More than a house slave
“It’s my black girl who looks like a white girl with a tan and a bad hair day.”
I saw Birth of a Nation and I liked it, as much as one can like a movie that gruesomely shows her ancestors being tortured, raped, beaten, broken, and lynched. Today, I am not analyzing the film. I thought it was cinematically great: I left mad, but inspired. I was particularly drawn to the house slave Isaiah (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) as I am regularly fascinated with multiracial, racially ambiguous, and lightskin black folks.
They don’t belong anywhere. Coloured folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em ’cause they’re coloured, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere. — To Kill a Mockingbird
I don’t know if nonblack people are aware of the “black enough” vs “not black enough” spectrum, but it is real — so real. Colorism is real. The fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of stereotypes is real. Middle to upper-middle class black folks may experience feeling like “not enough.” Childish Gambino voices his struggles with justifying his blackness: “Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?” Biracial/multiracial black folks may experience feeling like they are “not enough:”
“Y’all see a white boy but my daddy a negro / Half breed mother fucker with the mic and heat flow”
“Thug love on the corner by the Walgreen’s / Lookin at me like I’m just another square saltine”
I mention these rappers to say we talk about it, we think about it, it might even consume us. I think about my race in nearly all new interactions that I have. I have attempted to justify my blackness in many ways. It is easier under the summer sun when I am bronzed and beautiful, harder when I am a pale yellow in the winter. I saw Isaiah in Birth of a Nation — “that’s me, that’s who I would be,” I thought. Justified. I am black enough, my one+ drops, I am in the house. That’s me. I am Isaiah. I am ultralightskinned, would be fulfilling servitude within the confines of the home, likely regularly raped because I am considered “beautiful.” And then I stopped. What the hell am I doing? Justifying my blackness by the sheer fact that I, too, would be raped? No. Throughout my entire life, the one-drop rule has resignated with me. Well, I’m black enough because I am this % black. A rule of hypodescent created by our oppressors to confine us — it says your mother or father is lesser, so you are lesser, too. How dare I associate my existence and identity with oppression, with rape? I am more than that. We are more than that. I am black because my ancestors were strong, magical black people.
It is not about whether or not I pass, but rather, what I pass. I pass songs of freedom and words of hope. I pass on “you can” and “you will” to my young brothers and sisters at St. Philip Neri elementary school. Unto my children, I will pass West Indies rhythm and Southern soul. I pass a dollar to my brother on the street who I hope wants a burger but I know wants a 40. I pass wisdom and wives tales and dignity. I pass jokes to my Memphis kin. I pass hugs and kisses to my perfectly dark cousins. I pass James Baldwin texts and Shaun King articles. I pass smiles and head nods and solidarity fist bumps.
I can pass, but I will always choose to out myself because blackness is power. The coolest thing about me is being black. When they assume otherwise, I do not get mad or accusatory; I understand the complexity of genes and phenotypes. I embraced the role of house slave when I resignated with Isaiah in Birth of a Nation because we have been cultured to compare each other’s pain. My insides are screaming: “I HURT TOO.” Yet, I know that feeling robbed of my heritage, spliced, and everything but whole does not compare to the aggressions darker folks face. I know that at the end of the day, I am privileged, I get to live.
What is an authentic black experience? Is it something that is painful? Is it struggle? Does it hurt? It bothers me that blackness is closely tied with oppression: darker brothers and sisters say, “You don’t go through the same shit we do.” They are right; I do not, I will not. When they speak, I listen: it is my job to. I cannot change my phenotypically sometimes white, sometimes Latina, always ‘other’ appearance. But I will always fight for justice; I will never let the community be silenced on my behalf. If I am allowed through the door or at the table because of my lightness then let it be known, I am carrying the weight and the hopes and the dreams of my people with me. I am carrying centuries of silencing, and I come to scream.
2Pac sang, “I remember Marvin Gaye used to sing to me / He had me feeling like black was the thing to be.” I have one sister, but I have many sisters. I have one brother, but I have many brothers. My message is this: you are enough. You are this enough, you are that enough. You are enough. These days, I worry less about proving that I’m “black enough.” God made me barely black and there is a mission for me to fulfill in this flesh my soul lives in. I’m down, I’m woke, I sure as hell can dance — that’s whatever to me, I do hope I age nicely though. I don’t know when I pass or when I don’t, but I know that sweet blackness runs through my veins and I know I will pass on magic.