You Say You’re Black, but What That Mean?

I grew up in an uneducated classic surrounding of extreme hardships. My mother did her best to keep me and my brothers focused on school, which excluded any thoughts of white supremacy that lurked in America’s social consciousness. Furthermore, she went to great extremes to express racial injustice to me as a guiding parent. I learned to reject the ideals of what was viewed as right, well the “White” ways of doing things. I learned to hold a deep seated mistrust for White people simply based off her personal experiences. While growing up in the late 1980’s in an predominantly black neighborhood, whites were viewed as not allowed. I became so accustomed to seeing everything reflected through a Black perspective. If I watched television, it was normally something on violence, drug dealing, or sports because that’s what I related to. At one point, besides school, I only associated with people of my own kind. I remember feeling a strong sense of pride just because I was born black.Throughout my youth everything was black this and black that, and then at the age of nineteen my black experience changed. I called a Black policeman a racist (Uncle Tom), for telling me and others to get out the streets while playing football. Immediately, the look in his eyes caused me to reevaluate what I had learned from the world I lived in. I was not only moved by his facial expression, but mesmerized by his ability to express to me that he was only doing his job. During this time, I realized that I was blinded by my own ignorance, and my perception had been warped by what my mother and society had identified as “Black Injustice”. At this point I knew to continue with these beliefs it would retard my growth as a young Black male.

To live in a broader world, I was faced with trying new things that were outside of the generally accepted norms of Black society; rebelling against my hip-hop household with pop music, adopting different styles, taking the time to learn about the struggles of other cultures, and choosing a different set of friends. In the mist of these ideas, I never factored in the stronghold that the neighborhood’s influence had upon me. Around age twenty five, I adopted a new way of thinking, and with that mindset I embraced a newly discovered me. I came to the conclusion that blackness cannot be quantified in simple actions or the way words are spoken. As a result, over the last several years, I have learned to challenge and release some of the notions I held about white people in general, and about the preconceived notions of what makes a person authentically black. I don’t discard family nor childhood friends who have their own stories of blackness, it’s their story; and who’s to argue with their beliefs. For many have traveled a different journey than myself, although we all grew up in the same environment. Many of our opportunities were the same during our teenage years; however it was how we ceased them which made our outcomes different.

There are several stories that I can reflect on living while black — but do those experiences come close to defining blackness? Throughout the years of leaving my humble beginnings, I have accepted my past, I have became more aware of who I evolved into. My view has greatly changed due to my life experiences which didn’t all happen in my “Black neighborhood”. Whenever I am allowed to reflect on my past experiences with family and old childhood friends I cease the moments to educate them on things I’ve learned along the way. Many are reluctant to embrace any new information or ideas, which shine a different light on Blackness. Often times they will avoid the conversation and simply walk away.

What does it mean to be black is the question I still ask?

I believed in the stereotypical norms of being black, only later realizing that they did not reflect my reality in the slightest. Now, as I let go of society’s collective opinion about what it means to be black, I began to think being black only meant having a solid grasp of history and collective responsibility to the community. While I like that answer the most, it is not entirely true — there are many blacks who are willfully ignorant of their history, or devoid of a sense of collective responsibility. In the eyes of society, that does not make them any less black, so scratch that theory. Then, I thought being black was established at birth because it placed you in that ethic background — but that answer falls short on so many different levels. I would like to say that being black is simply to claim blackness, but that is not quite true either. Does being black refer to specific hardships? Specific actions?, Maintaining a certain kind of hairstyle? Being able to freestyle on command? Making sure your swag is on point? Speaking a certain type of language? What makes blackness so hard to define is that it implies there is a specific black experience that can be used as a reference. However, there is no specific black experience — there are many different stories that may overlap and intertwine, but no definitive black experience. No one is issued a “how to be black” handbook at birth — and I am sure if we were, half of us would spend our time rebelling against the guidelines in the book and giving more time to our Iphones.

So, what is blackness?

I’m not sure there will ever be an answer to that question. In the meantime, I’ll just continue being unapologetic for my upbringing because it made me who I am today. Maybe I can reshape the idea of blackness into something that is more reflective of my own experience.

Just Maybe.


Historian Caples

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