Not Black Enough: A Story on Race, Culture and being the “Alternative Black”

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I.

It wasn’t easy being a teen designated to an island by both sides of the color line. My father was black, tracing his line to a great grandmother who survived a plantation in Grand Isle. My skin matches milk chocolate so I must be black too–until the kids saw my mother, the Creole woman who checked “black” on job applications, but had fair skin, baby fine hair that settled straight on her scalp, and constant distrust from my father’s darker siblings. After, I was even told to my face that she shouldn’t even be allowed to call herself a black woman–and I was too young to answer the “why?”

My identity was lost by sixth grade, the first time I heard there was such a thing as acting a skin color–“acting white”, not being “black enough”, “talking white” –those were the needles that pierced my naive skin and once it stung, it stayed embedded til this day.

II.

I played kick ball and double dutch in the same neighborhood as the black kids. Grew up in the 90’s giggling with other kids while hearing Sir Mix-A-Lot talk about butts and Montell Jordan sing “This is How We Do It”. But thanks to my mother feeding my love for literature in order to explore new worlds, I was reading Dr. Zhivago and Les Miserables in high school. My sisters were older, teens more into Generation X Slow Jams and I’m guessing my parents stopped being open-minded about “good music” on a Friday in 1979–they both influenced my music tastes. On top of that, I was friends with a few white girls before we cared about race, so I listened to Britney Spears, Spice Girls, white boy bands, that silly “Barbie Girl” song, Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles alongside Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill. I couldn’t dance. Couldn’t twerk or pop or whatever else Miley Cyrus attempted to do a few years back. I was more awkward than hip. I was confused when I was first asked “why do you talk so proper?” Then it was “why do you talk like a white girl?”. I excelled in English class and constant reading helped with my speaking voice–what did my color have to do with that? But then teachers asked “where are you from, you can’t be from New Orleans speaking like that”–it was just the way my mother taught us after learning English in St. Louis. And so, I was called a “nerd” as my black card was revoked, developing pins and needles as classmates laughed anytime I read aloud. I was painfully Carlton Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and nothing could cure the whiteness.

Soon,  everyone was noticing color and settling into their designated stereotypes and like-minded interests–usually dominated by race. As for me, I had a black father and a mixed race mother, growing up with cousins that had dark skin, light skin, “kinky” hair, blonde hair, green eyes–but as far as we knew and were told, we were all black. As far as race, I didn’t see it like other kids in more homogeneous backgrounds and didn’t see the need to settle into a stereotype or one culture since I wasn’t raised in just one. But socially, I was falling far behind.

The solution should have been easy. I could hang out with the white girls in school since that’s what I was called anyway, but something amazing happened: to add oxygen to the adolescent flame, I immediately realized I was also too “black” for the white crowd by the time we hit puberty.   As a child, I had friends that were biracial or white girls who grew up in black  neighborhoods, but now I was meeting girls who didn’t get “Yo Mama” jokes, the bus stop dance or the importance of Black History Month. Who never watched Martin or Boyz in the Hood. Never heard a song by  Destiny’s Child or Blackstreet (no, not Backstreet Boys, as I corrected a friend who tried to correct me). Asked “who is that?” while hearing Dru Hill or Usher and even The Temptations or Luther Vandross and what do you mean you’ve never watched an episode of Good Times?!

Meanwhile, I found out that the Footloose song had a line dance, discovered emos, goths,  AC/DC and Elvis Presley and George Strait. I introduced them to In Living Color reruns, Sugar Hill Gang (“well, not all rap music has cursing and sex”), and why the rejects of Showtime at the Apollo were better than American Idol’s.

Later, I found out that, while well-intended, it’s not a compliment to say “You know, you don’t act like other black people,” or worse: “You’re one of the ‘good’ blacks.”

High school was an identity crisis to the point of existential anxiety. I was shunned by the boisterous ghetto school girls who gave me side eye when they heard me speak, when they saw my mother, when they saw I didn’t care for 2000s rap. There were preppy girls who were too perky and chatty for me while they just found my sense of humor too weird and morbid and cerebral. And later, there were actual weird gothic girls that thought I was just too well-adjusted and “normal”. I hung out with the last group by senior year, but I was also still a bookworm, an articulate nerd who liked Tyler Perry movies and Chris Rock jokes while also nodding along to their Linkin’ Park, Alice in Chains, and Nine Inch Nails . Also, Enya and Masterpiece Theatre on PBS somehow got involved in this mix.

I had friends but I was still lost. I was different and worked really hard to show it at one point. And at that point in time, “different” meant I was funny when I showed them another segment of American culture. I was the “hip” friend–“anything you say and do will be automatically cool because you’re black, Paris.”

I was young, but I wasn’t stupid though–I knew I was just a token black girl.

III.

Things got better as I got older. I found friends that accepted me. Even better, not only does my husband accept me, he embraces my personality and personal tastes. And that’s how I became more confident in me being his quirky mixed-up hybrid that just “does her own thing.”

But today, my college friends still don’t know what to do with me.  I can relate to stories behind #GrowingUpBlack on Twitter and I laugh with black girls who also had mothers that told them “I ain’t one of your little friends” at least once. With fellow poets, I read Langston Hughes and discuss James Baldwin and Malcom X, and tell children at my job about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Freedom Riders. At the same time, friends can watch me head bang to Metallica one minute, know the whole Other Side of the Moon album or sing Celine Dion the next–then snap my fingers and joke “Oh no you didn’t!”, sing the words to “Rosa Parks” or know what to do and say once I hear “Cash Money Records taking over…”

A little classy. A little hood. Tentatively sassy. A little bit of black power. A smudge of metalhead. Still a quiet rebel. I am a combination of my life experiences and the groups that not only helped me to fit in, but also helped to make me fit out.

Today, I still don’t know what to call myself–I’m much more comfortable with this, because I know better than to assimilate within any group. What’s the point? I’m used to being labeled as “different” or the odd girl out; I honestly don’t know any other way to live. Plus, I stopped suffering over it in high school, and started to embrace it instead.

I don’t regret calling myself and my past eclectic and multicultural, even when it hurt as a child–it gave me character, it gave me a story, but most of all, it gave me unique perspectives to share with anyone after growing up among diversity.

Nowadays, I think they would call kids like me “alternative blacks” and they’re celebrated. Do I even want a name to describe myself and experiences? No. I’m just a black person, whether or not I fit the stereotypes or not. Even when a friend jokes that I’m just a “white girl with rhythm, ain’t nothing wrong with that,” well, whatever. I’ll take it. At the end of the day, I’m just me, doing my own thing.

Note: Okay, this went a little long. This started as a poem. 

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