Language advisory: This story includes a racial slur.
If he could see through the propaganda which has been instilled into his mind under the pretext of education, if he would fall in love with his own people and begin to sacrifice for their uplift — if the “highly educated” Negro would do these things, he could solve some of the problems now confronting the race.
—Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail
To make a better situation
—Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
So, I’m going through a bit of a nigrescence. You heard of it? It’s a thing. My sister, a psychology professor, has diagnosed me as being in “the process of becoming black.” William E. Cross developed the theory to account for “the identity transformation that accompanied an individual’s participation in the Black power phase (1968-1975) of the Black Social Movement.” His model has since been applied to other minorities, like African and Caribbean immigrants to the United States. I’m that newer kind of nigrescent: I’m a Zambian who moved to Maryland in 1989. Growing up, I often worried I wasn’t black enough — because my father’s white, because I wasn’t American.
This is in fact quite American of me. Americans of all races tend to judge blackness this way. Depending on your background, you either are or you aren’t: “black,” “authentic,” “real,” or “street” enough. But this relies on genes or geography when, actually, nigrescence is a cultural process: “the metamorphosis of a Eurocentric world view into an Afrocentric one.” Blackness, Cross says, “is a state of mind, not an inherited trait,” and one that is best “explained by dynamic rather than static paradigms.” Being black is always becoming black, a movement that entails contradiction, tumult and as Cross puts it, “a multitude of ideas and ideologies,” as well as “considerable effort.”
At the start of nigrescence, “the Negro” has been “socialized to take for granted the white perspective on life.” They then experience an “encounter” that ignites an intense transformation: “glorification of African heritage, either/or thinking, Blacker-than-thou attitudes, unrealistic expectations concerning the efficacy of Black Power, a tendency to denigrate white people and white culture, and a preoccupation with proving that, as seen by ‘others,’ one is Black enough.” This stage is marked by a range of turbulent emotions, including “rage, euphoria, tenseness, guilt, anger, love, oceanic pride, intense commitment, and lack of fear.” In Cross’s description, this stage feels like an adolescent “phase,” and indeed, it often takes place in college or shortly after.
I’m 40 and this is where I’m at. My nigrescence is manifesting in stereotypical fashion. I want to listen to only black music, read only black literature, watch only black movies, experience only black art, learn only about black history and ideas, write only about blackness. I moved to Harlem, willfully ignoring the voracious gentrification eating away at the Black Mecca. I see racism everywhere — its forms of exclusion, rejection and destruction, both insidious and violent — and it fills me with rage. It’s gotten so that, as Toni Morrison once said, “when I say people, I mean black people.”
Cross says the final stage of nigrescence is when these blackitty-black feelings mellow into a new perspective on race, less sanctimonious and bellicose, more open-minded and humble. Maybe that’s coming for me. But here’s the thing: This isn’t even my first nigrescence. I already went through it once, back when I was in college. It was sparked by the 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Nigrescence in fact begins when you’re under the sort of veil of ignorance described by Carter Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), which inspired Hill’s album title: “Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African.” You’ve been deprived of a real education; you’ve also undergone a miseducation — at the hands of whiteness and its lackeys, from teachers to ministers to politicians. You’re a sleepwalker, a zombie, groping through the world as if all the lies about black people that permeate it are indubitable facts. But just to say and understand the word miseducation means that you’ve already begun to transcend it. You are disillusioned; you are enlightened. You see things clearly now; you cannot unsee them.
When Hill’s breakout album with the Fugees, The Score, was released in 1996, she was an English major at Columbia University. When her breakout solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released in 1998, I was an English major at Yale. My father was a professor; Hill’s mother was an English teacher. I grew up in Baltimore county, Hill in the suburbs of New Jersey (every ghetto, every city, and suburban place I’ve been). I was literally that hyphenated African-American; she was “Haitian by association.” I immediately felt her black middle-class, A-student, Ivy-Leaguer, Pan-Africanist vibe.
It seems only right that Hill asked a high school principal, Ras Baraka (now mayor of Newark, N.J., her hometown), to run the schoolroom lessons about “love” that weave as interludes throughout Miseducation. In the first of these, she’s on the roster but seems to be absent: Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill? Baraka calls, then moves on. Lauryn’s playing hooky or maybe — as we now know — she’s just always late. The album cover, a visual echo of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Burnin’, is her face burned into a school desk: This is both graffiti defacing school and art adorning it. She doesn’t reject education, but makes it her own, a re-education in Blackness 101, in which she’s both student and teacher.
The syllabus is global: Jamaica and Haiti and the black United States, but also Africa, both ancient (Lalibela) and modern (Mali), and metropolises like “New-Ark” in the “New Jeru.” The readings range wide — from reggae to gospel to marching band music to hip-hop to jazz to barbershop quartets — and the cuts run deep. “Everything is Everything” gets its title from Donny Hathaway; “Lost Ones” samples Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” in both melody and lyrics (L been this way since creation). If the album asks black people “how did we become lost ones?” its form offers a way home. Miseducation‘s wild spectrum — in both an artistic and a musical sense — fulfills Woodson’s hope in the ’30s that in some future time, “Some Negro with esthetic appreciation would construct from collected fragments of Negro music a grand opera that would move humanity to repentance.”
Miseducation was the soundtrack to my first nigrescence, which was ambitious and diasporic in the same way. I remember cranking down the window and turning up the dial to blast “Lost Ones” as I drove along the New Jersey turnpike back to school one fall. Seeing Love Jones that summer had me rolling up to Yale to organize a poetry night called BlacKoffee — given the numbers, the flyers I designed said it was to be “black oriented but not black exclusive” (bless). I joined an African dance group on campus. I walked an older white relative through a close reading (a skill I’d just learned) of the lyrics of “Final Hour” to explain to them that rap music is poetry. I started wearing a belly chain and wedge sandals and the chitenge print bell bottoms I’d had tailored in Lusaka. I sang Hill’s cover of “Killing Me Softly” to audition for my senior a cappella group. I picked out my natural curls into a lopsided fro for graduation. And one time, I walked into a Halloween party wearing a sign that said NEGRO on my chest and one that said NIGGER on my back. Just to start … conversation.
The Negro doth protest too much. But this is what falling in love with blackness looks like. It’s messy. It’s angry. It’s silly. It’s beautiful. It’s sad. I remember lying curled up on the staircase outside my dorm room after a break-up, crooning “Ex-Factor.” Why did that song hit so hard? Love songs these days are so often either about ecstatic bliss or about vicious heartbreak. Miseducation‘s songs are about both (with you it’s never either or). In a sense, the album was a re-education for me in soul and the blues, too, how those quintessentially black genres press the sweet bruise of love, how, as Ralph Ellison put it, they “finger its jagged grain.” We hear it in lines like I used to love him /But now I don’t, and lines like As painful as this thing has been/ I just can’t be with no one else, and lines like When it hurts so bad / Why’s it feel so good?
We feel it in the exquisite doomsdaying of “Nothing Even Matters”:
Now the skies could fall
Not even if my boss should call
The world it seems so very small
‘Cause nothing even matters, at all
These buildings could drift out to sea
Some natural catastrophe
Still there’s no place I’d rather be
‘Cause nothing even matters to me
Hill and D’Angelo alternate verses, moving between the sublime (skies fall, buildings drift) and the daily (bosses call, manicures are missed), their twining, crystalline voices punctuated by a softly unsettling rhythm of bass and finger snaps. The force of love matches — and even beats — the percussive quaking of a world, which seems, by comparison, so very small. The lyrics continually sink back into negation: double negatives (I don’t need no alcohol), events of negation (withdrawal, catastrophe) and events under possible negation (what could or couldn’t happen). The union of small nothing (it don’t matter) and big nothing (matter razed to nothing) sounds purest to me in the line: nothing even matters no more. This is an annihilation of time and space that is also a utopia (no place I’d rather be). This is an ongoing and awesome devastation. This is what it feels like to fall in love with someone.
This is what it feels like to fall in love with blackness. Every day, it seems, we’re made to feel the deprivations and brutality that others impose upon us. Yet, as Hill puns in “Everything is Everything,” we can “develop a negative into a positive picture,” because blackness is truly a blessing, a vast ocean of knowledge, of learning, that we can splash into and swim around in. In the album’s last interlude, Baraka calls on a student named “Lauryn” to define love — is she back in class? Will she pronounce the final verdict? — but it turns out to be a young boy. He says love is “just a feeling… when you like somebody. You wanna fall in love with them. … You just hope they feel the same way.” Miseducation didn’t teach me how to look or talk or act black or be black. It taught me that I wanted to fall in love with blackness, and that someone out there felt the same way.
Revisiting Miseducation to write this essay has taught me that nigrescence doesn’t erupt volcanically once, then move inevitably toward calm. Hill’s militant blackness hasn’t “mellowed”; if anything, she’s angrier than ever. And while I may have outgrown playing antics with Halloween costumes, the two decades between my first and second nigrescence have been far from racially serene. I’ve come to realize that becoming black is a never-ending and unaccountable thing. Like falling in love, it seethes and flares, winds and spirals, takes detours and switchbacks, zigzags between stages, achieves lofty heights and plummets into pathetic — sometimes bathetic — depths. I’ve also come to realize that my first nigrescence was far lonelier than my second. And becoming black can’t happen alone. That’s why it is more than just the headiness of falling in love. It is the work of love itself.
Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and Professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of The Old Drift: A Novel (Hogarth, 2019) and Stranger Faces (Transit, 2020).