Over the weekend I overheard a conversation that has troubled me ever since. Combined with other discussions I’ve witnessed regarding the legacy of slavery and racism in the USA over the past few months, this incident has left me feeling as hurt and disillusioned regarding my community. Without further ado I’ll share the story and why it bothers me so deeply.
Last Saturday I hosted a get together at my apartment for my family. We originally planned to have our gathering at a hotel room, but the plans fell apart at the last minute. I volunteered to host the event so that we wouldn’t have to cancel. Overall we had a great time. I enjoyed seeing my relatives together, laughing, drinking and basking in each others’ company. But by the end of the night I realized that even when among those who share my culture and blood I’m not safe from the sting of white supremacy.
The night was drawing to a close and people were beginning to leave. As one of my cousins left she gave another cousin a hug, then patted and stroked her hair. Though my cousin has what Black folks call ‘good hair’, on this occasion it had been flat ironed to sleek, bone straight perfection. As my other cousin admired the fried, dried and laid to the side do’ she told my cousin-whose mother is white-that she was lucky to have white blood in her, as everyone on our side of the family has ‘bad hair’ that my cousin would have inherited if she wasn’t mixed. And as I stood in my living room hearing this I felt so wounded. For I’m not mixed heritage, and I have the kinky, twisted ‘bad’ hair of my ancestors, undiluted by infusions of European and Native blood.
Now I’ve never been under the illusion that my physical traits are admired and loved among my people. I know better. But to hear someone related to me uphold whiteness in such a manner, and for no one else around me to even see, let alone be offended by it, made me feel so defeated. It opened up wounds and memories I’d rather forget. I could hear the way my aunts used to suck their teeth when I dared to wear my hair natural for the first time at sixteen, telling me in a matter of fact fashion that I had brillo pad, ‘Guinea nigga hair’ that should be kept out of sight. I hear the black boys who told me I was too black for them, that I’d never measure up to my light skinned and biracial friends as I was just dark girl with only African blood, not good enough for them. I hear the Black American young men who thought they were doing me a favor when they said I was cute for someone so black. I remember all the rejection, shame and pain my own people made me feel for being who I was and how I didn’t date Black American men because of it.
Life continued on though and I told myself it would get better. But it’s 2013. I will be 33 years old this summer yet I’m still part of a community that would prefer to render people like me as invisible or at the bottom. Back in the day there was a saying: if you’re light, you’re alright; if you’re brown, stick around; but if you’re BLACK, step BACK. And I shake as I write this, for even with the fall of Jim Crow, even with a ‘black’ man in the White House, my own people seem hellbent on perpetuating white supremacy and African inferiority. What does one do with this? How do you respond when your own people don’t want to accept and celebrate you? I no longer have much hope that we can rid ourselves of this complex. I think it’s time for me to give up on my people in that sense. I have to accept that I can’t change anyone but myself and that my influence is really limited to my child. So every day I will do to her what my Mama did to me. I will tell her that she is beautiful as she is, that I love her color and her hair and she has no need to alter herself to please anyone else. I will teach her to hold her head up, proud of her ancestors and her heritage, instructing her never to bow and never to deviate from that. I will surround her with positive images of both her Black American and Continental African culture. I’ll sing the bars of James Brown’s powerful “I’m Black and I’m Proud” to her. And I won’t do these things to make her feel she is above any other group of people, or to hate anyone else. But all the microagressions that I witness have led me to the conclusion that expressing pleasure and joy in what we are is not an act of hate. It is a necessity in the society that I live in, a form of psychological self-defense. So many of my people have been led to believe in that they are inferior and they pass on that plantation mentality. I refuse to let my child fall victim to it!