After his recent interview with Oprah, Pharrell Williams dragged over the coals by Black Twitter for the following statement (ht Clutch Magazine):

The “new black” doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The “new black” dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.

Writer Michael Arceneaux wrote the following response on his FB page:

Y’know, I’m tired of these rich, disconnected Black men (this means you, Kanye West) denying the lingering prevalence of racism to the amusement of whites whose attention they so desperately covet. I wish celebrities’ opinions didn’t matter so much, but they do frame the culture & Pharrell’s bulls–t is poison. Structural racism is real, struggle vocals and the mix and matching of refrigerator wisdom over an uplifting beat be damned. In sum, Pharrell, grow up, or at the very least, shut up and “sing.”

Let’s be clear: Pharrell’s “new black” has NOTHING to do with the #NewBlackImagination.

For most of us, Pharrell’s statement is patently untrue. It only works in the case where you can say, “all things being equal.” And we know they’re not. Unless you’re Pharrell. Or Kanye. Or the Michaels (Jordan, Jackson). That is, unless you’re someone who’s seemingly escaped the gravitational pull of race. Yes, then your success and what you make out of your life is completely in your hands.

But, as Arceneaux notes above, and J-Smooth and’s RaceForward Project point out, we too often talk about racial issues and racial justice in terms of individuals and not systems.

The new black imagination and the festival it spawned in 2011 is black people delving into the unexplored areas of our creativity and humanity. On one hand, it’s living a life without limits, as some of our best creators and curators do. But that in no way denies the existence of racism, sexism, classism or homophobia. Look around and you’ll find entire industries (journalism, film, book publishing, as examples) where there’s a disturbing lack of diversity, both in terms of headcount and perspective. What we can now achieve and create doesn’t absolve us from doing what we can, in our own ways, to fight against those insidious forces. The new black imagination is about the fresh ways we can validate and affirm both our individual humanity and that of our community. We’re not individual islands, now or ever.

It’s probably hard for someone like Pharrell to admit, sitting there with a billionaire like Ms. Winfrey, that he doesn’t walk on the same ground as the rest of us. The impulse is to see yourself as a regular person. If he were being honest, though, he’d have to admit that his current experience isn’t emblematic of the majority of black people in this country. Can he talk about how he thinks of and conceives of his personal path to success? Absolutely. But you have to be careful not to condescend to people they’re just following the wrong program.  I don’t think that was his intention, but he certainly veers into that territory.

Contrast Pharrell’s approach to that of noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who takes the opportunity when asked about the lack of women in science, to talk about the resistance he faced as a black kid who had a passion for science. What I love here is that the Cosmos host isn’t afraid to contextualize things and bring his race to the fore in a way that can reach people.  What he says is powerful because he has both access and influence in this elite, rarified space.  If not him, then who? The pertinent comments start around 1:01:24 or so.

Microaggressions are real. Bias is real. All the –isms are real. And they manifest themselves on both an interpersonal level as well as a policy level. Look at the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, Dr. Brittany Cooper on Salon, or Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation, to name only a few. And those three, dope as they are, are just the tip of the iceberg of the many people who are telling the truth about the many forces at play that, inadvertently and not, seek to deny our humanity.

Remember that #NewBlackImagination has always been part of the black progressive movement. Yes, it’s forward looking in terms of expression, but it very much honors the work of those that came before. We know we stand here, pursuing our individual interests and expression,  because someone earlier paved the way for us to do so.  And we know that it’s critical to cultivate allies wherever they may be.   Black people have a particular struggle, but we’re not the only ones who need equality, opportunity and justice.

I applaud Pharrell for all of his success.  However, I hope he thinks more deeply about the fact that none of us would’ve made it this far if it was all about individual achievement.  There’s no lasting success outside of community.

That’s the New Black Imagination.

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