About Blackness: Is There A Right Way To Be Black In America?
No one likes to feel like a stranger in their own land.
And yet, there are tons of Black folks who do.
Earlier this week, Slate ran an essay by Danielle Small entitled, ‘I’m Black, But I’m Uncomfortable Around Black People.’ Admittedly, the title of the article is off-putting. It sounds like it is going to be another one of those tragic “Woe is me, I’m so different” posts. Something written by an opportunistic Black person looking to one-up their brethren in exchange for White acceptance.
Thankfully, Small didn’t take that route. Instead, she wrote a piece about rooting out and challenging those insecurities, which made her incapable of connecting with folks who look like her. For Small, it all started with an awkward moment at the hair salon when her hairdresser attempted to give her “dap.” As some people know, a traditional Black’s person handshake has multiple steps, and it usually ends with a snap. Well, apparently Small must have missed the snap part.
It was a frivolous, albeit, awkward moment, which might have been shrugged off by most. But Small writes about how the experience triggered once-buried memories of what it was like to grow up in all-White towns in rural Wisconsin. A place where she heard “You are not really Black” as much as she heard the n-word.
I always brushed off those comments, because I knew I was black enough to be called “ni**er.” I was black enough that white people stared at me everywhere I went in those lily-white towns. And I was black enough to be accused of stealing during shopping trips.
But if you hear something enough, it can seep into your unconscious and start to guide your decisions. Somewhere along the way I started believing that I wasn’t black enough, whatever that meant. This is the clusterf**k of all realizations: Racism made me uncomfortable around my own people. Ain’t that some sh*t?
And it even affected my college experience. I never applied to any historical black colleges because I thought everyone would make fun of me because my black wasn’t cool enough. I was more comfortable with the thought of being around white people, where my blackness was for sure going to be denigrated in one form or another, than I was with the thought of being around my own people. By that time I had already accepted racism as a staple of life, but the thought of possibly being rejected by people that looked like me was too much to bear.
I think there is a lot of expectation when it comes to blackness. Unlike Small, most of my life has been spent in low-income Black enclaves – also known as the ‘hood. My family was on welfare. I went to dysfunctional public schools – two of which no longer exist. My neighborhood served as the focus of most hip-hop songs and the source material about Black urban life. We knew the slang, mastered the dress and had all of the cool dances down pat. Those were the norms. And that was expected of me.
And yet there were some things about me that didn’t always line up with expectations of me. In elementary school, I played string instruments: the cello, the viola, and the bass to be specific. I’ve been a huge book lover throughout my life. My Philly accent has been tainted and distorted from years of college and traveling. I hate the television show Scandal. And I am kind of a nerd. Of course, none of those things make me less Black. But because folks have expectations of what a person who wears those identifiers is supposed to look and feel like, my personal Blackness is constantly under attack.
Of course, the irony in all of this is that over the years, I have found myself attacked even when my attitudes and behaviors perfectly align with cultural norms. The so-called urban cool, which Small so desperately wanted to possess, has also been used to justify all sorts of assumptions about my overall viability as a contributing member of society. In short, I wasn’t smart or cultured because I used slang or other urban Black euphemisms. Listening to hip-hop meant that I supported violence. My funny-sounding name meant that I was ill-mannered and uncivilized (i.e., ghetto). And eating chicken wings smothered in hot sauce meant that I didn’t care about my personal health.
In the same vein as being labeled “not Black enough,” the “too Black” labels, at times, left me feeling both isolated and weird in my skin. But like Smalls, I had to learn that there was no right or wrong way to be Black.
As Small writes about her own epiphany:
In the foreword for the book “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black … I do not mean to suggest that we are all of us in our own separate boxes, that one black life bears no relation to another. Of course not. We are not a monolith, but we are a community.”
It’s taken some time, but now I’m aware that there is no “black test” and that, even though I’m more Carlton than Fresh Prince, my blackness is still valid. My hair stylist doesn’t see me as some racial imposter. To her, I’m just some weirdo who doesn’t know how to do a proper handshake. Resisting the temptation to police my own blackness and the blackness of others has been a gradual process, but a necessary one.
And who knows what I’ve missed out on? How many friends I could’ve made, how many organizations I didn’t join out of fear. For years I isolated myself from the community that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talks about, keeping potential sources of emotional support at arm’s length. And with new hashtags popping up every day, strong emotional support systems are needed more than ever.
It took several trips outside of the U.S. to fully understand the depths of our heritage, which we have managed to cultivate over the last 300 years or so in America. My international travels also introduced me to Caribbean Blacks, European Blacks, South American Blacks and continental Blacks, who all have their own norms and history. Being around that other kind of Black never made me feel less Black. Instead, it made me appreciate how vast and rich our people are. And although we express our cultural Blackness differently, we all are bound not only by history and lineage but by the same current oppression that seeks to hold us down based solely on the color of our skin.
Seeing firsthand how universal Blackness is taught me that being Black is a birthright, and no adherence – or even distance – from cultural norms will change that. Once folks accept that, the need to constantly prove or even disprove Blackness would dissipate.