Because people still see you as a n*~@$*er. You never forget the first time you realize that, when you hear the word and it pierces you like a knife---a jagged, fucked up, twisted blade, catching tissue, organ and bone as it cuts to the core. I was seven.
I had spent every Saturday traveling from our tiny Upper East Side apartment to bustling, brown 152nd St. and Amsterdam to take ballet and tap at the Dance Theater of Harlem. My kindergarten teacher had suggested the idea and since my parents were into exposing us to all sorts of activities, they signed me up. My mom never said it but I know she thought it would be good for me to be around other black people. Dance Theater of Harlem is as serious, hardcore, and classical as it gets, requiring my mother to wrangle my hair into a perfect bun every weekend. If a single hair was out of place the teachers would spot it. So, I would sit beneath her after pulling on my stiff black leotard and pink tights and stare down at my pre-pubescent belly dreading having to prance in front of mirrors, teachers and other little girls. We would pull up to class in a bright blue 73’ Volkswagen beetle with my bright white mom sitting in the driver’s seat with her blond hair in two milk maid style braids, trying not to let my brother and I see how uncomfortable she was. Everything about my family is so visible, couldn’t we just have a regular car like everyone else? I’d slide down in the faux leather seat so no one would see me. And it wasn’t in my head, West Harlem let us know. “What’re YOU doing up HERE?” a man said to my mother one day as she sat with my brother at the playground. This wouldn’t happen if we were with Daddy.
Then comes the audition, not for a major role but something where I’d get to dance near Broadway and wear a tutu. I was terrified and still don’t know why I agreed to try out. I think it’s because the idea of dancing in a beautiful costume on stage still sounded like being princess for a day, so appealing that it beat out the terror of a public performance. While we were waiting for my turn we ate at a diner near Carnegie Hall. Stop staring at us? Why can’t we just blend in? Yes, she’s my mother you idiots, the woman who takes me to a neighborhood where she isn’t welcome every weekend so I can dance where my brown skin fits in. Turn around!
The rest of the details are foggy. There are little white girls running around a giant auditorium while their moms sit idly by with hopeful looks in their eyes. There may have been brown girls too but not enough to make me feel safe. I ended up playing with a little white girl and it ended with her doing something mean. I must’ve told her that I would tell her mom to make her apologize. “My mother would never make me apologize to a nigger like you.” Whoever said that words can’t hurt is gravely, gravely mistaken.
I didn’t tell my mom. I was embarrassed, ashamed and heartbroken. My seven year old mind thought that maybe if I tucked this ugliness away and never talked about it with anyone that it would be like it never happened. On some level I was scared my own mother would see me as inferior. Yep, there was self-hate alright. There was also a desire to spare my mother the pain of her daughter’s broken heart.
Please don’t mistake this for a tale of the “tragic mulatto.” We all have our sad stories and many far worse than this one. My aim is simply to share my experience and to continue shedding light on the facets of racism’s darkness. It is only through honesty that we can all hope to heal; white black and brown. There is no shame in wanting to belong, to matter and to fit in. And there is no shame in admitting that it hurts when someone calls you a name laced with 400 years of hate.
More next week!
Miss Part 1? Check out the intro to Abby Allen’s Perfectly Mixed Series.
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A cat greets me at the door as I step across the threshold into a quaint Philadelphia row house just like the one across the street where I’m staying. I feel ghosts, small people with bonnets and buttermilk. Lots of memories, in the carpet, the photos and all the knick knacks in my periphery as I walk towards the glow of the kitchen. Erica apologizes for being a “mess,” her hair not quite dry. Hair, always dictating how we feel. I understand, grateful that she’s let me in before it’s perfect. I barely notice, thinking only that she doesn’t look half black, maybe Puerto Rican? I try and look closer without seeming creepy, scanning her features for a sign of Blackness. I think I catch a hint. The stuff in here isn’t hers, it’s older, from another time.Who lives here? Her mother is sick, so Erica is taking care of her house while she recovers. There’s a sadness in her eyes, a weariness telling me she’s been caring for her mother longer than a child should.
A Delftware plate hangs over the entrance to the kitchen. Who’s German? Dutch? I wonder, thinking of my mom’s penchant for the same blue and white ceramic style. My mom’s Afro-Cuban but my mother and father are both Pennsylvania Dutch so they had a similar upbringing. Dutch actually comes from the German word, “Deutsch,” it’s a common misunderstanding that it means Dutch. This is the first I’m hearing of black Pennsylvania Dutch. A cat jumps on the table and she pets him nervously, asks if I mind. I don’t like cats but in this moment his presence comforts me. The two of us, both strange and familiar, sharing the tangible self-consciousness of one who’s never quite fit in. The Pennsylvania Dutch value their traditions above all else. So even though my white grandfather was initially upset that his son was dating a black woman, when my mom invited him over for dinner and cooked Pennsylvania Dutch, she was immediately accepted into the family. I leaned in closer and say yes to a cup of tea.
I’m really into genealogy, I’ve discovered that my mom might be related to James Buchanan. James Buchanan is the only president from Pennsylvania, he freed his slaves. And it seems, took a special liking to at least one of them. Not surprising, but hearing it aloud unsettles me. That Erica could be his descendant, doesn’t know for sure and probably is. That there are thousands of such denied offspring strewn throughout this home of the brave is something my mind doesn’t want to think about. All of them victims of violence even if sometimes tinged with love, not privy to the advantages enjoyed by their white fathers. Not given the human right of acknowledgement. Of belonging. My mind spins. What does mixed even mean? How do we define it? One parent who identifies as one race, and the other as another? Suddenly this project seems overwhelming and futile. Or maybe like everything, it’s just not black and white.
More next week!
Miss Part 1? Check out the intro to Abby Allen's Perfectly Mixed Series.
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les sextoys pour lui acheter ...
I’m not gonna tell you what percentage of white I am so you can judge how entitled I am to be in this space. That’s why I say I’m black. I think it’s pushing back to say “black” (instead of mixed). I’d never thought about it that way, that the person asking us what we “are” is equating whiteness with superiority; the more white we are the better, the more entitled, the more worthy. Few do this consciously, but such is the insidious nature of “Whiteness.” I look past her eyes as she talks and wonder how much my own identification is wrapped up in white is better.
DuBois called it double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…a low-grade unrest you adjust to like a lumpy scar. The knowing that every time you walk into a room people are looking. They notice, they stare, they ascribe stories. We don’t get to blend in, to disappear, to be in the cut or on the low. In many ways a blessing, as it forces us to take up space, to find the ground beneath our feet, to stand firm and be unforgettable. She continues, I was raised to be like a show pony, with impeccable manners. I always thought, if I go into a situation and act properly I won’t be looked down upon. If I don’t act black. I knew what she meant. So tiring for a child. So tiring still.
Z owns a restaurant in New York. She’s a mix of grace and fire, African American, Northern and Southern, Jew and Gentile. As she goes to the kitchen to get our food, my mind chases a memory. Don’t tell me what I am or have to be. Let me be. Me. Maybe it’s black, maybe it’s mixed, maybe it’s none of your business. My dad was a Jamaican immigrant who had little in common with American “blacks” other than skin color. My family never ate watermelon, had family reunions or anything else considered “black” by American definitions. So does having brown skin make me “black?” Absolutely and not at all. How dare you, you self-hater! If you don’t say you’re black you’re denying your blackness, negating your roots. The truth is you have no idea. You don’t know me. And neither does the white guy who asks to touch my hair. Let us define ourselves. Stop your poking, prodding, judging, scolding.
I say I’m black because it’s an act of rebellion. It goes back to the “N” word. Either you’re the Big “N” or the other. So when I say I’m black I’m challenging someone to see me as the Big “N.”
I ask her what advice she would give to parents of mixed kids. Let them be themselves. Let them smear ice cream on the walls. Don’t make them feel like their behavior is a signal of their blackness.
Let them be. Let us be
Perfectly mixed is a new series brought to you by Abby Allen. Check out her work and share this piece if you liked it!
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