Once when she was a teenager Baby Sis witnessed an argument between two County Brownies over whose parents came from the toughest circumstances. They battled Sounder allusions as if the trials of their elders could tangentially pass on to them and give them a poverty pimp narrative to dull the sheen of St. Louis County suburban life. The fought for street cred superiority in a world of ice cream socials, designer jeans and mini McMansions. In a world where mothers enrolled their daughters in modeling classes and the only urban boot worth wearing were Timberlands.
To Baby Sis it was lame. We couldn’t claim our parents’ narrative. We were the products of good jobs and integration. Our parents were the products of overt racism, debilitating poverty and constant struggle.
But this pathetic debate was classic in the war over blackness, in the war over what is “authentically black.” Where ghetto fantasies are encouraged while the children of the Talented 10th covet commodities and cache. Where you sound street but go Wall Street in a paradox of niggerdom.
I grew up in a ranch home with a huge yard. Both my parents were college educated. I took dance classes and piano lessons. I painted and doodled and played “imagination” for fun. I spent hours playing and watching cartoons. I was never hungry. I was always safe. I received a car when I graduated from college. I never had to worry about a thing.
But is my experience authentic? No one ever wrote a rap song about Girl Scouts and Black History programs.
Black poverty romanticized to the point where the actual pain of the inner city is a soundtrack to the affluent, white and black. A mother mourns her teenage son, a scholar, who’s life is cut short by a stray bullet. It is recycled and remixed to bang, bang, bang, drop the rocks, it’s hot on the block, fuck ’em, I don’t care, I got cheddar in hand, I’m the pimp of a mother’s prayer.
You wear my clothes
You wear my shoes
When you get sad
You sing my blues
You wear my hair
You war my skin
I won the war
I won the war within
We used to be sold
But now we sell ourselves
The children are buying
And they just cannot help
Copping our culture
They just want one more hit
We’re like one janky-ass fetish
That they cannot kick
It’s emphasized in our music, in our literature, in our art. County Brownies would try to prove who was the most “down” by dropping gratuitous “nigga this” and “nigga that.” They bragged about going to “the city,” to hang out with the real “niggas.” They knew folks. They Crip Walked. They kicked it with the hardcore. Because the city was where the real blackness was. The badassery for douchebaggery. The city was where you could be down.
But a County Brownie could switch in a minute. They didn’t like the deseg kids. They were bused in because of some court ruling. Something about integration. But no one cared. The deseg kids were anathema. They were lower than low. Their clothes weren’t cool and they didn’t talk right. They didn’t act right. I’d call it classism, but that was a dirty word in blackland. In the authentic black identity there’s only one class and it has no class.
I was raised in an all black suburb called Hathaway Manor North. It was the kind where all the white people fled when my parents and other blacks moved in. All the people were married. All the kids were relatively good. The neighborhood was relatively crime-free and peaceful. Everyone had good jobs–teachers, principals, ministers, letter carriers, postal workers, union day laborers, business owners, middle managers, white collar execs. It was what you’d hope a black community would be. Everyone looked out for one another. Everyone knew each other. Everyone pitched in to make it a nice place to live.
I loved my old neighborhood, but when we moved to the “white” part of the county when I was 13 things changed. I remember how excited the few black kids at my new junior high were because I was from “tha hood.” I was from the ghetto. I was supposed to be realer than real, shittier than shit because Hathaway Manor was O-Dog tough, or so they heard.
They wanted to know about the gangsta shit. They wanted New Jack Suburbs. I didn’t understand. How could a Hathaway be “tha hood” with manicured lawns and teachers/preachers’ kids? But they told me I was wrong. That I didn’t know my old neighborhood and school. They told me dystopian fantasmas of Nino Brown and fights everyday, of the cops being there everyday. Of crack-fueled sexcapades and things of Donald Goines novels.
That I was a black girl lost to a dopefiend’s whoreson waiting on Kenyatta’s last hit.
But I was dullsville. I wasn’t cool. I had no stories of break-ins and drive-bys. I’d never been in a fight. I didn’t curse and I spoke perfect English. I didn’t use any slang harder than “Gee whiz,” “dang” and “gosh.” I liked classical piano and drawing cartoons on my notebooks. I liked history and English and Tevin Campbell songs. I dreamed of holding his hand while he sang “Can We Talk.” I dressed like “Blossom.”
My only friend in junior high was Brandon, a black kid from Milwaukee who missed his hometown and trusted no one. I had to “win” his friendship because black kids ignored him. He was “weird” and “quiet.” I talked to him in math class even though he didn’t trust it initially. But I won him over once he realized I didn’t judge.
He was a nerd who carried a huge, black tote bag where ever he went. He always wore a white dress shirt and black pants with black tennis shoes. He drew cartoons of dragons and castles in the sky. I think we took comfort in not being the only ones. We became good friends. People balked. Thought I was lame for hanging with him, but we were the only ones. The only ones who didn’t want to be “down.” Who didn’t want to pretend. We were who we were.
But we weren’t “black.”
I can sing almost every Negro spiritual. I have southern roots that I love. I have two black parents and I was raised in a black neighborhood. I went to an all black elementary school. I know my black history up and down. I know my African roots.
My skin is brown.
How could I not be black? What on earth is blackness? What are the rules?
Should I perm my hair bone straight? Should I wear it in an afro? Should I drop some “niggas” in my speech? Should I love Jay-Z and listen to
Lil Wayne? Should I grow dreads? Should I get into Pan African culture and start wearing dashikis? Should I live on the hardest block in St. Louis’ North City? Should I smoke Phillies? Should I engage in Jesus flavored braggadocio? Should I be real cool and leave school? Lurk late and strike straight? Sing sin and thin gin?
Jazz June and die soon?
Who is black?
This weekend Joshua Packwood became Morehouse College’s first white valedictorian. He was raised by a black stepfather. He called the men of Morehouse his brothers. He choked up as he spoke of fellowship and respect.
“For four years, you have given me inspiration,” he said to his classmates. “I thank each and every one of you for making your ancestors proud, and for making me proud.”
He was so immersed in “blackness” that the recruiter at Morehouse didn’t realize he was white. His brother plans to attend Morehouse as well. The media is in a glow over this, repeating the fact that Packwood could have gone to “any school” but he chose Morehouse as if Morehouse were grossly inferior. They talked about it like it was pity or charity or some ultimate symbol of white Liberal guilt redeemed in this brave individual.
They skipped the blackness. They glossed over the black stepfather. They glossed over his pride. The glossed over that this was real for Packwood. Not a stunt for diversity.
Was that blackness? Does Packwood fit in the definition? Is blackness a color? A state of mind? A mixture of both?
I have to admit. I still question my blackness even though my skin tone trumps all. My two black parents trumps all. I am and will always be a black woman. But when I find myself preferring Dave Grohl and Rilo Kiley, preferring “white” rock music and Lena Horne jazz standards am I betraying blackness? When I won’t watch a Tyler Perry film but will run to a Martin Scorsese production, is that a sin? When I find that I can relate more to my white co-workers who have done more and seen more than the put-it-all-on-the-Lord-in-Prada churchniks I met. The ones who didn’t watch films with subtitles or listen to music without words. Did I betray blackness then?
I was forever in a Negro wasteland of stunted vision.
It wasn’t until I went on-line and started reaching out that I learned I was not the only one. I was not the only one not “authentically” black. There were others who enjoyed both Zora and Hunter S. Thompson. Who liked comic books and abstract art. Who craved culture and vision and dreams and something more. Those who have ideas and heart and fight. Those who are launching a revolution that they aren’t even aware of. Launching a voice that is rarely heard. We are on the frontlines of forethought. We will rescue blackness from itself. We will make it more than a Boyz in the Hood fetish of 40 ounce fornication, soundtrack provided by a perversion of P-funk.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for … to redefine blackness.