As you may know, February is Black History Month. I’ve decided to devote my posts this month to telling stories about race and race relations in the U.S. from the perspective of millennials (that’s what people seem to like to call me and other people in my age group.) Last week’s post sparked an idea, and I’d just like to develop it more and see where it goes.
I remember the first day I realized that I was Black. I was six years old, and I was reading a children’s book about Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t remember if I was in school or if it was a book that I was reading at home. I don’t remember the name of the book or the name of the author. I just remember getting to a part in the story where a young Dr. King is heartbroken after his childhood friend tells him that they can no longer play together because the friend is white and Dr. King is Black. (I have no idea whether this actually happened to Dr. King, but I remember this part of the story in that particular book.) The book described the confusion that Dr. King felt after being told this because he didn’t understand why the color of his skin should keep him from playing with his friend.
In that moment, I looked at my hand. It was closer to the color of the young Dr. King than it was to his white friend in the picture.
Initially, I was confused too. I knew my colors and I couldn’t help but notice that the shade of my skin did not match the color of my grandmother’s big leather Bible, the turf at recess, the crayon in my 64-box set, or any of the other things that I had come to identify as “black.”
“Black?” I thought. “Brown, definitely, but not Black.”
My distinction wasn’t coming from a place of self-hatred or disdain, as so many people have come to identify associations of shades of “blackness” and complexion. It was rooted in the innocence of childhood literalism and curiosity. That’s why it always amazes me when people say things like, “kids don’t see color.”
“What do you mean kids don’t see color?” I always think. “We teach kids colors! Most kids even have a favorite color.” The identification of colors is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. We teach kids to group, categorize, and label things all the time.
Kids may not instantaneously know the socio-political significance of race, but experiments like the 1947 doll study (replicated in 2010 on CNN with the same results) show that many kids figure that out at an early age–even when they don’t realize what they’ve internalized or why. So, with that in mind, many people should actually be surprised that I was as old as six when I realized that I was Black.
This doesn’t mean that that was the first time I’d been told that I was Black, it just means that it was the first time that I realized it. It was the first time that I understood that, to some people, and often structurally in society, my “Blackness” was a bad thing.
I was raised in a very “Afrocentric” household. I had black dolls. I read children’s books by Jamaica Kincaid with little black girl protagonists. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Rudolph, Garrett A. Morgan, and Charles Drew, with heroic stories of achievement to match, floated around constantly. I understood that people like me had done great things.
If anything, Dr. King’s childhood rejection didn’t comport with what I had been raised to believe about Blackness up until that point. I knew that Harriet Tubman had been a slave and I understood that that was a horrible thing (and even that many other people who looked like me had suffered the same fate). However, the emphasis of those stories had always been on the magnitude of our triumph in spite of this, and not on the struggle.
So, if anything, that realization while reading the book about Dr. King was more like an “oh-that’s-what-they-meant-by-Black” rather than an “oh- snap-I’m-Black? (as in, you mean I’m not white?)” moment. Even in the melting pot, which many people view as New York City, neighborhood class lines are often organized along racial lines. So, everyone in my neighborhood was Black. At the time, pretty much everyone I went to school with was Black too. So, Black wasn’t a revelation; it was my reality.
Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the presence of people of other races. My teachers, in particular, were all white. I subconsciously associated whiteness with authority. White people were my teachers, principals, police officers (except for the few Black ones my mother knew), doctors, politicians, and most people who reported the news. I didn’t quite understand why they tended to be in these positions and I didn’t necessarily think about why many of the Black people I knew weren’t. It was just the way it was. We were just different. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Friends (which, thanks to reruns, is actually now one of my favorite shows), but I loved Living Single. It was that simple.
Ironically, within the next several years, I quickly started to wonder about the reasons for the apparent discrepancy–not so much because of what I was being told, but because of things that were happening and what I was seeing. We all know that the world gets realer as you get older. Little by little, I began to lose my security blanket of childhood innocence, as if I had been wriggling too much in my sleep.
For me, one such incident that snatched at that blanket was the NYPD attack on Abner Louima. At seven years old, I had no idea what sodomy was, but I understood: black man, white cops, severe beating, Brooklyn. I saw the pictures, the protests, the news reports and could feel the anger of the adults around me.
A few years after that, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. By that time, I was older and I still understood: black man, white cops, 41 shots (wow, that’s a lot), unarmed, “a wallet is not a gun,” and acquittal. And again I saw the rallies and the news reports, and again I could feel the anger of the people around me. Later on, the pattern, which by that time I had learned was not a new one, continued: Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, the list goes on…
Around the same time, but possibly before that, I got the universal “you’re-Black-so-you-have-to-be-twice-as-good” speech. I honestly don’t remember the reason for or the context of my being given that speech at the time because I had had the “twice as good” mentality for as long as I could remember, and it had nothing to do with my being Black. I was just ambitious. But the mentality became different when it was put in a historical context. Suddenly, I had the ancestors on my back and I could not let them down. Now I understand that they are actually the ones who carry me.
By the time I took my first ride from lower Manhattan all the way Uptown and watched as the neighborhoods gradually changed outside of my window, I was curious. I could no longer just accept things as just the way things were. I wanted to know why they were that way. I visited a school on the Upper East Side–not a college or a graduate school, just a school–that had a fireplace in the classroom and a spiraling staircase. I understood that I was still in New York City, but I felt that I was literally and figuratively a long way from home. I understood that very few of the people who went to this school looked like me and that if I wanted to come to this school, I would need to get a scholarship. And I started to understand that we lived in different worlds that were deeper than Friends v. Living Single.
A friend of mine who comes from a multi-racial family told me that growing up his “Black side” of the family would talk about numerous injustices committed against them by whites and that it was in stark contrast to the way his “white side” of the family was. He said that that dichotomy was a big help to him in terms of learning that one can’t fully be judged by the color of his skin. For me, it has never really been about judgment or skin color as much as it has been about access and self-determination.
Of course, now I understand that white does not necessarily equal rich and powerful, but I didn’t always understand that. I did understand that Black seemed to mean less likely to be rich and powerful and more likely to be poor, uneducated, criminalized, and even killed. It was a realization that didn’t fit in with the stories and feelings of pride and greatness that had been instilled in me. It still doesn’t. It hopefully never will.
But I also know that Black history, present, and future are all bigger and better than that. So, this month especially, as we used to say in my spoken word circles, I hope to “go in and get free,” to pay homage to those stories by telling our stories and working to create new ones.