I started this three-part series shortly after the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. It was intended to serve as my contribution to a humanizing narrative of blackhood which appeared to be one of the few constructive things to do as we navigated what felt like a collective state of outrage and helplessness. It was intended to showcase the diversity of the culture; blackness is not homogenous, and unfortunately not always unified as a result. It was intended to make sense of how Candace Owens can co-exist in an America alongside Collin Kaepernick. #50ShadesofBlack.
Since I started the series, the heightened state of racial awareness has declined; the protests and riots have died down and the looting has largely ceased. I see it in the Facebook and Instagram posts reverting from black squares to selfies. I see it in the number of clicks and reads that my pieces have received as the series has gone by. I don’t blame anyone; I’d be lying if I said my own momentum is still on par with what it was 8 short weeks ago.
As I mentioned in a previous article, however, we cannot stop. It important for me to close this series out and keep the conversation going in other ways that renew my enthusiasm. We’d fail as a society if we were to await the next killing to ignite a flame for action again.
So here I was navigating Europe — my second home…
Rome: “Serena Williams!” He yelled out. I was flattered. Finally, someone had seen the likeness of my sturdy physique compared to the grand slam champion’s. Though I ignored him, I smiled to myself as I walked away. “Beyoncé!” He called after, “Rihanna!” His friend chimed in as they sat on the porch drinking beers. Aha! They were just naming black women. This was just a regular catcall. No extensive research had been done to customize the names.
My black was just black.
Megan Markle was the subject of conversation for a lot of the trip as the royal wedding had recently occurred. “She’s not black!” I told my friend. She lovingly probed to get to the root of my declaration. “How come you say that?” She asked.
“She doesn’t understand what it is to be black — like actually black.”
“Is there a homogenous black experience?” My friend asked almost sarcastically. She’s black, British, with an African father and an Asian mother. I knew I couldn’t answer that question.
We surely had not shared the same experiences in our blackness, but somehow I felt even her’s was more valid than Megan’s.
“She pledged a white sorority and passed as white most of her life. She’s not a black woman.”
“If she identifies as black, she is black,” she said.
She said I sounded bitter.
I knew I sounded bitter.
It was easier to talk about Megan’s “lack of black” with bitter black women who agreed.
There was an element of struggle and rejection subconsciously associated with my interpretation of blackness that Megan did not appear to have endured, and even if she had, it did not appear as extreme because she was “passing”.
Here I too was issuing black cards to those deemed worthy enough based on experiences that I myself had not been through firsthand. I had unlearning to do. I’m still working on it.
My black was divisive.
Rome — Airport: Days later, after trains, flights, nightclubs, hostels, endless gelatos, and great memories, I headed to the airport at 2 am. There they were.
Rows of dark-skinned bodies sleeping on the ground contouring the airport entrance. Refugees, illegal immigrants, call them what you may. I saw people.
I saw people that looked just like me and various members of my family stacked on top of one another. There was just enough shade overhead to protect from rainfall above, but nothing for cold winds. Technically they were not trespassing as the signs posted across the airport windows only warned against sleeping inside the vicinity. Two different worlds separated by a revolving door.
These homeless people appeared to be just that — without a home. They were not dressed in worn-out clothing, quite the contrary. Clean, crisp shirts and shorts. Some were sporting crossbody bags or backpacks where I imagine they stored cash from daily sales of selfie sticks, mirrors, and any other kind of tourist bait they sold during the day. They were the guys who would whip out umbrellas for sale out of thin air when it started raining and probably had an extra pair of shoes in just your size if your summer sandals snapped.
While my memories of Italy would only include fine wine, finer men, and delicious food (and lots of walking), there was an alternative and perhaps more common reality to the experience of being black in Italy.
At the end of the day, my black was African and it was hard to reconcile that my African brothers and sisters were struggling while my memories of Italy would only include fine wine, finer men, and delicious pizza (and lots of walking). There was an alternative and perhaps more common reality to the experience of being black in Italy; a reality that included immigration, risk, loss, family ties, hope, dreams, and sacrifice.
I recall dining at a restaurant where our Egyptian waiter told us about leaving his entire family at home at the age of 16 to seek a better life for himself. Fortunately, he had received a scholarship and could work part-time while in school, but what was next for him upon graduation? He had no clue. He could only hope to get proper documentation.
My black was privileged.
It reminded me of…
Paris: As I stood in front of the Eiffel tower, I wondered how many classmates of mine in Cameroon who had boasted of having an “uncle in Paris” indeed had uncles here — selling miniature Eiffel towers, living on edge. These guys would spread out their illegal merchandise across a bedsheet that they can easily fold up when the police, who they were consistently on guard for, eventually showed up. I wondered if loved ones back home, who surely demanded iPhones and ipads, knew that them “making it out” had brought them to this back alley selling counterfeit designer bags and heckling tourists to buy sunglasses as they walk by.
At the fancier restaurants, I could feel the suspense among the staff from my arrival until my silence was broken. Was I one of them? My high cheekbones and prominent nose in addition to my dark skin betrayed me, but they almost visibly exhaled at the sound of my voice.
I was not one of those black (African) people.
My accent disguised me…my passport assisted the disguise.
They were quick to crack a smile and eagerly talk about “Hollywood” and “Beyoncé” and anything American — black American.
If only they knew how little I related to the country my passport indicated was home.
To reveal that truth was too heavy for a vacation. I got free desserts and free drinks. I danced on the streets with locals, shared bottles of wine with strangers, laid out in the grass at the park, I lived freely and happily. One of the things I love the most about traveling is being uninhibited. I live in moments, days, or even weeks when I forget I’m black, or American, or a woman. I feel connected to humankind; human-to-human.
As we packed up to leave the hostel in Rome, our German, American, Chinese, and British hostel roommates discussed planning a trip together someday. Just a group of strangers who bonded and wanted to meet up again.
My black was human.
Coming (Back) To America: I am older, wiser, and more aware of blackness. Now I am thrilled when I get a nod of solidarity from a black person. In fact, last week a waved at a black construction worker as I turned onto the freeway. My wave was met with a blank stare of confusion. He’s probably still trying to figure out where he might’ve known me from. From our black past, fool! Kidding.
My wave was meant to say “I see you, king. Be well.”
The nod says “if no one else sees you today, I have seen you. I recognize the space you take up in the world. I acknowledge your presence.” Instead of asking them to see us, because we know when they see us, they see their denotation of us regardless of what we are putting forth.
Though I’m still learning my history in various contexts, I know that slavery actually was not that long ago. I’ve since learned more outside the classroom than I ever did at any elite institution — though I am grateful for the people I met at those institutions, many of whom have continued to be a resource for me to date (shout out to Dr. Shaku and Dr. Henderson!).
This year I learned more about Juneteenth than ever before. I re-discovered James Baldwin, Beyonce dropped Black is King and it’s the fountain of black excellence from which I drink every day.
Black people in America are operating within an unfair system, but the power imbalance does not equate powerlessness.
I talk about race a lot more now.
I think about it more as well — on a macro scale that involves bringing about societal change.
I’ve still never been pulled over by the police, and don’t fret when they drive near.
I still don’t overanalyze situations and trace them all back to race.
I wouldn’t say I’m color-blind; I acknowledge color because with color comes history and with history identity. But I don’t fill in all the blanks with preconceived notions based on color.
Though I do not think I am powerless against a system out to get me, I am aware. I am aware that racism exists, police brutality prevails, microaggressions happen intentionally, microaggressions happen unintentionally, colorism remains and individuals can embody any or all of these traits at any given time.
I am aware that the “system” has favorites and those favorites look like the Stanford rapist (even the press just calling him a “swimmer” is playing favorites #staywoke). The favorites are the “businessmen” sitting in board meetings, hosting conventions, growing, packaging, and distributing marijuana in the same quantities as the “drug dealing” fathers, sons, and brothers still behind bars. Myles Cosgrove is another favorite, who could kill an innocent woman asleep in her own home and not only walk free but even start a fundraiser for his retirement. Her family — obviously not an All-American favorite — will never get to see their daughter again, and not even get justice as a consolation prize. #RIPBreonnaTaylor
I am aware that events that took place long before my conception have come to shape the world in which I am meant to find my place. And whether or not I deem it fair, I must adjust based on the reality of what that means. (Until I can change the reality itself).
I am also aware that I am part of something way bigger than the world that the eyes can see and the mind can conceive. I am one with The Great I am. My Spirit is energy and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only the body which it inhabits will come to die. My direct connection to my Spirit makes it impossible for any physical entity to get in the way of me obtaining what’s mine, so long as I am putting forth the best that is in me. What’s mine will manifest. Maktub.
“Regardless of any system meant to oppress me, God designed me to win. The only way I can lose is if, as a Black [person], I allow myself to believe America is structured to make me feel inferior.” — Lenard Larry McKelvey
Amidst all of this, I’ve come to deeply truly love my black. My black is a deeply-flowing waterfall of history that brings immense pain to strong ties — to self, earth, and others. It is multi-faceted, complicated, curious, confused, and evolving. I’ve created a space for my quirky, unique blackness and found people of all shades who celebrate those elements of me. Some days I forget what it means to be black and to be proud of it, but now I have this series to remind me.
So once again, allow me to (re)introduce my black…to me.