About the Black Skin We Live In

Screenshot of Travis Scott Concert broadcast on Fortnite (screenshot by the author)

As Juneteenth approaches, I have been given reason to consider a confluence of events and ideas.  I have given considerable time and emotional energy to thinking about my grandmother Birdie.  She was born Verna Telford in 1919 in or near Fort Worth, Texas, and a year or two later, she was adopted by her great aunt Hannah who would change her name to Birdie Bankett — the name of a silent film star, if I’ve ever heard one. Birdie grew up on her family’s farm in south central Texas in Austin county which had a relatively low rate of lynching for the state. Birdie’s was a multi-generational and what might, in our current parlance, be called a blended home. She was one of four daughters, two of whom were Hannah and Johnson Bankett’s birth children and two of whom were adopted from nieces who were not in positions to care for their children. Hannah’s great grandmother, and the children’s great-great grandmother also lived with them. Rose Blair was born in South Carolina into slavery; we don’t know when.

Portrait of Birdie and Willie Smith, (c. 1940s) (image courtesy Birdie Smith)

As Birdie tells it, Rose arrived in Texas when she was twelve years old, and while I can’t be certain, I have to imagine that she, and other enslaved people in her owner’s possession, walked that distance. The news of legal emancipation would not reach Texas until Major General Gordon Granger made the announcement in Galveston on June 19, 1865 — nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation order (on September 22, 1862). He signed the official Emancipation Proclamation into force on January 1, 1863, but the 13th amendment would take nearly two more years for the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the requisite number of states to ratify abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in the entire United States. News traveled slowly in Texas, and some Texan slaveholders sequestered news of emancipation so some enslaved people remained in bondage for several more years, according to Leon Litwack and Elizabeth Haynes Taylor. Birdie doesn’t know how old Rose Blair was when she learned of her emancipation.

Gramma, as Birdie calls Rose Blair, was retired. Once a week, she performed the work of minding the children while Hannah spent the day in town. In Birdie’s recollection, Rose Blair was formidable. One Saturday, after Birdie and her sister Lucinda made mischief, Rose gathered up Birdie, braced the child (whose head was down) between her knees, and wailed on the girl’s backside. Lucinda escaped the same fate by biting her great-great grandmother! From that time forward, Hannah did not allow Rose Blair to punish the children corporally because, in my grandmother’s words, “all she knew was slave beating.”

When I moved to Austin from Oakland 16 years ago, I asked my grandparents Willie and Birdie whether they wanted to come with me. They declined, telling me that after 60 years in California, they would never return to Texas.  Her husband and life partner of seventy-seven years departed in 2015.  Five years later, Birdie is 101 years old, holed up in her apartment in an assisted living community in Orange County, California. Her daughter and grandson, each of whom lives just seven miles away, have, until recently, not been allowed to visit her for fear that they and other residents’ family members might be vectors that bring COVID19 to the elderly population.  Birdie is a survivor’s survivor, so she is surviving. But, she is also a true social butterfly, so she is withering in isolation, her mental acuity diminishing daily.

Portrait of Birdie Smith at the Allen Studio, [Need Date] Fort Worth, Texas (image courtesy Birdie Smith)

I am a second-generation Californian, a migrant to Texas — a reverse migrant to this state. I was raised by and lived in a house with two Black Texans. Willie was born in 1917, ten months after the high profile case of Jesse Washington who was lynched in Waco, just 100 miles north of Willie’s home town. He followed his mother to California in 1947, after being conscripted to the segregated army and participating in World War II. Birdie followed him a few months later.  Their great migration corresponds with the bid of Heman Marion Sweatt to integrate the School of Law at the University of Texas. Willie and Birdie, in their wildest dreams, could not imagine that their grandchild would go on to be a professor at the crown university of their birth state, the same institution that would not admit people like them until 1950 as professional students and 1956 as undergrads.

From my grandparents, I learned their Texas foodways: My grandparents would buy collard or mustard greens from a farm stand, make a rich soupy stew of black-eye peas, and cook cornbread with stoneground cornmeal. But — and I’ve got to think this was purposeful — I did not hear much about life in Texas. We had cookouts with our other Texas family members who still lived in Venice where they settled when they arrived in California, but these events took place on the 4th of July and not on or near Juneteenth. My grandparents were “trying to make it” to use one of Willie’s favorite phrases. While on summer visits to Texas, from the Texan parents of their California friends, Birdie and Willie’s own children would learn that Black folks marked Juneteenth by having a cookout and skipping work; I wouldn’t learn about Juneteenth until I was in college. Birdie tells me they celebrated at the church and neighboring school, in the tiny town of Buckhorn, where adults visited, children played, and all who gathered shared fried chicken, cakes, and pies. All of this contributes to my family’s and my own life-long process of becoming Black.

Austin has claimed the largest part of my adulthood. I’ve had two children in this state, one of whom strongly identifies as an Austinite if not a Texan. They are boys being, navigating, understanding, and becoming Black in Texas, away from the rest of their Black family members who remain in California. One of the main ways they are becoming Black — as we all do, to a certain extent — is through their consumption of culture, ranging from music and sports to video games, shows, and memes.

In COVID-19 time, their screen time has increased dramatically, as has their consumption of culture that I am tempted to call “Black” but that is, in reality, not “Black” at all. From the ubiquitous GIFs that portray people of African descent expressing emotions in short, repeating loops, to the TikTok videos in which people say or perform stereotypical phrases and actions, these pieces of media allow their users to wrap themselves in blackness and deploy it seamlessly in anti-Black ways. Such viral culture has come to be called digital blackface, and to be absolutely clear, these performances participate in the long history of blackface minstrelsy in which, beginning in the 19th century and continuing to today, entertainers perform exaggerated caricatures associated with Black people and culture. As an art historian who’s written a book on cross-racial identity performances by the likes of Adrian Piper, Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, and Anna Deavere Smith, and another on the artist Michael Ray Charles who has made a career challenging peoples’ ideas about race by appropriating aspects of so-called “Black memorabilia” and better known as “contemptible collectibles” (to coin Patricia Turner’s phrase), I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the anti-Blackness that lies at the center of the traffic in blackface and blackness. I have been unsurprised to see these actions, expressions, and words turned into widely disseminated, virally spreading stereotypes, just as I am not surprised that Black people, in a historical vacuum, are wittingly or unwittingly participating in their own anti-Black consumption. What floors me is how difficult it is to police my sons’ consumption of it.

A case in point: A few weeks ago, the musical artist Travis Scott gave a concert titled Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical inside Fortnite Battle Royale. This streaming, single-shooter game, popular with the under-18 set, allows players to take each other out bloodlessly with all manner of firearms. For weeks leading up to the performance, my sons and their friends chatted about the event, geeking out on what form it would take.

On April 23 at 5pm CDT, an avatar that bore striking resemblance to Scott — and at the same time bettered him by transforming his frame into that of a svelte, superhuman avatar — descended into the center of Fortnite’s gaming island.  The games’ action stopped, and the multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-species avatars that represented the 12 million young people (sitting on their couches around the world) floated around, danced beside, and watched the Travis Scott figure which towered above the gamers’ figures. Where the gamers’ avatars were dressed in futuristic, militaristic, and sometimes silly costumes, Scott wore “street clothes” typical of a concert — sagging yet slim-fitting cargo pants that carefully revealed underwear, no shirt, a heavy necklace, and boots. (Later, The Scott figure also donned a costume of leather jacket, holster, and an astronaut’s helmet and visor.) While the figure’s hair appeared in the braided style that Scott favors, its skin shifted between realistic brown tones and futuristic colors that seemed to reflect the night sky, a lava flow, and what can only be described as underwater cyber jelly fish. Still, there was no mistaking that the Scott avatar was a Black man from the way it strutted over the island stage, moved its arms in the way that has become characteristic of rappers, and bounced to the beat of the three songs that were presented in a little under nine minutes.

Screenshot of Travis Scott Concert broadcast on Fortnite (screenshot by the author)

Immediately following the event, my younger son said, “I want to buy the Travis Scott skin!” Now, I’d heard the word “skin” applied to the fictional characters that populate games, but it sounded decidedly wrong to hear it applied to an actual person who has actual skin, even if my son was referring to the singer’s avatar.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I became fascinated with games, such as Tomb Raider, that allowed mostly male gamers to inhabit the body of a young and busty woman to hunt for treasure, and Grand Theft Auto that provided (white male?) gamers the opportunity to become muscular Black and Brown petty criminals who stole cars and shot one another. Similarly, when I’d see white men wear the athletic jerseys of their favorite Black male athletes, I’d marvel at whether the temporary bodily substitution fostered empathy and identification or represented good ol’ “love and theft,” to use Eric Lott’s term. So, there I was, wondering what it meant for my boys to want to buy Travis Scott’s skin. I was hung up on the slippage between the actual and the avatar, the mastery that consumption implies, and my sons’ participation in all of this.

Screenshot of Travis Scott Concert broadcast on Fortnite (screenshot by the author)

Horrified at their use of the word, I pulled my sons aside, saying “Let’s talk about your using ‘skin.’” We talked about how different cultures throughout time and across geographical distance would remove the skin of their enemies, that it was a way for one people to dominate another. Then, I brought it closer to home, explaining that when people, in particular African American men, were lynched, the killers and other attendees sometimes retained pieces of their bodies—fingers, hair, and skins included — as trophies. They were astounded by that history, just as they are deeply incredulous when they see and hear about the violence perpetrated against protesters and the deaths of Black people at the hands of savage police officers. They signaled that they understood by readily participating in coming up with alternate terms for “skin” — avatar, character, figure, and costume among them — but I was and continue to be uncomfortable with my sons’ simultaneous identification and dis-identification with historic and ever-present brutality against Black people.

There was also the conundrum of their buying and subsequently “wearing” the Travis Scott “costume.” As Black boys, they look up to Scott and other musicians for their style, their swagger, and the insouciance with which they carry themselves. I can relate to the “boy crushes” they have on Scott, Drake, and other rappers whose catchy songs they hear but whose lyrics they are yet to understand. But I am also puzzled over my sons’ adopting digital blackface in these instances and on their purchasing and temporarily wearing the mantle of an exaggerated and stereotypical version of heteronormative Black masculinity in the form of Travis Scott. Next, I puzzled over how the cross-marketing of Fortnite and Travis Scott came to be — which organization originated the collaboration, who decided on the event’s structure as an in-game “concert,” who designed the Travis Scott avatar, and what role Scott played in creating his figure’s costume and movements. Particularly salient to me is: Did he or others profit from selling his body and “skin”?

In this time of a pandemic of COVID-19 within the pandemic of hundreds of years of state-sanctioned human rights abuses against people of African descent, when our Black super-elders — like Birdie who gives me just two degrees of separation from a formerly enslaved family member — are preparing to depart, it is useful for us to think through the multiple ways we are always becoming and being Black through our creation, consumption, and global distribution of culture. Time passes, collapses, and repeats itself. What was relevant one hundred years ago, when my kids’ great grandparents were born, remains so. The tip of a vast iceberg is coming into my sons’ sights — the pleasures and terrors of the long and slow becoming Black.

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