Why it Matters: A Discourse on Why We Won't "Shut Up" About Being Black in America

I was having a normal conversation about how working for pennies inspired me to do better in school, and in this I was offering the proof of the pudding in the story of how I tried to flunk myself out of honors my freshman year of high school, but was often the highest scorer on assignments all the years after my job experience. That's how it started. In explaining why I wanted out of honors, I said I hated my high school. So, the person asked for clarification, and I gave it. Some of why I hated my high school was resentment—I wanted to go to the high school everyone else in my family went to—but alot of it was the racial tension and the feeling of being isolated. Which brought about the question "why do you feel isolated from white people?"

Down the Rabbit Hole

As I pointed out to the speaker, that's a broad generalization. I can name several instances where I felt more comfortable and more "at home" with a white person than a black person. The conversation about my high school was talking about a specific group of white people. Further, it wasn't just a racial divide, but an economic divide, as well. So, the person—let's call him John Doe—corrects himself to say that I seem "normal" and he can't see why I would have a problem fitting in with the people in my class. Mind you, he started to use the word assimilate and caught himself, but that didn't stop that ideology from trickling into his philosophy. John might not have said assimilate, but it was obvious he meant assimilate...

Regardless, having a surface conversation with people is not the same as being friends with people or making a connection. Yes, I can have polite conversation with people all day (and I mean that literally, I'm a talker!), but that doesn't mean I feel connected to the people I'm talking to. The conversation John and I had is a prime example of it. While my classmates were hooked on Friends and Seinfeld, I was watching Living Single and Girlfriends. What makes these seemingly minuscule differences isolating is that the mentality of many people is their ideas are what's normal and everyone else is abnormal. The fact that I enjoyed different things was "odd" simply because I didn't like what they liked. Because they had never heard of the shows I watched or the music I listened to, and I didn't like the shows they watched or the music they listened to, there had to be something wrong with me. Which brings us back to the "white is normal" mentality.

"Black People Basically Didn't Exist Before the 1960's"

As I continued to explain the bombardment of white-only history, John repeatedly stated that before the 60's black people were oppressed, so there wasn't anything to teach. Little did he know that he proved my point exactly; we've been brainwashed to think the all black people did before the civil rights movement is be slaves. Yet, Blacks in the North were free; they might not have been treated well but they were free. Compound that with the fact that they don't teach any history about after the 60's, and you have a whole nation of people who think blacks have never done anything. We even think we never did anything! I'll save the ramifications of this kind of teaching for my book...

Instead, I offered the example of Jan Matzeliger, who created a machine to speed up the making of shoes.[1] Of course as a lover of shoes, this would be the first person who came to mind. John responded that this wasn't remarkable, that people like Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Well, you walk around in shoes everyday, don't you? I assure you I spend more time using my shoes than light bulbs (especially if its sunny out!). Further more, you're comparing a man who was denied nothing, inventing something versus a man who lived in a era when it was illegal for blacks to learn how to read! Even under oppression black people were succeeding in the occupations typically ascribed to whites of that era (inventors, writers, senators, etc.). Not the first black man to be a U.S. senator (Hiram Revels), but the second black man to become a U.S. senator, Blanche K. Bruce, was born a slave. What's more, they both became senators in Mississippi, i.e. the deep South.[2][3][4] You have Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask and the traffic light—with only a 6th grade education; Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught mathematician and astronomer; Thomas Jennings, who holds a patent for a dry cleaning process; Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who received an M.D. in 1883 (only 20 years after the abolishment of slavery), founded a hospital, and performed the first open heart surgery in 1893.[5][6][7][8] Black people have always contributed to a society that sees them as worthless. By suggesting that these inventions are somehow not worthy of mentioning in a classroom and continually arguing that we didn't do anything "remarkable" before the 60's only follows that same trend.

Black Literature

As we continued the discussion, the talk shifted to written work. During this part of the conversation, John admitted he didn't know who James Baldwin was. I knew he didn't know who Baldwin was, because "before the 60's blacks were oppressed and didn't do anything," despite the fact that Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain was published to critical acclaim in 1953.[9] While we read Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, black classics were completely ignored. What about Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Frances Harper?[10][11][12][13] Phillis Wheatley was the first published black female poet, and her works were published in 1773.[14] 1773, folks! That's almost 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Jupiter Hammon, a slave born in 1711 is known to have published something in Connecticut in 1760![15] To let John and my English teachers tell it, we weren't doing anything before 1960, though.

John countered my dismay at the lack of black literature in school with shock, because he spent a whole semester doing a play about one book by a black person. Wow, one whole book. From elementary to middle to high through college, you can only mention one book you've read by a black person and you can't even tell me the name of the book or who wrote it? #AllLivesMatter, though, right? I can't even count the number of books I was required to read that were written by and about whites, but I can name at least 10 without straining myself. As if boasting that one book did black literature justice wasn't evident of the disconnect John had, he confirmed it by proudly remembering that the main character's catchphrase was "yes'em." *side-eye* As in, the black way of saying yes ma'am or yes sir? As in, what black people had to say to whites in the south to avoid being lynched... I don't know what he read, but I'm convinced he didn't read legitimate black literature, which is probably why he thinks black people were sitting idly, wallowing in their oppression all that time before the civil rights movement. I need him to at least get on the level of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (or anything by Morrison, really) or Invisible Man by Ellison. I mean, really, there are countless influential black authors...

And the discussion on black literature didn't stop there... When discussing instances where students deliberately read the n-word from a book when then teacher had gone through lengths to blot out the word, John said blotting out the n-word in a book "ruined" it. Did he stop to wonder how many books he read that demeaned white people? Without even thinking I can name at least 4 books we had to read in school that referred to blacks as n*****s (and not just on one page), but even as I think, I can't recall a single book that uses pejorative language to describe whites (and we'll leave the fact that everyone else is just absent all together for another conversation). It's easy to be ok with something when it's not you that's being shamed. It's even easier to be ok with it, when you've never had the whole class turn to stare and view your shame because you were the only person in the room that this shame applied to.

The Concept of Being Black

As the conversation continued down this horrible and deep rabbit hole, so many random topics of discussion came up, among them was the concept of being black. To someone who has no idea what it's like to be a minority, maybe it does seem like we wake up thinking about our "blackness," but that's simply not the case. I didn't define myself as a black person, the white people around me did.

I didn't know I was black until a white person told me. Why do you think a four year old white person child came up to me on the playground and said "you're black and I'm white," as opposed to me walking up to her saying "you're white and I'm black?" You can argue that it's natural for children to be curious about differences, but the fact is no one in my family thought "white" skin vs. "black" skin was something worth noting. None of us ever came home and asked our parents why the white kids at school were white. If this child was simply curious about differences, it was because in her world, "white" was normal and my blackness was abnormal—again with the idea that white is the norm. What's left to wonder, however, is what her parents taught her that she felt it necessary to point it out to me as though it meant something... If this were the only experience I'd ever had related to my "blackness," I would gladly sweep it under the rug as an anomaly, but this experience is what every day life has been as black person. After all, it was only shortly after that that I learned the n-word at a traffic light when the old man in the car next to ours pointed at us and told his grad-daughter (also about 4 or 5 years old), "those are n*****s." It is in rare spaces that I am able to forget that I am what society calls "black."

Loss of Individuality

I shared the follow story with John. With a group of "friends," I played a spinoff game of charades where the object was to guess famous people (real or fictional). Each person put in maybe 6 people, and we took turns drawing a name from a hat (or a bowl, whatever). I put in superheroes like batman, spiderman, and magneto. Someone else decided to put in every rapper they could think of. After the third or fourth rapper came out of the hat, someone said to me "C'mon, you know we don't know these people why'd you put all of these rappers in?" Now you can argue that the inclusion of rappers was new to the game and since it was the first time I played with them, the logical conclusion was that I placed the names in. What you can't excuse is that someone took that opportunity to place those names in the hat. Why didn't the person put those names in before? Furthermore, when I said I didn't put them in, that person never said "hey, I put them in there." Years later, the people in the group remember it as the time I bombarded them with rap artists despite the fact that I told them I didn't do it.

Out of this experience, all John wanted to know was what's so bad about people thinking I listen to rap. It's not about rap. Truthfully, I don't really listen to, but there's nothing inherently wrong with rap. It's about not being allowed to have an identity outside of my blackness. It's about the fact that even when you interact with people frequently, even after two years of hanging out with these people, they still associate "black" stereotypes to me. None of these people bothered to crack their image of what a black person is supposed to be like to realize that I don't know the lyrics to most of the rap songs by the rappers they named, because my iTunes is mostly 90's R&B, Gospel, Jazz, and Classical. The issue isn't what type of music I do or don't listen to, it's about the fact that people don't bother to get to know you for you. This is a primary factor in feeling alienated as a black person in a room full of white people. Yes, I can talk to people and have conversations, but many times those people aren't actually listening to my side of the conversation. They aren't friends, they're acquaintances who pretend to be friends.

Black Hair

As I tried to explain this point further, I mentioned the time someone told me I looked better with straight hair. I didn't bother to mention the time I was walking in the mall and someone told me I was "too pretty to be black" or the infamous line dark skinned girls get: "you're pretty for a dark skinned girl." He wanted to turn it into everything other than what it was. He asked if I would get mad if someone told me I looked nice today, suggesting that implies I didn't look nice the day before. When I pointed out that saying you look nice today is not the same as you look better today, he claimed I was playing with words. Imagine you meet someone for the first time. Perhaps you think they're attractive. Depending on the situation and your personality, you're not necessarily going to walk up and say "hey, you're gorgeous." If you become friends with the person, you're going to see them all the time, their attractiveness will become normal to you, and by the time you're comfortable around them you'll probably forget to mention it or you've subtly hinted at it to the point you don't need to mention it. If something changes, say their hair, their clothes, etc., it's a sudden difference that you are complimenting. It doesn't mean that you prefer that difference to what you previously saw. I have plenty of shirts in my closet that are the same except for the color; I couldn't figure out which one I liked better so I bought both. It's the same concept; I like both, I don't have a preference. When you explicitly say "better" you are stating a preference. He kept trying to come up with other examples, but I shared this example for a reason.

What your preference is about makeup or how I dress is irrelevant; what you tell me about your preference in black hair is historical. The reason black people started to straighten their hair is not because we just thought it looked nice. Our natural hair was seen as unkempt, unprofessional, and later a sign of a revolutionary or black panther (power to Angel Davis #blackfistsalute). There are still occupations that require you to straighten your hair.[23] On top of bowing to conformity (assimilating as he slipped and said early in the conversation), when the Africans were brought from Africa to the U.S., they were stripped of their cultural heritage. They weren't allowed to speak their native tongues, they weren't allowed to practice their cultural habits/customs/etc. One of the things lost was how to care for our hair. Many of us straighten our hair because we don't know how to deal with curly hair. Even for whites with curly hair, this is not something taught in cosmetology classes.[24][25] For some blacks this maybe as simple as passing a flat iron over their hair, but for most of us this means chemically altering our hair. It has been suggested that Black women have a higher instances of fibroids due to the chemical relaxers we put in our hair.[26] At 27, I was told I have 2 fibroids. I haven't relaxed my hair since I was 22, just 5 years prior to this diagnosis. When I did get relaxers, I got the "Just for Me" kiddie version only 3 times a year. Most people relax their hair every 6-8 weeks; that's about twice as often as I did. Relaxers are known, without a doubt, to cause chemical burns and damage the hair.[27]

Jennifer Freeman as Claire Kyle on "My Wife and Kids
The indoctrination that we should alter our natural hair is such that I didn't know I had curly hair until I was in my senior year of high school. I had never seen my hair in its natural state before, and even then it really wasn't my natural state because it was relaxed. I went to several different stylists trying to copy the curly look sported by Jennifer Freeman. Not one of them ever thought to tell me to go natural; every single one of them relaxed my hair then tried to curl it with a curling iron.

I was in graduate school before I realized that I was burning the curls out of my hair. When I stopped, I didn't know if I was going to have the curls I was aiming for (I don't) or if I was going to have a "nappy" fro, but I was resolved to love either. I ended up somewhere in between. My black sisters who've undergone this process (and it's not an easy process, but that's a whole 'nother post) and come out with type 4 hair have often been met with the rudest comments about having "slave" hair or that "natural isn't for everyone," when their hair is just as beautiful as anyone else's. Black hair has never been appreciated or welcome, because black people have never been appreciated or welcome; we've always been considered inferior, this is just a manifestation of that sentiment. On the spectrum of curly hair, the closer you are to a "typical" afro texture, the less acceptance you will find.

When I debuted my unrelaxed hair at home, people thought I'd lost my mind. It's not just white people who've been brainwashed to think we're inferior, we've been brainwashed to believe it! My little cousins wanted to know when I would revert back to my "real" hair, because like me at 7 years old, they had never seen their natural hair. They thought straight hair was normal; again, white equals normal, black equals abnormal. Little black girls (and boys) around the Americas are raised to think their hair isn't good enough because society promotes European standards of beauty. That's not ok, and when you say to me "you look better with straight hair", all you're doing is promoting and reinforcing white supremacy.

The History of Being Black

The root of almost every issue lies in history; it lies in the subconscious programming we receive daily and then exude as though it's "normal" and "ok." John's first reaction was not to acknowledge that at this point in time we should not be experiencing racial discrimination and injustice, but to compare racial discrimination to discrimination of men with long hair. In his attempt to belittle the experience of racial injustice, he didn't even think through the issue enough to realize that people are in complete control of the length of their hair. I'm not saying that it's right to assume a man with long hair is this way or that way, but he knows the stereotypes associated with whatever hairstyle he chooses and he is free to choose to present himself to the world with or without long hair. If at any point he decides that is not the image he wants people to have of him, he can change. I cannot change the color of my skin, nor should I have to. That would be the very definition of white supremacy.

As I explained this, the point still didn't click for John; instead he changed his example to being a short man. Short men are not being seen as threatening and thugs causing people to overreact and shoot them. Just this week an autistic black teenager who was participating in a cross country meet—I repeat he was running in a cross country race, therefore, he had on a cross country uniform—was attacked by a random man who "thought he was going to mug him." This man got out of his car—I don't know about you, but if I think I'm about to be mugged and I'm in my car, my reaction is to lock the door and/or drive off—and pushed the teen to the ground. On top of that, no charges are being brought against the man who admits he pushed the teen to the ground.[16] Just today, a black church in Greenville, Mississippi was not only vandalized with the words "Vote Trump," it was set on fire.[17] Are people out burning down the homes and worship places of short men? White supremacists have been burning black churches, cities, and businesses since the end of slavery; and if you didn't have a building for them to burn, they were satisfied to simply burn you. Two of the most prominent black owned and operated cities of the United States—Rosewood, FL and Greenwood, OK (otherwise known as Black Wallstreet)—were ransacked and destroyed while the inhabitants were massacred by white supremacists.[18][19][20] Do people follow short men around shopping malls assuming they're going to steal? As a short man, when you are out searching for an apartment or in a store do people remark that the area or object you're seeking to purchase is out of your price range without knowing anything about you? The only complaint John cited about the plight of short men was that they are less likely to get matched on online dating websites; guess what, so are black women and men.[21][22] He asserted that he gets talked down to because he's short; guess what, so do I (for being black, female, and looking 17). But, on top of being undesirable and spoken down to, I am subjected to countless consequences that affect my day to day life, simply because I'm Black. I get a whole new, made up identity that casts me as a single mother on welfare listening to rap not knowing who my baby's father is and eating fried chicken, meanwhile there's a group of people, some of whom actually hold positions of power (re: Donald Trump might actually become president), that hates me and/or thinks I'm from an inferior species...

Bucking the Status Quo

John was so content with the status quo, he couldn't grasp the fact that it's not about being PC, it's not about being offended, it's not about changing someone's preference about what type of hair they like. It's about educating people that white does not equal normal. It's about educating people about the history of why we have these preferences. He admitted himself that he had no idea about the history of black hair (yeah, because the education system only teaches you the white side of history). I bet he doesn't know who Madame CJ Walker is either; she was the first black woman in the U.S. to become a millionaire—self-made and before the 1920's.

Instead of understanding the why's of the issue, he conflated fact and opinion. He tried to suggest, going back to his short man issue, that "facts" were that being tall is more attractive. No, popular opinion holds that being tall is more attractive. That doesn't make it true, and that doesn't make it right. He was all about "just dealing with it" but that's exactly how things stay stagnant. White people have been telling blacks to "just deal with it" since they drug us over here. Blacks are slaves that's just how it is, deal with it. Blacks get lynched, just stay in your place and deal with it. Blacks get a subpar education, just deal with it. Blacks are lazy, just deal with it (Donald Trump is reported to have said this dozy).[28] Blacks are criminals, that's why police shoot you, just deal with it.

The ultimate definition of oppression and white supremacy is you telling me to bury my feelings because it makes you uncomfortable. You don't want me to talk about the issues that affect blacks because you don't want to trade in a normalcy that promotes white supremacy. You want me to be quiet, because you don't like hearing that you've lived your whole life unaware. You want me to "just deal with it," because you don't want to admit that America is over it's head in racial problems, that the America you've been taught is so great and so awesome has only taken a tiny step from where it was in the 60's. You don't want to hear that simply refraining from calling me a n***** is not enough. Well, you picked the wrong one.

Photocredit: Bettmann/CORBIS
I will speak out, I will shout, I will argue, I will protest, and I will fight. I'm not going to simply disappear. I am not the slave that simply got up and did her chores hoping not to get whipped; I am the slave that had an "R" seared into my flesh because I wouldn't stop running.[29] I am not the black woman who sucked it up after a long day of work and stood up so that whites could have a seat on the bus; I am Rosa Parks getting arrested because I refused to stand. I am not bowing to conformity to be acceptable for a television audience; I am Angela Davis wearing my not-quite-afro wild and free, I am Viola Davis taking my wig off on prime time TV. I am not the person who gives a talk and glosses over the most influential moments of my life to appease the white audience, I am Nicki Giovanni getting on stage expressing the truth of the experience, I am Michelle Obama telling you I live in a house slaves built. I am Beyoncé singing about afros and negro noses at the Super Bowl. I am Katherine Johnson, a human computer capable of sending people to the moon. I am Ruby Bridges, by myself in a sea of white faces. You can love it or hate it, listen or ignore, but the time has come for you to just deal with it.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.MLK Jr.


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