Over my life time, my blackness has been a source of pride and panic. Depending on the geography, the locality, and population, my blackness has been vilified, exoticized, eroticized, ignored, or honored. And, in each of these geographic and temporal localities my own interaction with my own blackness has ranged from struggle to celebration.
My Mom tells the story from when I was around three or four years old. I was in pre-school in the "Projects" in Duluth, MN. Let me be clear that these projects were actually town homes, that had built in play facilities for children, several large green spaces including preserved prairie and a small woodland, and its own early education center for residents. It was very forward thinking for its time, we lived there when it was new, and it is in no way related to the ways in which people of color have been ghettoized in larger cities. The racial make up of these projects were, in fact, largely poor whites with a few black families mixed in and a couple of native families. The setting for this story is important, as one day I came home from school, which was also largely white, though with a prominent minority of people of color, and, though I don't remember this, I was irate. When my Mom asked me what was wrong, I told her that I was angry because I was not white.
That is a hell of a statement for a four year old to make, particularly a four year old that was as light as I was. For my first two or three years in school it was not unusual for me to be the only or one of less than a single handful of students of color in the entire school. In fact, in the 2nd grade, until I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, I was, in fact, one of two people of color in a school of roughly 600 students, and the only other person of color, who was also mixed race, was my cousin. I knew very little about black culture other than what I absorbed through extended family dinners and from my awesome church, Calvary Baptist, that had a black choir that could challenge the glory singing from any church anywhere. But, my day to day reality was largely a white world, an excellent education system, my Mom's white and native family, and, because I was pegged as a "smart kid,": I was often the only person of color in any of my classes.
All of that changed when my Mom fell in love with a man that lived in Kansas City, MO. We packed our bags and moved from one of the whitest places in the United States (Minnesota overall, Duluth for sure) to an entirely black neighborhood in the eastern part of Kansas City, which is largely a working class black community. My Mother was the ONLY white person anywhere in the neighborhood. We didn't know of another family that included a white person for at least six blocks in every direction. My brother and I became good friends with the family three houses down (Sean, Stacy, and Kenya), but their mother, upon finding out that our Mom was white, forbid her children from ever entering our house, and I can remember being inside of their home (beyond the front porch) only one time. In Minnesota, my brother and I stood out because we were black. In Kansas City, we stood out because we were half white. Not only that, we were taunted by the Southern drawling neighborhood kids because of our accent. We were called, "proper," in reference to our usage of the English language, and, though now when looking back on it, I should have accepted it as a compliment instead of an insult, at the time "proper," really meant, "outsider," "white," "siddity," and most hurtful, "not really one of us."
(And thanks to Google Satellite maps, I just saw my old neighborhood for the first time since 1987....hot damn that brings back memories).
The school system in Kansas City didn't really know what to do with me. I remember taking the Iowa Basic Tests in the fourth grade with my hated teacher Ms, Hardy. I asked her, one day on the playground, if the scores had come back. She scowled at me and said, "Yes they did. And you got the highest scores in the grade. But, if there were a way to cheat on this test, I would have assumed you cheated, as you simply aren't smart enough to have scored that high." I hated Ms. Hardy and she hated little boys. I think she was a repressed lesbian, and my heart goes out to her even while I hope her joy hole dried up and fell out at an early age.
The story stayed the same for much of the rest of my educational career. In fact, when I went to high school in Minneapolis, my school was almost 70% black. But, because of my educational achievement, and the fact that I was in the International Baccalaureate program, even the other black kids within the IB program saw me as other, outsider, different.
It wasn't until college that I had a big old FUCK YOU moment and claimed my blackness and the rich heritage of my family. I am unsure of what really tripped my trigger and led me to embrace my blackness deeply. Perhaps it is the trait I inherited from my white Mother wherein if someone tells me no or that I can't, my instinct is to do it, and do it so well, that the I can't becomes "damn you did it." I remember claiming my skin at a job, and thinking of myself, not as dark skinned, but not as particularly light and being told by my darker skinned black co-workers that at best, I was "butter."
The moment that I knew I had arrived home and comfortable with my identity as a black man came with electronically meeting a cousin that lives in Louisiana. She is a lawyer that does free lance research for the West Virginia Historical Society on black families. This brilliant woman, Miss Carol Haynes, has more than 30 notebooks on the history of our family. In fact, unlike most black families, we have a history that goes back to 1709 verified through sales receipts. My great-uncle, Carter G. Woodson, is the Father of Black History Month and founded the oldest (and still published) academic journal for African American studies. It was then, that I knew that no one, no matter how much darker than I am , could take away my identity.
Today, though, I had a conversation with a friend that I deeply love that made me really very sad. I texted a friend of mine from college that now lives here in New York (he moved here several years before I did). My earliest memories of this beautiful man are from visiting his house when he was living with my sister of the heart Jennifer. He was looking through a huge book of pictures of African peoples trying, through deductive reasoning, to see which people he most resembled. Despite the fact that his skin is extremely light, there is no way this man could pass. His features are African and proud without regard to the melanin count in his skin.
I wrote to him today to see if he wanted to go with some friends and me to the Black Out Party on Fire Island. The Black Out party is the queer black party that takes place annually on the island. When I asked him if he wanted to go, he told me that he was over black parties in New York. Then he wrote and said that, basically, he has been rejected and/or treated poorly because of his light skin by queer black communities in New York. And I, due to my personal history, understand that experience viscerally. But I also call bullshit. While I celebrate the fact that black men are intentionally finding darker skinned black men beautiful, and I understand the history wherein light skinned black people were used by whites as a buffer community between dark skinned folks, our experiences, while different based on our individual life paths, are still intrinsically tied together. What I told my friend is that if he chooses not to go for that reason, then he is letting the skin police win. He is black. Period. And he gets to and should claim his space even in the face of rejection. Because, frankly, by him and myself claiming our space, we open the doors to let others claim their blackness. My niece and nephew are only 1/4 black. Anyone that looks at them will NEVER EVER think, gosh these are some black children. Yet their father is darker than I am and obviously black. By standing up for them and by demanding that blackness and history accommodate the truth of my reality, I allow others that share our history and blood to claim their spaces when and if they decide to do so.
It is my hope that he chooses to join us on our trip to Fire Island. He has a place there, whether or not it is ever offered. It is his by right of birth and history.