How Black Culture Shaped Our Lives
By Jon Marcantoni and Michael Shields, with a special guest appearance from Andrea Hatter.
This conversation also appears in Enclave Magazine, a new publication for marginalized voices.
For many, many people, 2016 is a year they would rather forget, and for various reasons (most of them revolving around an orangutan-turned-humanoid named Trump), but for me I don’t want to forget. I want the memories of that year to stay seared within me, because the moment we forget is the moment the bad times repeat themselves. Vigilance is the weapon of the masses. The greatest show of vigilance in 2016, in my opinion, was the evolution of Black Lives Matters. As the coverage of police shootings increased (I don’t believe the shootings themselves increased, just the public exposure to them), and in Baton Rouge and Dallas, fed up black men paid back those police with their own violence, I was confronted with how the long tradition of black protest and black culture has shaped me, a Puerto Rican. The Latinx bubble that has grown alongside Black Lives Matters so often separates us from other minorities, making our struggle greater than that of others. Occasionally, a voice emerges relating how the black struggle connects to the Black Latino struggle, or the Latino struggle in general. But at the end of the day, the various groups we place ourselves into act as further barriers. Our society is becoming more fragmented, and with that fragmentation, galvanizing leaders emerge, such as the aforementioned humanoid who took advantage of our divisions to come to power.
I recently sat down with Across the Margin creator Michael Shields, a longtime friend and artistic brother, to discuss how we, as non-black people, owe so much of our worldview, our artistic and personal taste, and collective joy to black art. Our conversation is done to pay respect to the influence and beauty of the black experience, and show how that experience is above all else, human.
Michael: I grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut. It was a typical suburban upbringing, think Stranger Things without the Demogorgon.
Jon: I lived in a few neighborhoods like that, too. But we moved a lot, mostly in the Southeast: Georgia and South Carolina, with many excursions to our native Puerto Rico and Florida. I spent as much time in the city as I did the suburbs, I was always drawn to whatever downtown was close by. But it was also different for me, downtown is where most of the blacks and Latinos were at, and I felt at home there. But you’re Irish, no?
Michael: Yeah, my mother’s family is of Irish decent, so with that came a horde of aunts and uncles, literally dozens of cousins, and a repertoire of rather bland dinner options throughout the week (you know I love you Mom, and your cooking is comfort for my soul!).
Jon: Your mom isn’t going to ground you, don’t worry.
Michael: Ha! My father is of Italian descent, which means that he makes a mean red sauce, a treasure I try to recreate to this day. More than any ancestral influences, religion - Christianity - was what reigned supreme in my household. But fortunately, what was stressed was more the “respect and love your neighbor” brand of Christianity, rather than “you’re going to burn in hell if you don’t act right” type, or the hate homesexuals variety of Christianity.
Jon: Oh no, I got the old school Catholic bullshit shoved down my throat, with all it entails minus handsy priests. So, your parents were pretty progressive, it sounds like. Were you exposed to much ethnic diversity?
Michael: Oh yeah, all colors and creeds were welcome in our home, and the town I went to school in was composed of kids from many different backgrounds, which exposed me to all kinds of ways of life. But admittedly, my childhood was relatively sheltered, and by the time I hit my teens I still had so much to learn about my country and the world around me. Hell, I still have so much growing left to do.
Jon: Race in Puerto Rico is not just peculiar, it’s fucking confusing. My dad is of Spanish and Corsican descent, so his family is pretty light skinned, what they’d call in the States White Latinos, but I had aunts, uncles, and cousins who would talk to us about how we needed to “mejorar la raza,” better the race. So you’d think that would mean marry a white American, right? Well, my dad married my mom, who is Afro-Puerto Rican, her father a descendant of slaves and Tainos, and her mother of Canary Island’s descent, which while a part of Spain is off the coast of Africa, so very dark skinned, which did not make his family happy at all. But my dad is virulently anti-racist, he’d call out his relatives all the time, and anybody else if they ever made a racist comment. And after my parent’s divorced, he met and married my stepmom, who is a white American. And you know what many of those same racist relatives who were obsessed with whitening themselves did? They skipped his wedding for marrying an American. Whiteness, apparently, is not just whiteness. So I had the American understanding of race, and then I had the Latin American understanding of race, which is more explicitly class-based, and then there is the peculiar racial understanding of Puerto Ricans, who on the one hand aspire to be Americans, since they are our colonial overlords, but on the other hand hate Americans, since they are our colonial overlords.
Michael: I think struggle is always compelling in art. And with the struggle of the black community so rooted in a country and a world that I am familiar with, it surely affected me deeply as I became aware of the depth of the hardships, and how little has changed over the course of American history (relatively).
Jon: For sure, but for me it was also that there was a real disconnect between Puerto Ricans I knew on the island and the Mexican and Boricua kids I’d meet in the States. They all wanted to be gang bangers or playboys, and I didn’t grow up in New York, I didn’t have the Nuyorican experience, which I know now to be very intellectual, but I had relatives who always told us Nuyoricans were the shame of our race, which I realized later was code for “They act like black people”. I had a lot of racists in my family, remember. But I had a ton of black friends, and the ones I knew carried themselves with this confidence and dignity that reminded me of Boricuas on the island. The art they introduced me to spoke to me in way that the popular representation of Latinos did not. Who were you first exposed to?
Michael: I’ll never forget the first time I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright’s Black Boy. And recently, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me had me wide open.
Jon: For me it was Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Hughes made me want to be a writer, his poetry was the first time I saw the potential for the musicality of literature. The Color Purple I read way too young, like when I was twelve, but it shook something within me, the cruelty and the triumph over it—I didn’t grow up in a happy household. My parent’s marriage was rough, there was a lot of volatility and mental health issues that I didn’t fully understand until later, and the struggle in that book felt much closer to life as I knew it. Song of Solomon is one of the only books, to this day, that I have read cover to cover multiple times. The only other one I can think of is Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece When Things Fall Apart. As I began understanding the situation in PR, and gained a greater racial awareness, the more black art spoke to me, because it was art born of oppression, but more importantly, it represented the constant struggle to not allow that oppression to win.
Michael: I will never pretend to fully understand what it is like to be black in America, but I have learned from those novels, from Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson’s poetry and through film and music, that the hate and oppression is real, current, and must be raged against with all we have. I believe there is light and love in every human being (well, Trump…), and that is more important than the human rights of ALL people.
Jon: Ha, can we make an exception for Donald Trump? Please?
Michael: I write about music often, and I have spent such a great deal of my life dedicated to the artform, so I apologize if I focus in on just that part of the question, but the conscious rap that came out of the late ‘90s endeared me forevermore to the genre of hip-hop. Whether it was that Black Star, Mos Def or Talib Kweli’s solo ventures (Black on Both Sides and Reflection Eternal, etc.), or what Common, Nas, and De La Soul (etc, etc!) were doing, it was so powerful and it opened my mind to so many ideas, not only to the struggle of black Americans, but to the beauty and power of love and of knowledge.
Jon: Hip-hop has influenced me more than any other English language music. Hip-hop and salsa are the soundtrack to my soul. My brother got me into it, my parent’s adamantly forbid us from getting music with profanity that wasn’t censored, so my brother somehow got a copy of Ice Cube’s Predator and I remember huddling around his boombox and listening to the cuts real low so our parent’s didn’t hear the lyrics. When I was a kid, West Coast rap was all I listened to: Pac, Cube, Snoop, Dre, and then as I got older I got into Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Nas, Biggie, Wu Tang, Common, Gang Starr, and just like with black literature, black music fed me something white culture couldn’t.
Michael: You know, I see often, and sometimes appropriately, hip-hop chastised for its misogyny and for portraying violent messages, for paper chasing and the like - but I think that is far too surface a take, and lacks a true understanding of a culture that has been so important to so many. Media and celebrity (as exhibited by the rise to power of a reality star in America) has never been so profound, and in this way a voice has been given to many from the black community who without the art form wouldn’t have one. And too, hip-hop has provided a generation in the post-Civil Rights era with a platform on how to fight for black rights. It provides a vehicle for social commentary and information, and in many ways provides mentor-like figures for the black youth who are too often marginalized.
Jon: And mentor-like figures for a Puerto Rican kid in dire need of self-confidence and belief in his own abilities. Black art is so tuned in to innovation, to being singular, while white art seemed to me, especially in regards to literature, stuck in its ways. And sure, the way in which those artist’s expressed themselves wasn’t always appropriate, it could be immature and hateful at times, but isn’t bravado something inherent in youth? And hip hop has always been about the young people working out their shit, and that means the intelligent, exposé side along with the horny, dumb, materialistic side. To capture a full life you need to show both, it can’t all just be refinement, that’s how I felt white art leaned toward, covering up the edges, while black art was all about exposing the edges. Not that it’s right to demean women, as many rappers have, but I think it comes from a place that needs to be talked about instead of dismissed.
Michael: With all that said, I do believe there is work to be done, and that the messages that resonate through much of mainstream hip-hop could surely use more positivity. But with artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper carrying the torch, along with veteran acts like A Tribe Called Quest still doing it (“We the People” is the most important track of 2016 as far as I am concerned), and strong voices such as Killer Mike’s now in the political mix, hip-hop, the culture, is as powerful as ever, and its message is being spread with fervor.
Jon: I know you want to focus on music, but I gotta mention the effect Spike Lee and Kasi Lemmons and John Singleton had on me. Eve’s Bayou, Boyz in the Hood, and with Spike there are too many to count, but Clockers, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and Summer of Sam continue to influence the way I tell stories, the way I do dialogue, the way I evoke imagery, and build atmosphere. Those movies have affected me as much as any book.
Michael: Absolutely. I am so glad you brought that up. All the films and filmmakers you mentioned influenced me profoundly, as did films like Crooklyn, Menace II Society, and Glory just to name a few others. We could have an entire discussion on the impact of black cinema to us as individuals and to society as a whole, in fact we should sometime. But to continue with hip-hop for just moment, I think it is incredibly important to believe in yourself. To have confidence and to find empowerment where you can in a world where the deck is so often stacked against you. And hip-hop is powerful in this way. It’s bold and confident, like you mentioned before. It’s triumphant and biting and can be a tool to embolden, and to lean on in times of strife.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s why I think the movement as a whole is bigger than any one artist, because it comes from an essential place.
Michael: But I have to be honest, in general, it is difficult for the black experience to fully resonate in my life. It is hard for me to fully comprehend the idea that those in my life with dark skin are having a completely different life experience simply because of the virtue of their race. I know it is happening, but it is so difficult to comprehensively grasp. But this is where I, and those in my position, need to step up, and to ask the hard questions and listen to the hard truths. And we need to take the time and effort to understand, and then to speak out against injustice and inequality in the light of this hard-earned understanding. We need to shake the idea of “tolerance” and embrace cultural diversity and celebrate it as this is what will make us great - our differences. There is so much beauty in what is beyond what we know, and the only way to experience that is to break down the walls that divide.
Jon: And that is ultimately what advocacy is all about. To say, I may not know what you go through on a personal level, but I recognize it is wrong and I want to help. I think that is where the obsession with white privilege can turn away potential advocates. To genuinely want to help a cause should never be discouraged. But anyway, as for me, even with a dark-skinned mother, I am white-looking. My first name is an English name, my last name is Italian. I am the definition of passing, right? And yet even there, I have an opening, because passing was a very real thing in Jim Crow America. Puerto Ricans and other “passing” Latinos face the same challenge those light skinned blacks did in the pre-Civil Rights era, which is on the one hand wanting to assimilate and be a part of the greater culture, but on the other hand, you do so at the price of turning your back on the suffering of your own people. Latin Americans are so often raised to feel inferior, with the United States as a land of salvation, no exaggeration, so many Latinos view the U.S. in that way, and so any opportunity to deny your true self is seen as a positive for many. I actually think the efforts of young Latinos to fight against that, to announce who they are no matter how they look, is a move in the right direction. Living a lie creates a personal hell, and on top of it you are holding back progress for others. The black experience taught me the importance of embracing who I am. I learned to truly take pride in being Puerto Rican through the example of black artists and intellectuals who did the same.
Michael: As an editor and a writer, black art has inspired me to speak out and be more bold in my work. It has taught me that my voice matters. And it has also taught me to listen, as what I can hear when I truly open up to the voices around me can change my life and the way I perceive the world.
Jon: When I was eighteen I started doing street performing and it was around that time that Def Poetry Jam premiered on HBO, and I went looking for open mics. I got a job serving tables at a jazz club in Augusta, GA, and they had an open mic night. The fearlessness of those poets, it ran counter to what my white writing teachers and the white people at writing groups I attended would say. They were always concerned about the “proper” way of writing, or breaking into the publishing world. The black poets I saw broke all the supposed rules of writing and expression I experienced in formal settings like school or at workshops. And not only did I see people breaking those rules, I saw that they had a community, and it wasn’t about stroking egos so much as about bringing your best game to the floor. They could be brutal in their critiques too, but it was all because they wanted to go up against the best, and so that toughness, that dedication to your singular vision, that drive to lift up all those around you and not just yourself, that came from my spoken word days, and my street performing too. The guy who led the performance company was a Puerto Rican dancer, and was my first non-family Latino role-model. I saw from him that we could make an impact outside of the supposed “norms”. I came to appreciate the Latino experience because of my appreciation of the black experience. My Puerto Ricanness is derived from blackness, we are a mixed people, a worldly people, since the Caribbean was one of the world’s major trade hubs, so we have a little bit of everything in us and I came to love that connection to all people’s due to my love of black art: its universality, its conviction, and especially its refusal to die out in the face of opposition. You cannot understand me if you don’t understand black culture.
Addendum: A few days after this conversation, I shared it with my friend Andrea Hatter, an actress and comedian in New York who as a black female, had much to say about the impressions of us two outsiders. As she so succinctly said in a phone call recently, "Black culture is American culture." Below is her response:
Andrea: When you say "relationship to black culture" you can still go deeper. How has it affected who you're attracted to? Diction? Your thoughts on physical features. We brown people have a lot of shades to choose from. You bumped against this when you talked about your dad's first wife. It made him a rebel. But in being anti-racist, he also (probably) wasn't marrying her for pure reasons.
You don't have to think about this, but hair texture. That's a big topic. How do you relate to it? Attracted to afros or not? Maybe that's irrelevant. My point is simply that culture has so many other nooks and crannies that we sometimes take for granted. Wash cloths. Lotion.
The Latin relationship to its African and Native roots is something that needs to be discussed more. I keep laughing whenever U.S. media encounter a situation where they're trying to digest racist Latin people against other brown people. You can almost physically see the reporters needing a reboot. Morons.
I often find myself thinking that hip hop as we know it today is white people's music. Don't get me wrong: hood rap has always been around. It just had a smaller audience and maybe a slight shift of focus. But white hip hop trumpets a narrative that exploits the cultural grime that they don't get to experience. It's tourism and the fantasy of getting to kill black people. The funny thing is, back in the late 80s/ early 90s when they were making such a big deal of folks like 2Live Crew causing the downfall of their precious snowflakes, they should've left it alone because back then, the majority of hip hop was so much more conservative. Think about how black women were dressed in the videos. The dances. So tame. And as sexist as it was back then, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte, and Sista Soulja would not be able to exist in today's climate. Del the Funky Homo Sapien would not be able to come out now. (I say that knowing that he is still operating in the underground scene with the name Powerman5000 or some shit.) Del got major airplay on BET back then. That WOULD NOT happen now. How much airplay has Tribe gotten? (I'm genuinely asking 'cause I don't listen to hip hop/stations anymore. Got sick of being insulted with coon adverts and stereotypes.) The art form sharpened but minds got duller. Thanks crack era!