Not Black Enough
By Nikki Johnson-Huston, Esq. & Tracey Anarella
“Why do you talk so white?”… “You wouldn’t understand because you can put curls in your hair” and, “You only hang out with white people! You don’t even know you’re black — you’re just not black enough.” These are some of the taunts heard by Tracey Anarella while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. She continues, “the sad part is that those playground taunts from children evolved into more sophisticated digs by adults who were of the same belief — I had made a choice to live my entire life by defying my blackness.”
This ludicrous viewpoint of some ‘self-imposed box’ that defines who we are as black people became the impetus for making her documentary film, “Not Black Enough”. Says Tracey, “These ‘boxes’ are myriad: Are you too light-skinned? Are you too highly educated? Do you speak without a ‘ghetto’ inflection? Are you too wealthy? And on and on they go….”
So, through the urging of her partner in work and life, composer Peter Fish, she decided set out to make, “Not Black Enough”. Peter said, “Make a movie about what you know.” The sting subsides, says Tracey, but the emotional scars never disappear. The schoolyard taunts about talking white, not behaving black, etc. served as the voices that were an assist in her head while shooting interviews for the film.
In making “Not Black Enough” she had an undying need for discovering and exposing issues that elicited a wide range of emotions (good and bad), while simultaneously engaging and encouraging viewers to participate in necessary dialogues which lay dormant or suppressed by Black American culture for fear of airing its ‘dirty laundry’.
Nikki Johnson-Huston, a tax attorney in Philadelphia, also has stories of how she has been treated because of the way she spoke and acted growing up. “Sell-Out, Wannabe, Self-Hating Negro and Coon are names that I have been called many times over my life.” I think for many people who are not African-American, they are surprised to hear that these are actually names that I have been called by other black people. Who would believe, in a world of white supremacists and racism, that some of the worst racial interactions I would have had would be with other African-Americans concerning how I speak and act?
It is well known in our community that we have issues with “Colorism” and issues related to hair texture otherwise known as “Good Hair”. What we don’t spend enough time discussing is how divided the African-American community is related to “talking white” and “acting white”. The African-American community fights being stereotyped by the larger society everyday, but WE reinforce accepted types of black behavior amongst ourselves. Nikki remarks that “There is no doubt looking at me that I am 100% African-American with my 4c hair that I proudly wear primarily in micro braids. I get the head nod in public and definitely get invited to the family BBQ but the minute I open my mouth I see the smirks and eye rolls. All of a sudden I am not a down “sista” but someone who is suspect and other.”
Nikki remembers the pain of those slights, “For the longest time I couldn’t understand why the way I spoke would make some black people almost despise me without knowing anything about me. But as I have gotten older, I have realized that it is a defense mechanism. They are afraid that I am trying to reject my blackness by the way I speak, and in turn have real concerns that I am going to look down upon them, thinking that I am better. It’s a history of oppression that has caused us to have hate and mistrust amongst ourselves. If you were perceived to be closer to whites regarding looks or attitude than you had better opportunities. It’s the House Slave versus the Field Slave, but what so many people seem to miss in the argument is that you were all just slaves trying to survive.”
For Tracey, she saw a common thread emerge from almost every interview in the film “Not Black Enough”. Each person who had been subjected to being considered ’not black enough’ was trying to live in a society of people who were the same ethnicity as they, looked like them, were viewed by the rest of the world as they, yet they these people were still considered to be ‘not black enough’. They ‘betrayed’ the black race in that they no longer satisfied the ‘rules’ from some phantom primer on what it means to be black. A primary goal for Tracey in shooting the film was to ask the question, ‘what is ‘black enough’, and, are there any criteria for blackness?’ What she found from the people she interviewed, and what she always believed in my heart, was that we are ALL black enough; there is no such thing as a list of attributes, or boxes which can be checked. As Petey Pablo raps in the film, each of us, as black individuals, are as ‘black as we’re supposed to be’!
Tracey was fortunate to have a broad range of people discussing his/her experience with being thought of as being ‘not black enough’. Celebrities such as former Ms. America, Vanessa Williams, Grammy Award winner, Florence LaRue, PBS anchor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rapper Petey Pablo and former model/TV presenter, Kathleen Bradley helped the audience to see this experience in so many different ways. She opens the film by quoting her mother, who was her rock: “Honey, you will be black until the day you die. Do not succumb to the insecurities of others; it’s crippling…” She closes the film by summarizing the fears, suggestions for a more positive path, and recounts of experiences with the hope that we all can come together on this topic of ‘blackness’. Essentially what the film shows is that we need to turn our sights towards embracing our beauty as a race of people made up of all different shades, lifestyles and attitudes of being black, without any betrayal of what ‘blackness’ really is.
Nikki has come to the similar conclusion as many of the celebrities that Tracey interviewed for her documentary; “What too many of us seem to be missing from this conversation, is that we are all black people, no matter how we speak or our hair type or skin tone and all of the beauty that goes along with that but also all of the difficulties.” She does have hopes for our community with this issue, because although black people can be judgmental about “talking or acting white” she’s found that once they got to know her, many people changed their tune about who and what they thought she was. Since she became an advocate for the homeless and has shared her story of overcoming homelessness and poverty around the country over the last several years she has been embraced by her community. “I get hugs from the black grandmothers who have pride in their eyes like I was one of their grandchildren, or love from the teenagers who embrace my story of overcoming while peeping my red bottom shoes and dreaming of having a better life, when I come to speak at their schools. Black people just want to know you are “real”. The community accepts me for who I am which is more Will Smith and less Samuel L. Jackson.
Unfortunately, to be black is still about other people of color having expectations about who and what you are, instead of letting you decide for yourself who you want to be. For too long black people were limited in our activities. For many, we have kept that mentality that focus on all the things “black people don’t do” instead of expanding our mind to think that there is “nothing a black person can’t do”. Both Tracey and Nikki used to believe the taunts were about whether they might be black enough; but as they have gotten older they have realized the problem is really ‘how dare I think I’m good enough?’ They have both been criticized for not being black enough and not loving themselves, but they fear the issue isn’t a lack of loving their own personal blackness, but the lack of confidence shown by people who police other’s level of blackness. We can be smart, pretty and talented outside of playing ball, or rapping, or singing for a living. Believing that one can be anything one chooses must be a possibility for all of us, regardless of our skin-tone, speech patterns, economic class, or education. Indeed, we are all ‘black enough’.
Perhaps the conundrum before us is best summed up by the title song from Tracey’s film, “Not Black Enough”:
“Eyes open wide, but you don’t see
Your reflection, that is me.
Brothers and Sisters, we are in this together
But divided our shackles will last forever…..”