Being and Becoming Black in the West
In her prose poem ‘‘Blackness,’’ from her 1992 collection of short stories
At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid describes the complex series
of contradictions that produce Black identity in the West:
The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see
it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own
being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in
it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand
outside of it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The
blackness is not the earth, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is
not my blood, though it flows through my veins. The blackness enters
my many-tiered spaces and soon the significant word and event re-
cede and eventually vanish: in this way I am annihilated and my form
becomes formless and I am absorbed into a vastness of free-flowing
matter. In the blackness, then, I have been erased, I can no longer say
my own name. I can no longer point to myself and say ‘‘I.’’ In the
blackness my voice is silent. First, then, I have been my individual self,
carefully banishing randomness from my existence, then I am swal-
lowed up in the blackness so that I am at one with it.∞
I say ‘‘in the West’’ because Blackness only became a racial category with
the forced removal of West Africans to the Western Hemisphere. From
the start, Black identity has been produced in contradiction. Although
there is no biological basis for racial categories (there is no such thing as
a ‘‘black,’’ ‘‘white,’’ or ‘‘Asian’’ gene, and the amount of genetic disparity
between persons of di√erent races is the same as that between persons in
the same racial category), Blacks in the West have nonetheless had their
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