on where they come from, might not identify with one or the other, so they use both.
YLW: I think it’s really interesting to see how marketers and diversity managers are wrestling with this as well. English, for example, is not the first language of every black person in the US. That’s not a subject we discuss very often. I’ve had people ask me if I included the Afro Latino experience and I was happy to say that I did approach the subject. I’ve had lots of people thank me for including the immigrant experience. . These kinds of experiences make me be more aware of the language I use when discussing black cultures, so that I can be as inclusive as I can at all times. As a woman raised in a large urban city, in a largely black neighborhood whose families have roots in the South, it would be very easy for me to assume that that’s some common denominator experience for most African American people. But increasingly, that’s not the case, and its good to recognize that and to have the tools to cross those barriers.
CC: What observations if any brought you the most value?
YLW: I really enjoy sharing with teenagers. When talking to teenagers, I can’t assume they know enough background about African American history or current events before I launch into a talk about the book. I can’t assume that they’re familiar with the history of forced limitations or social justice. At the same time, to go back and explain some of these limitations of the past just so they can grasp the realities of change in Post Black can be short sited as well. So, I like to emphasize how they use limitations or stereotypes about their race to hinder their own world view. I think it’s a good take away point that can be used to build in the future and to understand themes in the past.
In many cases, the new black identity is just their world. So having a conversation about how today is unique to the times is a fun challenge. Understanding that President Obama is a big deal or that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is major carries less weight with them because it’s part of their childhood. I remember being a kid and the Berlin Wall fell, ending the Cold War. Well, I had just learned about the Berlin Wall, two years prior. I remember my mom saying “Do you realize how major this is? I’ve lived with the Berlin Wall my entire life.” For teens, learning about the past is just as exciting as navigating the future.
CC: What were instances that took you by surprise or touched you deeply?
YLW: There was one older woman who came to a book signing in Harlem and she was convinced that President Obama was going to be written out of the history books and forgotten. A couple of people in the audience tried to convince her that that couldn’t happen, pointing to technology today and the fact that there’s so much documentation on him, but she felt that we were wide eyed and naïve to think otherwise. Then she started to cry. The audience was startled. Her feelings were very real. Obviously, she’s seen things in her lifetime that I haven’t . . .things that others fought very hard for me not to experience. And finally, I asked her, do you want me to just say forget it. Give up and do nothing. At the end of the event, she said she really enjoyed the discussion. I think about her comments because its my responsibility to ensure that the events of today that are of value are not forgotten.
CC: There’s one segment of the black community that has a large effect on the other communities you explored, which you really didn’ t profile in Post Black, outside of the Obama Factor – the politicians. Was that intentional? And taking into consideration the intense political climate moving towards 2012 and an interesting mayoral race in your hometown of Chicago with strong African American candidates, none of whom are backed by Pres. Obama whose former Chief of Staff is also running and happens to be a Jewish American, is this a community you would like to examine in a
new book or online?
YLW: I think people are reevaluating what both strategies mean and how or when they apply. I didn’t discuss politicians in Post Black because at the time, there was quite a bit of discussion about the “new black” politician and I didn’t think there was much to add to it. Nor did I think it was that new. I didn’t always agree with how the conversation was framed. I personally thought it was divisive, which is in part why I wrote the Obama Factor chapter.Will I write about it more in the future? We'll see.
CC: On Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated the Haitian capital and its surrounding areas. As a result, there definitely has been an increase in immigrants from Haiti into the United States. In Post Black you discussed the African Diaspora: New Immigrants in America and the intra-ethnic matters that exist with a mix of interviews that details those who have blended into the larger African American community, ignorant views directed at new citizens and those whose nationality comes first. What opinions, if any, do you have of the new wave of Haitian immigrants who are not only entering black communities in America but white ones as well, through adoption?
YLW: Its another identity that’s part of the black experience in America: that of immigrant children raised by white American parents. I don’t know the size of the adopted Haitian population, but I’m sure it’s a large enough one to impact policy as the children mature. The rise in multicultural families and the role played in identity is a new reality. As for the Haitian American population at large, I think its great to highlight that there are new immigrants constantly coming and that those needs have to be addressed and included as well.
CC: Post Black delivers an empowering, full experience of the African American community. When you read it today does it need any altering or have the topics you discussed followed the same trends?
YLW: They’ve followed the same trends. Transitions continue and the changes that were evident before, are now realities that we live in. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. President Obama, despite attacks from all sides passed a series of reforms and is positioned strongly in challenges with a more Republican congress. Cultural diversity in African American life is aggressively explored and people who weren’t talking about it before, are now discussing it. Businesses, big and small are reevaluating how to be more effective. The notion of what’s black and what’s not is being challenged. The role of church, the rise of spirituality, the rise of agnostics are just a part of this reevaluation process.
-- Christopher L. Chaney