Gaslighting Blackness: Recollecting our identity through cultural geographies

When you’re told what’s Black is White, and that your experiences don’t exist–it’s easy to feel crazy in our society.

I read a few articles today, after having saved them more than two weeks ago. Reading them made it imperative that I write this article on my Black Urbanist blog… something I’ve been keeping to myself for some time. One article, which led me to read another article, was entitled: “Before techno was white and hedonistic, it was black and political.” From there I read the full article on Pitchfork, “Electronic Warfare: The Political Legacy of Detroit Techno.” A few hours later, and unrelated to the first two articles, I read an article by Ariel Leve called, “How to survive gaslighting: when manipulation erases your reality.” Reading these articles, in addition to my own research on Black geographies, made me think about the experiences of Black people in Europe and North America–but also Black people everywhere. It made me think about how often Black people have to wait for articles that are shared on Facebook to learn about the historical geographies of our culture, and cultural production more generally. It made me think about how in Europe and Brazil (and many other places), anti-Black racism is often brushed off as an American construction and non-existent. It made me think about how often we’re told when we experience subtle racism that we don’t actually understand what is going on. This made me think that Leve’s description of gaslighting is similar to the hyper-visibility and simultaneous invisibility of the Black experience. She explains in her article:

The term “gaslighting” refers to when someone manipulates you into questioning and second-guessing your reality. It derives from a 1944 movie – and the play and another film that preceded it – in which this happens to the heroine.

Gaslighting is a form of abuse and manipulation that causes the victim[s] to blame themselves for the violence and abuse inflicted upon them. It makes them wonder if they actually know what they know or experienced what they experienced. Gaslighting removes responsibility from the victimizer and causes trauma for the victim[s]. It also makes it seem like the victim is making things up or living in a fantasy world. When I read articles about cultural appropriation or artistic and cultural forms that most people do not associate with Blackness, but which have developed from the Black experience, it often seems like we are clawing through legacies of oppression and geopolitical marginalization to retrace our identities. It is because of this invisiblising: making Blacks, and anyone who is non-White, to feel ‘other’ and as if we have not created anything of value that we often begin to question our experiences, our cultural production, and our value.

It is through researching, writing, and documenting the art, culture, and history Blacks around the world have produced that we begin to shape our reality in a way that cannot be manipulated by dominant groups or racism. Through remapping our music and dance by tracing it back to the continent of Africa, or exhibiting and celebrating style that was seen as “ghetto” before the Fashion World adopted it, or using Black women poets as solace during the presidency of Donald Trump… we are resisting the gaslighting of our existence. While I believe it is important to point out cultural appropriation and White-washing, it is equally and sometimes more effective to recount the accurate history of the cultural/art form. When we correctly, loudly and consistently locate ourselves in history, as well as contemporary producers (not just of music and dance) within our societies we reclaim our Blackness. It is not just about coping with gaslighting, it is about providing an alternative to it and empowering ourselves.

The reality of Blackness is geopolitical; it is a diaspora reality based on forced and voluntary migration, limited mobility, hybridity, and adaptivity. No matter how often the enslavement of Africans in the United States is left out of school curriculums, or barely spoken about; no matter how many European countries deny their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and violence of colonialism; no matter how many Afrikaners claim indignity and oppression. The gaslighting of Blackness in Western nations is not new. Although it is getting better because of articles aforementioned, the work of Black activists and artists, scholars, archivists, researchers etc., the best way to combat it is to write and rewrite our own narratives. To use subjectivity as a tool. To bring the voices normally on the periphery to the center. To acknowledge, encourage, support, biggup, and share different forms of knowledge…different ways of knowing.

Even though anti-Black racism, hegemony, and the status quo often make Blackness seem only relevant in music and dance; even while Black people are told that the racism we experience is not racism; even as our contributions to the globe are often overlooked, ignored, or intentionally hidden we still exist and always will. A whole identity cannot be gaslighted, despite the efforts on the part of those who have been known to write history. You cannot erase a whole people even though British/European settlers in the Americas, Northern Europe, and Australia/New Zealand tried to wipe out whole indigenous populations. Even if for a while we are made to believe what we experience is not real or that it is our fault, this mentality will not last forever and cannot consume us all. We will continue to collect our identities, narrate our history, present our subjectivity as knowledge, create inclusive-safe spaces, and devise solutions.

“As long as we are not ourselves, we will try to be what other people are.”

-Malidoma Patrice Somé (Of Water and the Spirit)