Guest post by Imari Walker.
“If I have work, then I’m not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me — that which wants to connect with other people and pass on something, something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from.”
Marlon Riggs — filmmaker, poet, activist — said this in his documentary Black Is… Black Ain’t while hospitalized due to his ongoing fight with AIDS. And though he passed in 1994, his work is still relevant to current issues within the Black community. Even in 2022, his documentaries are influencing the next generation of scholars, activists, and leaders.
Watching Black Is… Black Ain’t is like watching snapshots of the triumphs and struggles of the Black community but also the triumphs and struggles of Riggs’s life and identity. Riggs’s vulnerability and strength are palpable throughout the film. It’s almost like a reflection of the continued strength of the African American community.
I was nowhere near prepared for the emotional journey Black Is… Black Ain’t would take me on. The documentary wrestles with the ever-complicated question of what it means to identify as Black. And as a Black woman — who has spent most of her life in primarily white areas but also spent three years living in South Africa (a country with primarily Black citizens) while still knowing that I wasn’t Black like the locals were Black — I’ve often grappled with my Blackness.
The documentary includes a variety of different poems, interviews, definitions, and visual clips to reflect on what Black is. It starts with a frankly offensive definition of Black found in a 16th-century Oxford Dictionary which uses words and phrases like “soiled,” “sinister,” “indicating disgrace,” and “deeply stained with dirt.”
Historically, to be Black was to be dismissed and seen as lesser. This narrative was perpetuated during the height of the transatlantic slave trade and substantiated with racist biological claims of racial differences. To be Black in America was to be enslaved and subjugated. These definitions of Blackness were reflective of the Black community’s status within the United States.
This negative idea of Blackness was internalized. So much so that for one Black person to call another “Black” was to try to start a fight, as activist Angela Davis said in the Black Is… Black Ain’t documentary. Over time “Black” had to lose its harmful connotations within the community. Internalized racism served only to further cause pain. So, in the ’60s “Black” slowly became synonymous with “beauty” and “power.”
Once the community became comfortable with being “Black,” it became important to understand who was “Black” and who wasn’t, to build back a sense of unity in a group of people who lost their historical roots. In a sense, to be Black is to grasp for roots in the African continent that might always be lost. To exist in a society with roadblocks that make it difficult to succeed, unarmed with the tools we need. These feelings are painstakingly rendered in a scene where Marlon Riggs, stripped completely naked, runs aimlessly in a vast forest.
To assuage these all-consuming feelings, the Black community has become relatively tight-knit. The only caveat is that anyone’s status as a Black person can be questioned. Marlon Riggs himself was subject to scrutiny as a gay man. The Black community has strict ideas about who can belong. Black people must speak with a certain twang (use African American English/ Ebonics/African American Vernacular English — there are many names, each with different histories and connotations), follow the patriarchal structure, fit within the rigid boxes of expected behavior for Black women or men, only have sexual and romantic attraction for the opposite gender, and exist outside of mental illness, among other things. Luckily, the community is slowly accepting people outside of these ideals.
However, when Black Is… Black Ain’t was created in 1994, people like Marlon Riggs, who didn’t fit in those boxes, were left without a defined place in the Black community. This is why Riggs worked to show all that “Black” could be in Black Is… Black Ain’t and to depict Black homosexuality in a destigmatized light in one of his other films, Tongues Untied. He felt so passionately about this goal that he continued to film and direct Black Is… Black Ain’t even as he struggled with AIDS. There are a few heart-wrenching clips of Riggs in his hospital bed as his health deteriorates during production. Despite this, he still talks about different visions he has for Black Is… Black Ain’t. Unfortunately, Riggs passed before he was able to see his project to fruition but while hospitalized, he recognizes that he will be immortalized through his work.
Like many great Black activists and leaders before him, Marlon Riggs will never truly die or be forgotten because of the legacies he has left behind. His work to empower the Black community is still not done. The aims of acceptance and equality for the community have not yet been reached. But we still need to recognize all that has been accomplished, to look back and celebrate the Black people who have paved the way for the opportunities of today.
This semester’s Themester theme, Identity and Identification, is not just about learning about different perspectives and identities, but about continuing towards a better, more open-minded future where everyone is built up, despite whatever identities have shaped their experiences.
Black Is… Black Ain’t will be screened at IU Cinema on November 15 as part of the series Themester 2022: Identity and Identification. A Q&A with African American and African Diaspora Studies assistant professor Maria Hamilton Abegunde, PhD student Marshall Allen, and author and PhD student Jessica Lanay will follow the screening.
Imari Walker is a Themester 2022 Communications and Outreach Intern and program assistant in the OVPDEMA Office of Overseas Studies and Scholarship Program. In 2024, she will obtain degrees in International Law and Linguistics with a minor in African Languages and Certificate in Global French.