Black And: Reopening Jay Z’s Open Letter

A little more than a year ago, Jay Z announced that he was relinquishing his minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Delivered through his scathing song, “Open Letter” and then later confirmed via press release, the announcement was a strange conclusion to an epic saga that had been unfolding since 2003. Up until that point, the saga had been chronicled extensively by The Atlantic Yards Report and moderately by The New York Times. Yet, when it came to chronicling the feeling of the saga, rather than the details, it was Jay Z himself who told the story, animating it with tales of rising from the ashes and giving back to his community. Given Jay Z’s emphasis on history and pride when narrating the “return” of sports back to Brooklyn, his latest announcement was shocking. The Nets hadn’t even played in the Barclays Center for an entire season; how could Jay leave when things were just getting started? Didn’t he care about Brooklyn? To say it differently: Was he really just “a business, man” above all?

From Jackie to Jay Z”

On March 11, 2010, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center, Reverend Al Sharpton stood before a racially mixed crowd and gave a brief speech in which he praised the sports arena’s construction and the jobs and money he believed its construction would eventually produce. Citing his Brooklyn origins (Brownsville), Sharpton declared that “This project will bring long-term change to the borough that I came from.” Moments later, he mentioned the Brooklyn Dodgers, revealing that when he was a boy, his mother often spoke of how she felt when she saw Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field. Robinson, Sharpton explained to the crowd, “played his first games right here in Brooklyn and broke the color line in terms of Major League Baseball Players.” He then went on to assert that he is glad to have lived to see rapper Jay Z break “the color line in ownership in Brooklyn.” “We’ve gone from Jackie to Jay Z!” he exclaimed. As told by Sharpton, the comparison of Jackie Robinson, Ebbet Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jay Z, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively, is a triumph.

Jay Z invokes a similar comparison on his song “Brooklyn Go Hard”: “I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them/I jack, I rob, I sin/Aww man, I’m Jackie Robinson/’Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen/Lucky me, luckily, they didn’t get me/Now when I bring the Nets, I’m the black Branch Rickey” A la Branch Rickey, the legendary Major League Baseball executive who negotiated Robinson’s entrance into the league, Jay Z becomes a hero, the redeemer of a lost Brooklyn legacy that was exported to Los Angeles in 1958. While Sharpton is a little more tactful (presumably because he is speaking before a mixed audience), both his narrative of Jay Z and Jay Z’s narrative of himself suggest that the triumph they both celebrate is racial — a black victory.

There is nothing wrong with this celebration, but race and history don’t quite tell the full story. Yes, the Nets’ relocation to Brooklyn and Jay Z’s role in their organization are somewhat admirable, but the groundbreaking of the Barclays Center is more than a proud moment in race relations. It is also a moment that is only possible because of certain financial and political relations.

These relations are on full display in the image provided below. At the same groundbreaking ceremony discussed above, Jay Z stands with  Bruce Ratner, the CEO of the real estate company that built the Barclays Center; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former New York State Governor David Paterson; former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; and former president of financial firm Barclays plc, Robert R. Diamond.

Barclays Center Groundbreaking Jay Z

Groundbreaking, March 11, 2010. Via NY Daily News

While Jay Z’s presence in this flank of power is certainly evocative, especially when compared with Jackie Robinson’s equally evocative presence in photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, this easy slippage between Jackie and Jay Z is suspect. When Jackie Robinson was reluctantly accepted into Major League Baseball, he was not a multi-millionaire investing money into a sports organization that might generate him private capital; he did not have multi-million dollar record contracts; he was not an internationally recognizable brand with stakes in multiple industries. Simply put, he was not Jay Z. When blackness alone is used as the criteria for comparing experiences, these crucial distinctions get overlooked.

Debates over the importance of these distinctions within black people’s lives raged long before Jay Z picked up a shovel or a microphone. Black Southerners who migrated North during the 20’s, black Caribbeans who migrated to the the United States during the 80’s and black women, especially feminists, are just a few of the black groups who have spoken of the myriad ways of experiencing blackness. Strangely, despite the persistence of these debates blackness is still spoken of in the singular. How do all of these contingencies get overlooked?

“Black And”

During the last night of the inaugural concert series that christened the Barclays Center, Jay Z responded to a perceived slight by the New York Times with the following words: “I’m a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets.” In this one brief statement he connects his blackness to his simultaneous experiences of growing up poor, growing up as a black male and growing up in a single-parent household. His clothing, a customized Brooklyn Nets jersey, further connected his blackness to his hometown, Brooklyn.

These connections are found throughout Jay Z’s extensive discography and in many instances, they are precisely what make his story so interesting (in addition to the skill with which he tells it). “99 Problems,” for example, features some dialog where a white cop disrespectfully refers to Jay Z as “son” and implies that Jay is uppity for not immediately ceding to the cop’s authority. There’s a deep history embedded in that exchange and Jay Z does an excellent job of invoking that history by subtly emphasizing that he’s being stopped as a black male, not just a black person. There’s no need to exhaust these kinds of moments (there are many), but considering how often they come up in Jay Z’s music and hip-hop in general, we should consider why these other markers of identity – birthplace, gender, class – are always subordinated to race despite being just as present in black people’s experiences.

On one hand, race’s primacy when it comes to understanding black life is simply a function of history. Black people have always been “black and,” but these internal variances were neglected when black people “became” black through slavery and colonialism. This can’t be overemphasized. Blackness was born from a literal gathering up of people and their differences and rendering them all the same. Of course, these differences were not eliminated entirely – music, manners of speaking, personal belongings and memories, among other things, miraculously survived – but being black under colonialism and slavery entailed a degradation of your humanity, no matter where or who you were. And even if you somehow did manage to feel human, as Solomon Northrup’s reminds us, this humanity was always tenuous. Whether freed or enslaved, if you were black, you were always one border, one document, one transaction, one bloodhound away from being torn from humanity.

Black and Rich and Invested

These are the conditions that shaped blackness and continue to shape it. Consequently, blackness has typically been framed homogeneously. There was little time for internal variances because to be in the category itself was to be on the edge of existence.

Yet as Jay Z’s case reminds us, this homogenous frame has limits and always has. At a 2011 press conference for the Barclays Center, which was currently under construction, Jay-Z briefly spoke about what the Barclays Center meant for him and for Brooklyn. Before he gave this speech, he brought up some students from his native Marcy Projects to stand behind him on the podium. It was a heartfelt moment and Jay Z’s pride and happiness are undeniable, but what is left out of the frame or maybe even pushed out of the frame is just as important.

In that particular instance, what is omitted are Jay Z’s incentives for supporting the Barclays Center: the money, the exposure, the bragging rights. Even more obscured are the people footing the bill for these benefits: taxpayers, dislocated residents, business owners, landholders. With these differences and their effects in mind, can we really say that Jay Z and the kids of the Marcy Projects are one in the same? Do we really know what we’re doing when we group such disparate people all together?

Jay Z and kids of Marcy Projects

Via The Ybf.com (Exact date unknown)

 

We Shall Overcome [Selectively]

If we take the naive view of history, the answer is yes, we know exactly what we are doing. One of the more popular understandings of the Civil Rights Movement is that it was successful precisely because it overcame more hostile and militant approaches to ending black plight. This is certainly true, but this “overcoming” wasn’t quite the spiritual perseverance detailed in “We Shall Overcome.” Labeled  “un-Christian,” “radical,” and “communist,” black people who didn’t quite align with the doctrine of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were actively pushed to the margins. They weren’t invited to meetings, marches and cookouts, and they weren’t allowed to participate in demonstrations. Overcoming was a very active verb.

The benefits of that particular overcoming are clear: I probably wouldn’t be typing this if the SCLC had failed and various splinter organizations (and their particular goals) had been the faces of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, I wonder how necessary it is to continue the homogenizing tradition of the SCLC when it [over]came at the expense of the goals and methods of organizations like SNCC, CORE and later the Combahee River Collective.

To go further, I wonder what we miss when we see Jay Z just as a successful black man, a guy who “made it,” when he is both a guy who made it and a guy who makes it by selling, music, concert tickets, clothing and sports teams to kids like the ones on that podium. This doesn’t mean that Jay Z is some kind of evil businessman; he really seems to have been acting with the best intentions. But when blackness is understood singularly, like a cloak that veils all other differences, the business that Jay Z was involved in vanishes. This vanishing makes us unable to think critically about Jay Z’s involvement in the Barclays Center without claiming that he has “betrayed” black people, which is a gross oversimplification. The guy clearly loves Brooklyn.

In the end, if the world is indeed “under new management” as Jay Z says on “Open Letter,” I think we need to adjust how we work. If we continue to use the same familiar techniques and routines when the world is changing around us, our ability to solve problems is diminished. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch – race still shapes the world in undeniable ways – but it does mean looking at the complexity of the world and confronting that complexity head-on, not lamely reducing it to just race or just gender or just class or just evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reduction or even having priorities, but there are consequences. If life is hard knock, why pretend that it’s easy?

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One thought on “Black And: Reopening Jay Z’s Open Letter

  1. Pingback: On Jay-Z, Brooklyn and The Barclays Center | The Black Tongue

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