am i black, or am i Black?

originally written as a livejournal post on july 9, 2002 (back when i had dreadlocks.).

what a question.

a recent lj-post got me thinking.  (be sure to read her link, too, okay?)

what follows, i think, is why most people have never heard me talk about race.

i read once someone being quoted as saying, "you don't know a man until you know who his grandfather was," or something to that effect.  and so:  my father's family is american and black, experiencing the perceived status quo of american black families-- early and single motherhood, low income, hit-or-miss education, and the drive to end that cycle.  of my father's four siblings, one graduated from college, one became deeply involved in the church and ministry, one became career-military, and one struggled to end a deeply debilitating drug-addiction.  my dad has spent about 13 of my 24 years in jail.  i didn't spend much time with my father's family growing up.

my mother's family, on the other hand, is west-indian and black.  my grandmother was born in guyana in the 1920's, and moved to england in the late 1950's to go to nursing school.  my mother was born in england, and was raised by a white foster family for the first five years of her life.  my family moved to the u.s. in 1968.  i was born in new york 10 years later.  my mom did not become a u.s. citizen until shortly after i was born.

i was raised in what was, for all intents and purposes, a west-indian household.  we had Our music, and Our friends, and Our food, and Our get-togethers, and Our people we referred each other to when we needed a mechanic or whatever.  i wouldn't call it an isolated environment (eg, we had tv, and i went to public school), but when a white vacuum-cleaner salesman, or a black american jehovah's witness came calling, their accents sounded very strange bouncing off the furniture of my grandmother's living room.  america was out there, at school, at church, at the supermarket, on sesame street.

my mom, stepfather, brother and i moved to georgia when i was nine (setting up our household near related west-indian families who had moved down first, of course) and Our family continued things in the same vein.  i stayed pretty much friendless (with one exception) until i started high-school.  i'd like to believe my intelligence intimidated people, but it more likely was my sullen exterior and fear of speaking up except with my fists that kept me lonely.

in high school, there was a big change.  one fellow cellist on the school bus said hi to me, and like a whirlwind, i suddenly had a group of friends.  friends i would keep until i graduated from high school, and because of them, i experience the amazing people i spend my time with now.

that fellow cellist was white, and so were (and are still) most of my friends.

when i was in school, my mother was very reserved around my friends on the (extremely rare) occasions they were in our home.  she more than once commented on my changing speech patterns and my inexplicable tastes in music.  she and my grandmother wondered aloud if i had any black friends at all, and why i didn't cultivate any friendships with black people.  on the (extremely rare) occasions we spoke about it, i tried to explain to my mother that the wonder of just having friends completely transcended the issue of what color they were, and if someone were so concerned about my race while i was talking to them on the phone then, chances are, i wouldn't be interested in talking to them for long anyway.  she accused my friends of making me an "honorary white girl" and warned that as soon as it suited them they would reveal their true selves and turn on me completely.  she called me naive and insisted that it was in my best interests to make some black friends.  not to necessarily give up the white friends i had, but to start making more time to hang out with black people because,  "black people will be there for you.  look what happened to vanessa williams.  she spent all that time schmoozing and living it up with white people and thought she had made some friends, but as soon as all that happened with miss america, the white people dropped her like she was hot.  all she could do was to come back to the black community.  she even said that she regretted turning her back on the black community." hm.

since i've finished high school and moved out of my mother's house, we still haven't spoken much about our feelings about race.  it tends to turn into a monologue if the conversation gets extended to any length of time.  but i have learned that she believes that i'm ridiculous for believing that she's prejudiced-- she called a white woman "mother" for the first five years of her life!  i've also learned that she believes that our differences in opinion on race-relations is because she's more educated on the matter than i am.  and i've learned that she (however jokingly she puts it) would really prefer me to marry a black man.  and i've learned that she believes that my refusal (?!) to have any black friends is something that i will regret, and she really doesn't want to see me get hurt down the road.

i had read, not too long ago, about the difference between deaf and Deaf.  to put it simply, deaf is physical condition, while Deaf is a cultural identity.

there is no denying that i am black and subject to all the things, fortunate or not, that come with being black and female in america.  but Black?  hm.  i speak an english that reflects the first fifteen years or so of my life (just like most people).  my musical tastes show what i've grown up with and grown into.  the only things my clothes say about me is that i prefer to wash, wear, and forget about it.  my choice of reading materials blatantly declare my addiction to the printed page.  my hair?  my hair says it does best when i leave it alone!  (and no, i don't know where you can get a hookup for pot.)  my religion?  i leave that on a back-burner to percolate, and take some time out, every once in a long while, to stir things up to see what's developed.  my feelings on the state of black people in america today?  some people need encouragement (moral, legal, or otherwise); some people need money; some people need encouragement and money-- how to do these things, i don't know, but i do believe that every scheme working right now is only The Elephant's Left Ear.  i lean towards the idea of the less government, the better, but until everyone has the same sense of accountability toward themselves, each other, and the earth, there's always going to be a need for a babysitter.

the above says nothing about my relative Blackness, does it?  what are you looking for?  a chromatic scale?

i believe i live my life in a way that says that i am grateful for the people who made it possible.  i can go to the library and pick up 10 sci-fi books and 10 midwifery books and one biography of nina simone.  i can decide to postpone college until i know exactly how i want to incorporate it into my life.  i can take myself on a date to see tori amos at the fox theater and have a raspberry aperitif and monster slice of chocolate cheesecake at the poshest bakery/bar in the city afterwards.  i can love who i will and live where i will (and can afford!) with a lot less harassment than would have been the case 50 or 40 or 30 years ago.

i am not one of those people who consider their main purpose on earth to shatter glass ceilings and shake people out of their ignorance (god bless 'em, though!).  i'm not interested in raucously educating, rabble-rousing, or leading a movement.  i want to do my best to buy locally, to volunteer, and to do small rights when i see they need to be done.  if a person i encounter can't see me and my life for the color of my skin, i continue living and leave them behind.

and that's the best answer i can give to why i don't talk about race.


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