Commentary: Black Is . . .

"Black in America" explores what it means to be Black.

CNN’s Black in America series has become something of a welcome crucible for the Black community these last four years — especially as the community has developed discursively across social media networks and platforms. The fifth iteration of the series debuted, with host Soledad O’Brien, last week to conflicting reviews and reports (especially on Facebook and in the Twitterverse) asking what does it mean to be Black in America and how do we define who is Black?

As usual, there is no easy answer, especially when we meet Nayo Jones and Becca Khalil, two teenage women of color who wrestle with their identities in the face of society’s need to categorize them in outdated and restrictive racial boxes.

Nayo, who would certainly be categorized as a Black woman on the street, struggles with being abandoned by her Black mother and raised by her white father. Nayo’s younger sister readily identifies as Black, but Nayo is conflicted and reluctant to identify herself as her sister has. Her best friend, Becca, an Egyptian-American, readily and enthusiastically identifies herself as African-American. 

They share their journey of self-actualization. This process may seem gratuitous for some of us in the Black community who understand Blackness through our history or who measure racial identity through oppressive forces. But this is Blackness through the eyes of teenagers: Although Nayo’s struggles are foregrounded in the documentary; Becca’s pride and her grappling with an African-American identity are all the more engaging — especially since she will much more likely be seen as “maybe not Black” than Nayo ever will.

By the end of the hour, Nayo identifies as Black (sort of) and Becca must check the box for white in order to apply for college — since Egyptians are technically considered white by the U.S. Census.

Becca and Nayo are not alone in the conflicts they encounter as they seek to form their own identies. Yaba Blay,’s (1)ne Drop Project was the inspiration behind this year’s Black in America, and is a revelation of how intra-racial bias and/or colorism continues to deeply affect the Black community. Blay interviewed light-complexioned people of African descent about self-determination and the resulting extraordinary project is both historical and relevant to identity formation.

No news documentary series will ever be able to capture the complexities of being Black in America — not even in Soledad O’Brien’s very capable hands. And yes, O’Brien is Black and catches flack from many sides for continuing to identify herself as such. But if the point of the (1)ne Drop Project and the Black in America series is to be a starting point into broader and deeper conversations about race and Blackness in America, then surely this year’s chapter has achieved this feat.

James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, a scholar of hip hop and Black popular culture, and a regular commentator online and on various cable news networks.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

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