This year I will celebrate February’s Black History Month, as usual, as Neo-Black History Month, this year focusing on “mulattoes”. You might ask, ‘Nomad, why are you always talking about mulattoes, man? That’s an offensive term at worst. At best its obsolete.’ I admit, it does have a hint of odiousness, like the term “Negro”. It is in fact a companion term to “Negro”, a pair of terms denoting a bifurcation of black Americans into two classes, prior to the 20th century. But sometimes, in the interest of being clear and precise, there’s just no substitute for either in our discussion of the phenomenon we call “race”. The two classes of blacks in America were largely distinguished by skin color prior to the 20th century. The more affluent blacks, both during slavery and Jim Crow, and even the Civil Rights Era, were light-skinned blacks generally known as mulattoes. It is in this historical sense that I use the word. I have discovered, through my research, that this mulatto class was seminal to the development of black history. For example, in my area of study, almost all recognized black artists in American history, prior to the 20th century, were mulattoes. Alas, I have, until now, only been able to follow the history of the mulatto class through the Harlem Renaissance where it seems to have merged with the black underclass (recently liberated from the institution of slavery) to form a single people, the American Negro or, as it would eventually be called, the “African-American”. Today we presume a kind of color blindness when it comes to the differences between the two classes of black people. And yet, still in the 21st century, light skinned and biracial people continue to feature prominently in black culture, especially in the entertainment industry and in leadership positions. The epitome of this prominence is of course Barack Obama, one of the greatest entertainers of our time.
Hence, the theme of this year’s Neo-Black History Month, at Aisle C, is the mulatto. His role in history. Her role today. But first let me offer a definition of the term “Neo-Black”. For practical purposes it roughly corresponds to the self described “New Blacks” in our society. They’re the same people.
New Blacks (by 2014) are those Blacks in the US who think they are beyond race, the post-racial Blacks. They seem to think racism is either pretty much dead or the fault of Black people.
Singer Pharrell Williams (“Happy”), who self-identifies as New Black, told Oprah in 2014:
“The ‘new black’ doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The ‘new black’ dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.”
My term (Neo-Black) is a bit broader. It is basically blacks who subscribe to Neoliberalism (hence use of the prefix “Neo”, “Neoliberal blacks”), or blacks who endorse American empire and in the process white supremacy. Both of these developments are fairly recent, as Glen Ford points out. Many black Americans have become vigorous advocates of empire, thanks to the success of the weapon of mass persuasion known as Barack Obama. This did not used to be. A new class of blacks has indeed arisen in the 21st century. Blacks who support the empire and Neoliberalism tend to have the same philosophical outlook as Pharrell and his kindred. So when I use the term “Neo-Black”, it is inclusive of these self described “New Blacks”. Neo-Black means New Black. And more.
I hate that these New Blacks have, with the similarity of their nomenclature, tarnished the legacy of the New Negro movement, which was all about being unabashedly black. These New Blacks have turned the Harlem Renaissance on its head. Whereas the New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance was about what it means to be black, the New Blacks are running away from Blackness (black identity).