Thankfully, I Grew Up All Black
In this time when my social media news feed is filled with stories of black lives not mattering, when so many of my friends and colleagues are educating, protesting, and building up movements that strive to thwart the efforts of and dismantle oppressive social systems in our cities, states, and nation, I’ve had a new reflection about my own personal response to these happenings. Many on the front lines are being wounded emotionally, mentally, and spiritually each day. Is there time for healing, recuperation from the battle? And then I’ve seen articles like this that reaffirm the violence(s) happening against black lives.
My body aches from the mental toll of taking in all the media, the conversations, and from worrying about the black boys and girls in my life. I want to crawl into fetal position in the corner of a warm room filled with light, be covered by a flannel blanket from head to toe, close my eyes, and remember. I grew up all black. What a privilege it now seems.
I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn and was brought up in one of the churches of the radical black tradition. My childhood was not perfect, but some parts of my identity were so deeply nurtured, praised, and adored that no matter what, I can always turn to that foundation to recall who I am, who we are. That piece for me now is blackness.
My community was black, poor, working and middle class; drug infested and young girls are trafficked regularly through the streets. Sheltered in the church and the church school, being black was something no matter what socioeconomic class we were — we understood united us. Growing up in the 80s, I learned to sing “We Shall Overcome” and the “Black National Anthem” in kindergarten. Posters with descriptions and photos of accomplished black scientists, activists, singers, athletes, and politicians faced me each day as I entered a classroom from kindergarten through sixth grade. All of this was intersected with a theology that promised that I was great, that even in hard times, God was by my side, that I was equal to and as intelligent as anyone else.
Whiteness was not a part of my world really. I had a white uncle and two white aunts who I saw mostly at large family gatherings periodically. My Taekwondo instructor was white, but my classes were organized by my church and they took place in our community. I didn’t take public transportation often in early childhood, but I do remember seeing a picture of Christie Brinkley on a train ride. I remember how white her teeth were and understood her to be white. I thought she was pretty, but Donna Summers was everything to me beautiful. My daddy who’s a DJ, used to play her records at night. They were my lullabies. Yes, I wore a white half-slip on my head when pretending to me a famous singer, emulating the straight hair beauty standard that persists. But I was just as comfortable in my cornrows.
I was good friends with my church pastor’s son in elementary school and thought I wanted to be a lawyer someday. Pastor took me and his son to a courtroom to hear a case. I accompanied my pastor along with other students from my school to City Hall and other places of civil action in support of affordable housing and the development of black-owned businesses in black communities. I saw and shook hands with then Mayor Koch and Governor Cuomo. I knew that black was beautiful and it was modeled to me that black was powerful too.
By the time I got to seventh grade and left my all black world, it had not entered my mind that I could possibly be any less valuable than any other human being. But I’ve now spent the majority of my life living outside of an all black world. From middle school through graduate school, my education has been in elite predominately white schools. Until three years ago when my husband and I bought our first home in a majority black neighborhood (gentrification hasn’t quite caught on there yet), I had lived all of my adult life in multi-racial or majority white neighborhoods. With over twenty years’ professional experience, with the exception of two employment stints, all of my jobs have been in organizations where white people were the majority staff. I have spent so much of my life as other, in a white world.
So yes, like so many others, sometimes I need the safety of that corner so I can be recharged, rejuvenated to enter a world that is not mine. That corner is a charging station where I can find the will to don masks, code switch, and engage in social justice movement building alongside people most often so different from me. But I have to retreat to that corner for self-care. I am so glad I have those memories.
All these years later I know I don’t remember everything perfectly. For sure there were tensions, hypocrisies, sexism, and other badges of systemic oppression and privilege that seep into all of our relationships as human beings. As a child, I likely did not see them all. Also, please don’t take this to mean that I think black children should only grow up in black neighborhoods sans opportunity to develop deep close relationships with people of different races. But I am saying, I am so glad to have benefited from the meaning behind all those black-inspired celebrations I had to attend, poems I had to recite, and figures I had to remember facts about. It’s that #BlackLivesMatter.
I’m just saying because I hope it helps…and it would be great to know you liked it so please click on the heart icon to let me know!