I wrote this back in 2003 and it still feels true to me now.

The Black Experience. It sounds like a thrill ride at an amusement park. Strap yourself in and prepare to be amazed or dismayed, amused or abused. Strap yourself in and discover what life is like when your skin is browner than a tan, your hair like lamb’s wool. Only, the idea of the Black Experience as a singular experience is as narrow as the idea that Black is reserved only for those who are darker than a brown paper bag. There are experiences; plural, wrapped up in all the ways Black people look and sound, wrapped up in all the ways we live.

Barely passing the brown paper bag test myself, I have spent years fighting the assumption that Blackness is a finite definition complete with checklist to verify authenticity. Victorious when that definition embraced the “light bright, darn near white” philosophy, in turn I was set aside for “the darker the berry the sweeter the juice”. What did that say about my berries?

The rigidity in defining who is Black has intrigued and bewildered me. Caught up somewhere in hairstyles or political standings, mingled with hip-hop as lifestyle or the adoration of Marcus Garvey over Booker T. Washington, the expectation or assumption that Black people must share the same thought processes and aspirations saddens me. Those assumptions have cast me into a category of exceptions. An anomaly. Just looking at me could raise an eyebrow at my purity- as if there were such a thing. My appearance is sometimes called into question, my hair curly more than kinky, my eyes hinting hazel.

More than my look, it is my behavior that causes people to question just how Black I really am. For starters, I talk like a white girl…or so I’ve been told. What exactly that means I’m not sure. Is my voice inflection somehow different than the race issued one I was supposed to have, or is it implying that Black people use Ebonics instead of Standard English?

And when people find out I’ve lived abroad, listen to country music, sky dive, when people discover my hair isn’t chemically straightened and I’ve been published, the questioning look perches in their eyes as if I’ve cheated in some game I never wanted to play.

And so I’m not Black. People tell me in “complimentary” tone that I’m not like other Black people, insulting me without realizing it because I come from everything they praise me for not being. I’m not Black. Called a wannabe for simply wanting to be myself.

I’m not Black. I’m not Black…but I am.

A friend and I joked that we wanted to start a website. We’d post our activities and search out others just like us – or just as different as us – to join us. We could just imagine all the different kind of Black folks all over America signing on. It was that joking, at least in part, that got me thinking about the way people are socialized to think about race and gender in a certain way. The way a culture, a community, a kinship can cultivate the way people see themselves and the rest of the world.

Growing up I read Black Boy and The Bluest Eye looking for myself between the pages. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t find a light-eyed light-skinned Black woman who was sometimes called swirl, sometimes darkie. I never met a fictionalized me, someone with parents still married after 30 years, someone whose family doesn’t buy gifts at Christmas.

All of those images of myself that never materialized make up who I am. They shape my personal definition of Blackness and my Black Experience. But if no one is telling my story than the myth of the one great Black Experience is strengthened.

The rural village I lived in as a Peace Corps Volunteer will probably never make the news or National Geographic. Most people will never know how the girls come back from Koma (rite of passage) painted in red, eager and waiting to burn their blankets of childhood, the women greeting them with ululations and pride. Most people will never have the chance to experience the similarities of an Ndebele grandmother insisting that I eat in much the same way my own grandmother insists. But it is an experience- my experience. It happened; it is a story that deserves to be told.

I want to see the pictures that are never shown and watch for the story that is never told, so I can show and tell them. I want a girl looking for a glimpse of herself to have more than a singular experience to choose from.



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