Sometimes I don’t want to be black. But I don’t want to be white either. I’m just tired of what being black means in this society. There is an idea of blackness that was forced on me. It leaves me and my people in a constant state of rage, confusion and is often emotionally heavy.
It means I must explain when I wear the kinks in my hair or if I choose to put a weave in it. And if I don’t wear my hair straight, I’m not “as black.” But if I wear it natural, “you need to do something with it” or “it’s not professional enough.” How do I not go mad? Why must I think twice about these things?
Why do I have to put on a different voice and shed my slang if my friends and I are around whites in fear that I may be judged for not being intelligent? Why can’t I speak the language that I curse in, make jokes in, essentially find my most freedom in. My native tongue, I’ll never know. There are words that exist in other languages that don’t even translate to English. Imagine the beautiful words that I’m missing out on because my native tongue has been snatched from my ancestors’ mouths. And now the one language that we created and lay claim to is constantly appropriated, stolen and is shitted on for not being good enough? No. I can’t.
But can I say no for real? Because I need to make this money, so I need to be this “thing” to make a living. But why must I rely on them to give me opportunity? I have to play their game to achieve “their” success. But is this success that has been taught the only kind of success? Or are we just imitating our oppressors? Or maybe I should just forget the past and ride this bandwagon till it knocks me off. Oh because at some point most of us always get knocked off. I look forward to the day when we have economic strength. When we honor our beauty and our culture and are proud of it way before it goes mainstream. When a Grammy, Emmy or an Oscar is a great thing to have but doesn’t have to define our best because we already know it for ourselves. Confidence. Love for ourselves and our light as day, in between browns and black as night brothers and sisters.
I don’t remember when I realized that I was black. I did know early that being black seemed to be a problem. I would overhear the conversations about Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. I remember, “Man sodomized by police with a broomstick” and “41 shots.” I didn’t always understand. But I remember it felt uneasy and dark and helpless when the officers were eventually acquitted in both cases.
In school, I recall our teachers telling us we had to work twice as hard in this world. In hind sight, school could sometimes feel more like a training camp for a war in that way. I went to school with Blacks, Latinos and Asians. I never had a white classmate. I didn’t grow up around white people either. That’s the life I lived. Even though they were never really visibly part of my upbringing, I knew they had power over my life and how I viewed myself.
That bugged me.
I do remember the time I was called “nigger.” I was 15 and it was a summer day. I was walking on 29th street leaving an office where I attended a journalism workshop for New York City high school students. I walked to 7th avenue every day to catch the downtown 1 train to transfer to the 3 train straight home. I was crossing at 29th and 7th to the other side of the street and a yellow taxi was making a turn. I guess the driver thought I was moving slow and he told me to hurry up “NIGGER.” I was in shock and he sped off like a punk so I couldn’t even look him in the face. I didn’t cry, but I was mad as hell that afternoon. I came home and I told my parents. I sulked in it for a while.
And till this day nothing annoys me more than occasional stares I get from some white people [NOT ALL], especially tourists. The other day I was at a Whole Foods in this mall in Columbus Circle eating lunch. A white tourist family came and sat down next to me. The parents were looking at me more than the kids!!! The mother glanced at me once or twice. But the dad who was sitting across from me was ridiculous with it. As I got up to leave, I looked him in his eyes expecting him to finally look away. But when I looked again, he just kept on staring. I felt like I was behind a glass case in a museum.
Then there are those occasional awkward questions about black culture I get from outsiders. Once during an internship my junior year of college, a white assistant in the office asked me about my HBCU. “What do you think ‘average’ (She formed quotes with her fingers when she said the word) people think of Howard?” I honestly didn’t know how to answer this question. But it bothered me because I felt she wanted to ask something else — like there was an underlying intent that made me uncomfortable. I told her that some people think HBCUs do not have diversity. However there is a heavy mix of national and international students from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds at Howard, which could make it more diverse than “other” schools. She shook her head and that was the end of that. In those moments, I’m not sure if I’m overthinking or not on racism. And it’s this constant back and forth that I have to deal with that makes me feel crazy.
Honestly, sometimes I don’t care to answer questions about my race because I know that views on race and blackness vary. I can’t speak for all black people as there are people who fully embrace mainstream culture to those who are pro-Africa-everything. Sometimes I want to hand folks who ask me questions, School Daze, Roots, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, and A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid and say, “figure it out!” This comes with the explaining thing earlier that I said I don’t like doing. If you aren’t paying me, family or friends who I hurt, or anyone who has authority over me, I don’t like explaining myself. And then I have to remember oh yeah, some of them never learn about our culture growing up, while we spend our whole childhood learning about theirs…right.
I am proud of my blackness though — at least the aspect that has been redefined by my people. Once I went on assignment last summer to interview an artist, who I won’t say. I was the only black person in the room at the location where the interview was held. The whole team was white and other journalists were as well. I began speaking with a nice publicist and after a few minutes of conversation, she asked me, “Did you go to Columbia or NYU?” And I said no I attended “Howard University in D.C.”
“Oh,” she said.
Moments like that I’m proud to rep having gone to a black university. And I’m equally proud of my fellow African-Americans who attend Ivy League and PWIs. But it’s just to say that because something is white doesn’t mean it’s always right or the absolute best. And just because it’s black doesn’t mean it’s subpar.
I am very black. I am a child of two parts of a vast diaspora; mixed with the island of Jamaica and the deep roots of The Carolinas. I feel Jamaican when reggae and dancehall bumps at a party and I go in a Caribbean take out, smell the curry and feel right at home. But I don’t know very much about the island and barely understand patois. And I never been to the areas my grandparents were born in the South. In fact, both my parents were raised in Brooklyn and so was I. And sometimes I just want to be that girl who grew up in a big city that I’m still discovering.
I have a culture I grew up on: corner stores, block parties, scrapping together enough change for ices made with red 40 and high fructose corn syrup, and Biggie blasting from cars. Those early summers stick out in my mind till this day. They made me who I am. That was and is my personal experience. So are the stories of my people. I carry them with me everywhere. My ancestors are my inspiration. I love my blackness and it doesn’t mean I hate white people. And I just want to be proud of all of my culture without being labeled anything other than love. But alas, with this hateful reminder given to us two Saturdays ago, I know we are not there yet. So yes, I will enjoy this life, but I that in some places people would rather I continue standing in the shadows.
Can you relate to this? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section below.