Blackness, Found?

Justice Namaste, Williams College 

I cannot remember the first time that someone told me I wasn’t really Black, but I remember the first time I really heard it. Senior year of high school. The kid who said it to me had said it to me before, and he probably had no idea, but that time the words cut so deep that I left the conversation tears in my eyes, gasping for air.

By that time in my life, I had been told I wasn’t Black and been called an Oreo countless times by so many different people that I had unknowingly come to deeply doubt my claim to any sort of Blackness. It felt like there was a whole language that I never learned, a whole set of experiences that I should have had, that had somehow passed me by, and now I felt like an imposter within my own skin.

To be clear, there is a great deal of privilege that comes from growing up a light skin, “mixed” Black girl in White suburbia, but also a great deal of isolation and internalized racism.

When I came to college, I was directly confronted with the accumulation of nearly two decades of unaddressed internalized racism. All I wanted was approval and affirmation from Black communities, and yet I was petrified that another Black person was also going to tell me I wasn’t really Black. In my mind, White people could say that and sure it would hurt me, but if a Black person said it, it became true. I craved the solidarity of Black communities, but I was absolutely terrified of being rejected, so I spent much too long skirting the edges and making up excuses.

Mostly what I can say is that unlearning years of self-doubt and internalized hate is a process. I wish I could say that I opened an Audre Lorde book and had a moment of Black queer revelation where my self doubt was expelled from my soul and now I’m constantly exuding #blackgirlmagic and I always wear my hair natural, but it’s been much slower and more painful than that.

Today, my relationship with my Blackness is dynamic. I have come to understand Blackness as not only something I have, but something I do. I practice it through the books I read, and the music I listen to, and the pounds of coconut oil & cocoa butter I buy (from Black owned businesses, of course). My Blackness is about finding and building communities, asking difficult questions and having painful conversations, taking care of my body and my soul, weeping & laughing & occasionally praying, and soul food, of course.

Blackness is an identity both real and imagined. It is impossible for me to imagine what Blackness might be to my neighbor or define what it should or shouldn’t be for anyone besides myself. Like all identities, Blackness cannot be essentialized or simplified. There is not a singular Black experience or Black opinion or Black community. We must all understand ourselves as existing at the intersection of multiple identities, and work to preserve and care for our communities.

I am constantly in awe at the strength and gentleness and brilliance of my fellow Black folx. It is a terribly difficult act just to exist in our Black bodies, our bodies that have been condemned and erased all throughout history. To know that history and to continue to speak our truths to power and to love our Blackness and the Blackness of others is both radical and remarkable.