This has been an amazing year for singer, songwriter, producer Pharrell Williams, but tempers flared at the cover for his new album, GIRL, which didn’t feature an obviously black girl. That led to several recent interviews in which he counted himself among the “new black”.
“The new black doesn’t blame other races for our issues,” he told Oprah Winfrey. "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 which side you’re gonna be on.”
The response was quick. Twitter exploded with the hashtag #WhatKindOfBlackAreYou.
We showed Pharrell’s Oprah interview to a group of students and staff at Prince George’s Community College.
“He doesn't want to see himself as not being black but just that's not what defines him,” said Marshall Johnson, Prince George’s Community College cable station coordinator.
"It's about having a new balance, recognizing that you're black and again, applying the new black and moving forward," said 19-year old student Kahlia Canty. “Seeing race and knowing that it exists and moving forward.”
Librarian and researcher Janet Sims-Wood, Ph.D. added, “It's a different generation. All of us have to get along in this world. So, I like what he said.”
Greg Carr, Ph.D. chairs the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. He says not Pharrell, but his comment, seems a bit naïve.
"When you're talking about a group of people who were brought here to work, who were never meant to be citizens, who fought their way out of that structure of systematic inequality,” Carr said. “To say that black is a mentality is absurd on its face.”
Black thinkers and artists, Dr. Carr added, have long reinvented and expanded the black experience in America. There's always been a new black and with advancement of a Pharrell or an Oprah or an Obama comes some degree of responsibility to those struggling-- in black history and black present.
“Struggle, in fact, gave us a context to interpret, but struggle is not the meaning of black life," Carr said. “And I think that ultimately, each individual can tap into that stream, regardless of that individual's background and avail themselves of the beauty of that perpetually new blackness."
Back at PGCC, the conversation turned to one about many groups-- based on race, class and gender. The consensus was that in 2014, those things are all intermingled.
For me it's a matter of educating so that they will know who they are and what they have to be proud of,” said Dr. Sims-Wood. “A lot of times I look at our students and they're not proud. I don't care what their color is.”