Black Berries

Black raspberry

Black raspberry, watercolor 1893

Here, Indianapolis, only the last raspberries, those hidden deep in the thorny shade, remain on the cane brambles after July 4th. I found a few of these on my bicycle commute to work. The fruit hides just off the paved path topping one of the White River levees. I’ve stopped there nearly everyday for a month–decreasing my work productivity by a few minutes, daily. On one of these days, a black guy stopped his regular trek (I see him often) to ask me what I was doing. I told him that I had found some raspberries and I gave him a handful. He ate these and noted: “We call these ‘blackberries'”. I think I might have tried to explain that what I call a “blackberry” (Rubus fruticosus) is different from what I call a “raspberry” (Rubus occidentalis), but he wasn’t interested. His manner suggested that he already knows what “we” call these berries, and I (not being of his “we”) have no place to call for clarifications.

I had a similar discussion in November at church. There I made the white error of referring to the “dressing” as “stuffing”. I was told that “we” call it “dressing”. (I think I’ve heard my white, southern relatives call it “dressing” as well … so, that “we” might be more inclusive.) I will concede that “dressing” seems more sophisticated than “stuffing” … also, “stuffing” is seldom stuffed these days. However, I happen to think that life is one berry richer with (and one berry poorer without) the raspberry, but that is beside the point. Also beside the point, is the fact that one may find plenty of raspberry recipes in soul food cookbooks. (See, for example, Patty Pinner’s Sweety Pies.) Not every black person thinks “blackberries” while eating raspberries, but the above “we” do.

“We” matters far more than the names of berries. One might afford some poverty in exchange for the communal wealth of “we”. I have heard, in my limited experience, a lot of “we” in black speech. It claims the territory and recognizes a difference; it lets everyone (“we” and not-“we”) know that another cultural currency is alive, well, and perhaps beyond reach.

White people use “we” too; in reference to any group: a church, a profession, a family, or a community of people with shared interests. Do white people use “we” when talking to black people about the ways of whiteness? I cannot remember having done so, but I’m sure that “we” do that sometimes. Whiteness assumes a broader territory. Whiteness imagines itself as the norm; a norm against which any “we” might be employed for distinction. White people, therefore, do not want a “we” for whiteness. White people look for a “we” elsewhere … or they join the Klan.

Of all the “we” inclusions a white person might assume to someday achieve (political parties, team allegiances, religious affiliations, professional associations), blackness is beyond reach. In the case of my fellow commuter, “we” is worth a poverty of berries. Sadly, “blackberries” are free, but roadside raspberries are a luxury not everyone can afford.


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