When I was 11 years old I wanted a pair of Jordans more than anything. I was an avid Bulls fan and, in 1996, like everyone else in the world I wanted to be like Mike. So I asked my mom once and she said no so vehemently I never tried again. I knew we couldn’t afford them but I wanted them!
On my 30th birthday, I realized my childhood dream and bought my first pair. I wore them as much as possible on vacation that week, usually with a Bulls snapback. When my best friend saw me for the first time wearing them and the cap, she said: “You look really black today.”
What does that mean? Is blackness defined by the way I dress? What made today any different than any other day? Is being black contingent on owning material things? I wasn’t offended. We both had a good laugh about it but these questions circled around in my head. I’ve never strived to look black. I am black.
That’s the story of my life I suppose. It’s part of the arduous identity crisis that comes with being young and black. Everybody is always telling you who you are or who you should be. Then you get the task of deciding who you really are in spite of this myth of homogeneity. I often have to prove who I am while consistently trying to prove who I’m not.
My race is something I’m reminded of constantly. It’s always a topic of discussion or an inherent reason for the way I’m treated. To add to that, there’s never been in a time when I haven’t been aware how different I am. Being different is a universal experience that transcends race but when you’re a minority it further complicates things.
1996 was also around the time I discovered rap but unlike my peers, I listened to other genres they deemed white music. I’ve always been considered a nerd, which I initially rejected because I just wanted to fit in. As a self-identified blerd (black nerd), my blackness is often questioned; because of my interests, the way I speak, and sometimes my intelligence. I’m not considered black enough by black and even some white friends, but always enough to still be stereotyped.
The black experience encompasses such a wide purview; I don’t think it’s fair or logical to undermine anyone’s experiences. After all, we know what it feels like to be discriminated. Yet some of my own “people” have made me feel just as isolated. In some ways, it hurts more than racism. You can’t reason with blind hate but it’s a bit more vexing when someone, who looks like you, is clinging to ideas and facile notions indoctrinated by the very people who hate us. Colorism, good hair debates, and classism are just a few examples.
There is no single answer to who is or isn’t black. Race is a social construct. It’s not biological. We aren’t susceptible to any single way of life or appearance. Generalizing and reducing our experiences to a few examples is as harmful as the segregation our ancestors fought against.
We can’t even agree on what we should call ourselves. Some don’t want to be called black while others reduce blackness to solely an American experience. I identify myself as black or simply American. Some people prefer to be called African-American but I don’t particular care for that label – a view so controversial it got former child star, Raven-Symoné, in hot water back in 2015.
I understood her point and the outrage was strange to me. Hear me out! I’m not seeking to separate myself from my roots or assimilate. First of all, you can’t assimilate into a culture that belongs to you. My ancestors’ struggles, for better or worse, are American history. A good amount of the original aspects of American culture that are observed around the world were created by black men and women. They fought and gave their lives for this culture and the freedom and rights I enjoy today. We are seen as innovators and people who overcame insurmountable hardship because of their work and sacrifices. That is part of my identity and I have a great deal of pride in that.
While I also have pride in my African roots, our story will forever be imbrued by American slavery. America is the only home I’ve ever known. I can trace my roots here back to Mississippi but that’s as far as it goes. My ethnic identity was stolen from me, and like my race, I’m constantly reminded of that. That doesn’t change my pride in the motherland but I’m also aware the culture there has a very different meaning for African natives. I’m not looking to distance myself from it but I’m not willing to be insincere either.
Personally, I feel it is far too simplistic at this point to say I’m African-American. It’s patronizing to say, while my ethnic identity was taken through oppression, I can claim Africa in entirety while diminishing my contributions and experiences as an American. Furthermore, I find it reductive, trivializing and insulting to condense the numerous diverse cultures that exist in Africa into one as if it’s a country and not the second largest continent in the world. That’s just my opinion
I don’t speak for everyone but I feel very strongly about this. That doesn’t mean I have a problem with anyone who would rather be called African-American. I understand why the term exists and I’m not saying it shouldn’t. I just feel there’s room for nuance here. It’s what inspired me to write this in part – the idea that blackness can mean so many different things to so many different people.
Blackness should be as inclusive as the equality we have long fought for but to my disappointment, it isn’t. It’s sad but partially not our fault. We are still following the flawed blueprint given to us here in America when we should strive to be better. We are all fighting just to be heard so we can’t afford to be insular.
I believe that this nation can only heal from the wounds of racism if we all begin to love blackness. And by that I don’t mean that we love only that which is best within us, but that we’re also able to love which is faltering, which is wounded, which is contradictory, incomplete. – bell hooks
You may be a nerd, gay, mixed, American, European or African. You can be a rap fan, a rock fan or even a country fan. It doesn’t matter. We are not defined by our differences, no matter what they maybe. Let’s build each other up not exclude each other. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. If you finished reading and you feel a little raw about it I’ll be waiting…
Seriously, any discussion is always welcome here. If you prefer to be called African-American feel free tell me what it means to you. If you’re not black you’re welcome too.