Learning I Was Black

20 years ago, I had just turned 5. I was excited about starting elementary school, about learning, and most of all, about growing up--becoming a "big kid." There's a reason people associate childhood with innocence, and part of that is probably the sheer amount of excitement that something so mundane as attending school is to a child. I was excited about getting my school supplies and finding out who my teacher would be. My parents would quiz me on my counting, reading, and other things that they test you on before they admit you in to kindergarten, and in my excitement, I would gladly answer. It was an exciting time for me as a child.

One of the most influential (and also one of the few) memories I have from that time occurred shortly before my 5th birthday. I was still 4 and I went to daycare/preschool the same way I had been since I was  6 weeks old. The preschool I attended was at a Methodist Church--or rather at the time the only Methodist Church--in my hometown. There were about 10, maybe 15, kids in my class (for those of you who didn't go to daycare or preschool, classes are created by age group, so my class was the 4 year old class). These same kids had been my classmates since we were babies; we were in dance together, we played Power Rangers together, we joined Girl Scouts together, and auditioned for children's theater together. These were my friends and it made sense... Until one of the girls in my class and I got into a heated debate over something that to this day, I have to admit I still don't understand.

Discovering I Was Black

I was minding my own business doing whatever 4 year olds do, when this little girl (who shall remain nameless) bopped over and informed me that I was Black and she was White. As a 4 year old whose parents primary concern was to raise a well mannered, confident, and intelligent child, not fill their head with color/racial prejudice, my natural reaction was to lead this poor child to the Crayola box. I fished out a black crayon, a white crayon, a peach crayon, and a tumbleweed crayon. Then, as any good friend would, I kindly pointed out the difference. At which point she insisted she was White and I was Black. So, I laughed and told her she was going to fail the color part of the entrance exam.

Now this particular little girl's mother happened to work with my father, so it was inevitable that our conversation would reach my parents when they asked me how my day went. Of course I would laugh at the 4 year old who's mother worked at a college but didn't know the difference between brown and black (yeah, I'm mean like that). This was the point in my life that people went from being simply that, people, to Black people and White people. My parents tried to explain to me that she wasn't talking about the color of my skin but that she was identifying a race. And I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about.

Understanding What Being Black Meant

What makes me Black? What makes her White? Why are there different races? How do you know what race someone is? Is it just physical appearance? Why does "Black" include a range of skin colors but "White" does not? And most importantly why did she feel the need to inform me of my Blackness?

Eventually, I just agreed I was "Black," whatever that meant. Not too long after, it was buried deep under "pile of useless junk" in my mind.

As I crossed the threshold of uneducated toddler to school attending kindergartner, I entered the world of education. According to the world of education (of course taught by White teachers), I  was Black because my ancestors were slaves and my ancestors were slaves because I was Black. And the topic that I thought would disappear with the little girl from daycare became a tattoo on my forehead. Suddenly, it was strikingly obvious that I was 1 of 2 or 3 or at most 4 Black kids in a class of 20 White kids. And for some reason they had thousands of questions about me being Black---in retrospect, it was like I was a foreign exchange student. What was strange, was that either based on what my parents told me or the fact that I was immersed in both cultures--growing up in a Black family but attending a White school--I never had any questions for them. I assumed they were just people, just like me, only lighter.

As time went on, we moved away from slavery to the civil rights movement, which was taught with re-enactments/skits/plays, and of course I had to be Rosa Parks, because I was the Black girl in the class. So we lined up chairs to represent the bus, they told me to move to the back, I refused, and then we learned the word n***** because one of the White kids in my class chose this time to inform me that not only was I Black, but I was also a "n***** ." This experienced was only upstaged by the field trip we took to a plantation in 3rd grade, because someone thought it would be a good idea to show us around a plantation and even tour the slave quarters, that my peers had to point out would have been where I was (my, my, what nightmares came from that adventure...)

Consequences and Ramifications

Of course it was my parents job to instill in me that I wasn't less than my peers, that I wasn't a four headed dog even though they gawked at me like I was, and I wasn't a "n***** ." It was also their job to instill in me that while I wasn't those things, people may believe I was; the reality of my life would always be that I would never get the benefit of the doubt, that I would always have to prove myself. What they taught me was, "whatever you do, always be in the right."

We weren't supposed to be talking in class, the whole class would be talking, but I would be the one to get in trouble because my voice was the Black voice and my voice stood out in the room of White children. So my parents told me to keep my mouth shut when it was supposed to be shut. In all 13 years of school (k-12) we were only required to read 3 books written by Black authors (to let the SC Honors English teachers tell it, Black people don't write books): Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (5th grade), The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers (8th Grade), and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (AP English), and the times that we were given the option to read books by Black authors, my White peers usually chose otherwise. Once there were 5 of us to read a book by a Black author--Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin--and the 4 of them complained to the teacher about how they didn't understand the book, it was confusing, "please don't fail us." To my surprise, the teacher agreed, citing "cultural difference." Never in my life, has a teacher given me a pass on understanding something because I am not White. I was always expected to understand their traditions, their vernacular, their incessant need to refer to us as n*****s (re: Huck Finn and Heart of Darkness), because in my White teacher's mind White culture is standard, normal, American culture and I should bend to it. So my parents raised me to expect this, and they raised me to walk that line of retaining "Black" culture, but understanding "White" culture.  They expected A's, and if I had to jump through a hoop lit on fire to get that A, they expected me to do it and without getting burned. So I did.

I spent all of elementary, middle, and high school doing exactly what I was supposed to do. I was top of my class, I stayed out of trouble, I went to work, I wasn't out drinking and doing drugs, I wasn't out having sex and putting myself at risk of getting pregnant or getting an STD. I wasn't the most popular kid in school, but I wasn't unpopular. People didn't bully me, and I didn't bully them. Ostensibly, my life was average.

My theme song in high school was "Anxiety" by Black Eyed Peas; I listened to it every morning before I went to school. Then I gave myself a pep talk where I convinced myself to get out of the car and walk to class. I was tired of being the Black girl in the glass. I was sick of being expected to answer questions "for" my race as though we all shared one brain. I was tired of people (both Black and White) saying things like "but you're not really Black, though." I was sick of these people in my class who may or may not be racist, but had the nerve and the balls to say the most ignorant BS to my face on a daily basis and still want to call themselves my friend. I didn't want to be in the class with them; I wanted to be with the other Black people. I wanted to drop my honors classes and I resented my parents for forcing me to stay in them; the other Black kids who were supposed to be in honors but weren't clearly didn't have parents forcing them in those classes (which is precisely why there were only like 4 of us between the 2 or 3 sections of classes). I was miserable--but I talked a good game and faked a good smile. I went from angry to hurt to "I don't give a ****" within seconds, but I kept a poker face. I would smile and laugh, but at least once, I cried in the parking lot before forcing myself  to get out of the car.

Moving Forward

Then one day, I snapped. I don't know if I lost a battle or won a battle, but I did lose the energy to care. You can call me "n*****," you can ask if I know who my father is, or if I grew up in the projects. You can tell me I only got here because of Affirmative Action, that I'll grow up to be a burden on tax payers, and that I'll have 5 kids by 6 different "baby daddies." Whatever. You can tell me I'm not Black enough, that I only got here because I'm light skinned, that I think I'm somebody because I have "good hair." I still don't care. (Yes these are all things people have said to me, most I've heard multiple times).  Lately people tell me I have an apathetic attitude; I do. I can't find the energy to fight such stupidity.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, so much negativity has popped up on all forms of social media, I felt like I was 4 years old again. Race is something created to divide us, so that its us versus them. I'm not Black because my ancestors were slaves, I'm Black because society said I was, because I accept it and because society treats me that way. I'm Black because a little White girl told me I was Black. I'm Black because you treat me differently. And so I develop differently, and my perspective is different. So now I consider myself Black and I want to "be" Black. Then when I'm in a group of Whites being called "too Black" and in a group of Blacks being called "too White" the truth is I'm just me and all y'all are full of crap.

For me being Black in America is to hurt, to cry, and to be angry all the while frontin' that you're ok. Some days I feel like a Black Panther, and I want to scream and riot and tattoo a raised fist on me. Some days I feel like MLK, and I'm all peace, love, and happiness. But 99% of the time, I really just don't care; I just want a be on beach somewhere minding my own business.


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