I didn’t plan on being black. I was living in Oakland California in 1967, and quite content to be a Negro. Negroes had jobs, they went to school, they tried to get by. Negroes spoke proper English. Negroes got permission from their mamas to wear “natural” hairdos, and decided that “processes” were just for pimps. Those who were still colored had hair that was black, slick, and very good. See, as black folk, it often comes down to hair. We Negroes knew our hair was bad, but we kept it in its place, and it didn’t cause no trouble.
But damn those naturals. See, right about ’67, when we got our natural, we missed a haircut or two, and next thing you know, we be sporting a ‘fro. Now a ‘fro is very cool, but a dangerous thing. A ‘fro dances in the wind to African rhythms. A ‘fro sways with African hips and bounces the booty dance and makes the girls as round on the top as they are on the bottom. The ‘fro got our blood boiling, and made us buy genuine African dashikis (made right in India).
Yes, those ‘fros made us black. We be thinking maybe we from Africa. We looked on maps for Negroland, and couldn’t find it, and felt betrayed. We realize the color we are is brown, but since white was right, and we was wrong, then we must be black. Simple deductive reasoning, you know.
And just as suddenly, with me at 10 years old, there’s a sister named Yolanda Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni. Kind of an Eyetalian sounding name, but she black. And she axed us:
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
And we say, “whoa, baby, I ain’t trying to be no nigger,” and we knew the FBI was after Nikki, and we ain’t tryin ta kill nobody, so we just stay low. Nikki tried to scare the Man, but he don’t scare easy. So the Man he watch, and listen, and he just lay low. Nikki, we know she don’t hate nobody that don’t hate her. But she want to know if we can hate those whom hate us. Can we stand up, and be strong, and look forward?
Now since we been to Oakland, we know ’bout Huey P, and Rap, and Bobby. And Huey P? Huey P look real cool carrying his rifle, but we still not trying to kill nobody. So Nikki, she just need to chill. But now we know we angry, cause Nikki said we was.
But we be damn if we know what we ‘possa say when we mad. We be damn if we have the words for it.
But then Don L. Lee taught us what black was, and what cool was and was not. (Yeah I know he’s Haki now, but his mama name him Don L., I’m gonna call him Don L.) And Don L… say,
“cool-cool so cool
he didn’t know,
after detroit, newark, chicago &c.,
we had to hip
cool-cool/ super-cool/ real cool
to be black
And , damn.
Just, well, damn. And there it was. To be black is to be very hot.
And just like that (snap!) I was Black. To be black is to be very hot.
And just like that (snap!). We be poets and shit. And the world be so simple again. And yeah, we be smiling and shit. But inside … lawd inside we be mad as hell. And Don L’s words be saying:
To be black
is to be
And we be listening. Yeah.
We be sho nuff listening.