Bryan Hanley is the brains behind the new website, www.imafricanamerican.com. This website is going to be part archive and part database, as it will allow users to upload their anecdotes and images of what it means to be African-American in the U.S.A. Basically, the website is a resource that champions the fact that African-Americans belong to a diaspora which contains myriad iterations. As the definition of what it is to be African-American comes into relief, I hope that www.imafricanamerican.com and websites like it will be at the forefront of that process. I was fortunate enough to interview Bryan and get a sense of what it means to be African-American.
Spicaro: Why should people be allowed to define themselves on their own terms? What good can come of this? Where are the pitfalls?
Bryan Hanley: One’s personal definition is so personal and so complex. It’s hard to define a person in any one particular way and it’s always a catastrophe when someone else tries to ascribe a definition to a particular person or group. Like take for example trying to define someone like Jay-z, the media may categorize him only as a rapper, thug, former drug dealer, womanizer and other things that add to negative stereotypes of black men. But there is also the Jay-z that is an artist, a husband, a fundraiser for the families of 9/11, a business man, a record executive, etc. And I think a little of that happens to all of us. When it comes to black people in the United States, there is such a rich and diverse experience of life that tends to get oversimplified in the eyes of the general public. There are a lot of images and depictions of blacks as simple characters with a limited impact on society at large and a few character archetypes like the basketball player or the singer or the rapper and not the many things that we are. The best we can hope for is that people see us for who we really are, unedited. One of the things that can be seen as pitfalls are some may take self expression as an opportunity to badmouth others or “spew the hate.” I don’t want to be a catalyst for that kind of thing.
Spicaro: How much does it matter that there is a black president in white house? Do people make more about the president's race than he does? Do you feel people judge the president more harshly because he is African-American?
Bryan Hanley: It matters immensely that the president is black. That has been such a big boost to the African American community in so many ways. For one, it holds black men in America accountable to a higher standard than in the past. Guys can’t be like, “oh I have such a hard time because I’m black” that shit is over. If Obama did it, what can you say? Either you’re not trying hard enough or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t go out and make things happen. It’s also a great source of inspiration to the 20 and 30-somethings who were living their lives thinking this could never happen in their lifetimes. We feel like we can really make whatever we want happen in our lives, like there is no black cloud hanging over our heads anymore simply because we are black. And for the kids, it shows them that all dreams really are possible with hard work. I mean of course the everyday realities of being black are still there. We still have the same discrimination and institutional racism we always had, in addition to this anti- Obama backlash that’s been going around but now all these things have less of a sting than they used to have. They feel beatable finally. The president himself treads really lightly on the issue of his race. People definitely make a bigger deal than he does. He also has to take it light these first 4 years. People have made a major jump but America’s general public (non minority) is not ready to feel the reality of what being black or being a minority really is. The anti-Obama backlash is also something is also something he has to watch out for. If he responds too strongly, a lot of white America will feel alienated. He has to worry about reelection in the next 3 years so he has to take it easy. It will be interesting to see how he acts after his reelection in 2012 (God willing). I think that we will get more into the issue of race then. I think that we would never have seen a congressman scream “you lie” at a presidential address had it been a Ronald Reagan or even a Bill Clinton. He is being judged a little harshly and I do think race is an issue. His awarding of the Nobel peace prize, instead of producing great pride, has some Americans saying that he didn’t even deserve it. That’s ludicrous.
Spicaro: How much diversity is there in the African-American Diaspora? Is there a lot of internecine fighting within the African-American community? What can the African-American community to unify and strengthen itself?
Bryan Hanley: It’s hard to answer the question, “how much diversity is there in the African American community? “ I don’t know if I’m the right person to codify the stats on the community’s diversity. But there is an amazing amount of diversity in the African American community. When I say African American I use a very broad definition. I think of people who are descended from Africans who are in the United States. In this definition, you have black Americans who are descended from slaves in the south, descended from free people in the north, descended from slaves in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and that’s just the ones who are endemic to the states. There are also the African Americans who actually come here from the continent of Africa and either they are naturalized citizens or are the first generation born in here in America. The same classification applies to citizens and first generation people from the Caribbean, Brazil and any blacks from anywhere else. That’s just the demographic diversity; there is also economic diversity and cultural diversity. I can speak for myself when I talk about fighting within the community. I am from a Caribbean background and we don’t really have beef with the other groups so to speak we just have critiques of the other groups. I think that that’s all it really is between the groups, critiques of one another. The key to strengthening the black community at large is realizing that all of us have a common link culturally and ancestrally which is Africa. If we were to recognize that we are all the same people in different locations then it would be a lot easier to pool our resources together and work together to get the things that we all want, which for the African Diaspora at large it is freedom from poverty economically, socially an educationally for everyone, not just the chosen few.
Spicaro: What format is best for self-definition? What is the best way to allow people to speak for themselves? What media best captures that endeavor? For example, do you feel that a picture (jpeg) is stronger than an mp3 (audio file)? Is there a medium that is superior for self-definition?
Bryan Hanley: There is no best form for self definition for everyone I think. I just chose to give people a chance with words and pictures because I figured that people would be able to produce those easiest to put on the site. I think that some people are better suited to express themselves in song or in visual arts. There isn’t a perfect or most efficient way of expressing oneself and we got to thank God for that. My grandmother, for example, best expresses herself through stories of what she did that day. I think for what I’m doing with ImAfricanAmerican.com a picture and a story behind it speaks volumes. It lets the observer capture your essence without having to over analyze it.
Spicaro: How will technology allow African-Americans to better define themselves? What advances do you see the African-American community championing? What is the role of technology in a community?
Bryan Hanley: In the world that we are dealing with today, technology is the great equalizer. People can reach each other all across the world much easier thanks to technology. With the increase of blogs, websites like mine, online video, and other content driven media geared toward the black community, African Americans are shaping the way they see themselves and how the world sees them in a very meaningful way. While the community still deals with some of the issues I spoke to earlier, everyone has access to the internet. Everyone. There is an economic divide but the digital divide is very small to nonexistent. In today’s digital age, the barrier to entry to produce content that can reach a wide audience is very low, so this spurs a lot of development in the web creative space. In just the last 2 years there have been a plethora of new and meaningful black blogs that have sprung up. For example Danielle Belton’s (if you don’t know about it you better check it out www.blacksnob.com) black snob has only been around for about 2 years and has made a major impact on black political thought for people in my age group. In a community, technology’s role is to bring people together in a more efficient manner. The prominence of social media has shown that.
A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.