As we celebrate Black History Month, I want to share a different perspective -- my own.
Like many others in our society, I’m mixed or “multiracial” if we’re being politically correct. However, Black History wasn’t something I was accustomed to as I grew up. I never got to know the black side of my background -- I had a deadbeat father and my very white mother, aunt and grandmother raised me collectively. So, as I grew up, my blackness wasn’t something I claimed entirely. It was more like the silent elephant in the room.
A Skewed Upbringing
You see, my family had trouble fully accepting the black community. While not racist, they’ve always kind of viewed blackness as taboo. Sometimes you hear it in their stories: “That black man” or in their judgments: “You sound like a black person,” but I’ve never blamed them for their stances. They experienced the racial tensions of the 20th century, a death in our family involving a black man, and white heritage carrying prominence throughout their lives. Their perception isn’t solely their fault but rather a casualty of their own histories. However, those perceptions didn’t provide much room for claiming my blackness growing up -- but rather just enough space to hide it.
With that said, claiming my identity when I was a kid wasn’t exactly easy. There were so many things that left me confused or frustrated. I remember trying to understand how the tops of my hands were black and my palms were white like the world I was surrounded by. I can remember wanting so badly to match the family sheltering me and my well-being. I often felt out of place and like I was navigating a racial labyrinth I could never get out of.
Going through school as a young kid was also kind of odd for me. I once had a project where I wrote a short story and it was celebrated by the Birmingham community, featured in the Department of Education. However, in my biography on the last page, I spoke about my race, but I fabricated the truth. My biography then claimed I was white and mixed with Native American heritage, which is why my skin was the color it was. I was in first grade. Much too early to be fighting an internal race war of my own.
There were also many instances in grocery stores and public outings when “nice” white people would approach my mom and commend her on her adoption and talk about how brave she was to give me a better life. Thankfully, my mom never fell victim to these perceptions and always proudly claimed me as her own. Still though, from that very young age, it was made clear to me I didn’t fit the mold and I was out of place by society’s standards.
So, as you can probably imagine, Black History wasn’t much on my mind throughout my youth. I mean, how was I supposed to care about something I felt obligated to hide and that so many others silently shunned me for?
Well, fortunately, we all grow up.
Waking Up To Myself
Once I made my way through school and into college, I was exposed to an openness and acceptance like never before. Students travel from all over the world from different backgrounds all for the same thing...education. It was then I came out of the closet and that’s when I finally began to explore the many facets of my identity and finally came out as black.
It was a rocky start. I stumbled around words, I caught myself in judgments and I’ve caught a slur or two throughout the process, but coming out black was a journey I had to navigate to discover my entire identity.
Although I'd always had black friends, it was at this point in my life when I started coming out of the fog of race. I noticed myself surrounded by the black community almost suddenly. Being uplifted by them, inspired, encouraged and protected.
I had to teach myself Black History starting at that point. I of course knew about some of the big heroes in our community like Martin and Harriet and Rosa, Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle, but I never knew their whole story or what they went through or how their legacies related to the thickness of my skin.
I had grown up in a world that wasn’t my own. I developed an accent that didn’t translate to the struggles of the black community and a perception that didn’t align with the way the world perceived me. It was a wake up call like no other.
So, as I began to explore more of my genetic makeup, I began to see the world in a new light. Once I claimed my blackness and gained an understanding of what that meant, things started to hurt a little more. I began to realize why protesting and suffrage were such a big part of this community. I suddenly knew what had been happening my entire life. I felt the judgements, the disdain, the fear that I might be dangerous. But, I also felt the community and what that really means: A set of shared experiences within one group of people.
Like many other mixed race people, we struggle to identify with both sides of our makeup. Society looks at you one way, and you feel differently on the inside. You want to resonate with the pains and history of your marginalized side, but sometimes you never really get the full story.
I remember the first time I truly felt black
The neighborhood I lived in was fairly diverse. It was affordable, close to good schools and had a Walmart just over the hill, so the convenience couldn’t have been better. However, not everyone in that neighborhood celebrated diversity. We lived in townhomes, they’re connected to one another, you can almost hear your neighbors secrets if you listen closely on the wall. We had an older white lady move in next door and she was seemingly okay. Didn’t want to be bothered, didn’t want to bother us, but one time I was cutting a strip of grass close to hers and my lawnmower was an inch too far into her yard. She came outside with vengeance in her eyes. Like a hurricane of hatred. She glared at me and said “Just like a nigger, can’t keep their hands on their own property.” Shocked at her choice of words, given how many other options she could’ve uttered, I finally felt it. I felt my blackness, I felt our history, I felt the discrimination.
As I’ve gotten older, that blackness, history, and discrimination have become more like a spotlight on my everyday life. I see where I tread lightly in conversations with older white people. I see where I hold my tongue when I’m being accused in fear of become “just like a nigger” again. I can sometimes imagine the lashes our ancestors felt, but rather than with a whip, from another’s tongue. I’ve learned a lot from claiming my identity and learning our history, but my biggest take away is this: being black is hard.
Recently, Joonko visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute here in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. During our visit, I saw the difference in our education compared to white communities. The mockery of our skin in television shows and theatrical productions. I saw timelines of historical moments like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. I heard stories of uprising and beatdowns, of fellowship and segregation. For every good thing in the museum, there was something bad to follow.
Accepting Love & Leaning Into Pride
When I say “Coming out Black,” it’s not like I just recently found out what my background is. However, the more I claim it, the deeper I dive into our history and my pride in this community and I can feel my strength growing greater by the day.
I’m proud to be black, I’m proud to be white, but I’m most proud of being my ancestors’ wildest dream. I’m black, I’m white, I’m gay and I grew up and still live in Birmingham, AL.
If you take a moment to think about all the struggles of my communities, it sometimes gives me chills. I live in a world that may not celebrate me or others like me all the time, but we’re here and there’s something to be said of that.Black History Month for me is still educational and I learn more all the time thanks to the work I get to do in diversity and inclusion. But, accepting my blackness and finding pride in my skin is a personal achievement I’ll cherish forever. I have a literal mixed perspective on Black History and get to serve as a bridge between communities. Being multiracial is a privilege and an honor. There’s no other perspective like it -- to be accepted by a group that enslaved your ancestors and to be loved by ancestors that were enslaved.
What I want everyone to take away from my story and this journey is that it’s not about the color of your skin or the height of your struggles, but rather about loving who you are and the history that makes you who you are. Black History Month may only come around once a year, but our history is deep within our bones and still lives proudly in our hearts today. Friends, love each other, celebrate one another, and learn your history.
Don’t sit idly by like I did in a coma of insecurity and confusion, but rather in an awareness of joy that you get to live in the world our ancestors fought for. A world where we all have a chance and a voice. Granted there’s still so much work to be done before we all see what true equality means, but we’re on a good track.
Have faith and Happy Black History Month, everyone.