Audience reactions ranged from being shocked to mildly amused when a visiting Tunisian scholar read a series of uncouth, stereotypical descriptions about the differences between black and white racial identities.
Dr. Raja Labadi Boussedra read the passages written by Thomas Jefferson to a group of about 20 people in the MultiCultural Center Lounge on Monday to show the ways in which blacks have moved through America’s cultural terrain since colonial times. Her lecture, entitled “Cultural Mulattoism and the New Black Aesthetic,” focused on what author Trey Ellis has termed “cultural mulattoism” in his essay “the New Black Aesthetic.” The event was held in part to help conclude Black History Month celebrations at UCSB.
Boussedra said cultural mulattoism refers to the ability of blacks to not be restricted by racial identity, but rather take elements from different cultures to create a new diverse and pluralistic self.
“There are blacks that can navigate easily in both the black and white worlds, negotiating a complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural background,” she said.
Blacks have continually tried to redefine their identity, which has been shaped traditionally by a dominant white society, Boussedra said. Black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, believed blacks were torn between being a particular race and being nationally American, she said. She used the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Harlem Renaissance as examples in history where the conflicting personalities began to converge into a singular conscience.
“African-American literature in general was formed as a means of fighting racism,” Boussedra said. “They had to move from deconstructing previously created identities of themselves to reach an understanding of their own souls and negotiating a new identity.”
After discussing Ellis’ theory, Boussedra said his definition of the “new black aesthetic” was not comprehensive enough.
“The new black aesthetic leaves unresolved tensions in place — gaps that need to be filled, like class, geography, gender and sexuality,” she said.
In the closing of her lecture, Boussedra paraphrased black author Toni Morrison and warned that “the new black aesthetic” might disconnect blacks from their past.
“If you can be everything and everyone at the same time, how much of your history — of what you really are — remains intact?” she said.
Duriel E. Harris, a Center for Black Studies fellow who was in the audience, said she disagreed with the form of cultural mulattoism that Boussedra presented in her lecture because it was unrealistic.
“We are living in a historically racialized society, such that it would be naive to think you could completely extricate yourself from it in order to immerse yourself in an apolitical and ahistorical creative process,” Harris said.
Anna Everett, director for the UCSB Center of Black Studies, said the new black aesthetic is a complex issue. Blacks may be able to form their own identity, but they still remain in a society that places them into a racial category.
“For sure we have moved beyond some of the fixed identity categories but much is easily re-actuated in day to day interactions between our social groups.” Everett said. “Dr. Boussedra’s research is inspiring because it represents African ‘diasporic’ practice in the truest sense of the words.”