And I just want to know
Where the fuck did everyone else go
Life picked them all off like flies
Shot for the skies, fell some place between hell and shit
Why did they get to quit
And I had to slug on?
From the poem, “I Miss You.” Read the rest here.
There was never a time when I didn’t know I was going to college. I never knew it was an option to not attend. My mother started early with my education, teaching me reading, writing and math before I started public school and was a regular volunteer at all functions. Everything they did was to make me as well-rounded as possible while at the same time nourishing my gifts in the opposite of the way gross poverty had starved theirs. There were dance, art and piano lessons. Vacation Bible School and literary competitions.
I had a good childhood.
Unfortunately and unbeknownst to all of us, my parents were preparing me for my eventual excelling right out of Blackland in ten easy steps! While the self-segregated black elite talked almost proudly about being The-One-Onlys in Monday’s stories on Martha’s Vineyard, I was a One-Only, only I called it “The Lonely Onlies.” As in there was no sense of pride for me at all to excel my way to the top and see that so many people from the old neighborhood had not made it there with me … or had made it, but were thousands of miles away, being a Lonely Only somewhere else.
I went from a childhood in an all black suburb of St. Louis to an adulthood in some of the least diverse parts of the country (Midland, TX and Bakersfield, Calif., respectively). But I even felt abandoned and alone in college and I went to Southern Illinois University which was filled with black students from St. Louis, East St. Louis and Chicago. But being a driven black nerd with “intellectually snobby” tendencies can make you positive that one is the loneliest number that you will ever do.
Step #1: Educate — The first step to successfully emancipating yourself from your own community starts with a good education. This does not mean that there aren’t other educated blacks. There are many. The problem is if you do this early enough as a child you will likely go through nice, emotionally scarring experiences like being rejected by other black children for being smart. Then you will, in turn, carry this hurt with you for the rest of your life, making you suspicious of other blacks, worried that they are judging you. I know that being beat up and called a nerd and having no friends at nine leading to anxiety attacks and chronic psycho-symptomatic illnesses didn’t affect me AT ALL.
Step #2: Integrate — Even though I grew up in a black suburb, I went to a school run by a white district. This is pretty impossible to avoid for most suburban blacks (not that going to an all black run school would necessarily be better). While I had many wonderful teachers in elementary school who happened to be white and other good teachers who were black, I had to deal with a black administrator who thought the best way to motivate black kids was to tell them how terrible they were and to punish all for the actions of the few. Nothing like having the view that black is bad be reinforced by one of your own every day at school. She, the administrator, was trying to impress the mostly white and male brass who saw our school as a “problem school.” I thought our school was great. So did the other kids. But if you hear you’re terrible long enough you either embrace it and become terrible or you make the false assumption that a whiter and even more integrated school would be better. Which takes us to step #3 …
Step #3: Separate — At 13 my family left our black neighborhood to move to a Tony white suburb deeper into St. Louis’ North County. (This suburb is now more integrated, but when we first moved here, blacks were scarce.) There, for the first time I felt the sting of rejection from not just the few blacks there, but from white kids as well. In the case of the other black kids I was now not “black enough” despite the fact that I was from what they called “the hood” and came from “the ghetto school.” (The “hood” has manicured lawns and skateboarders?) The isolation that was my junior high years really made me start to despise other young people, regardless of their racial background. I still though clung to blackness, even hanging out with black people I had little in common with well into college. I was desperate to have black friends, but had a hard time occasionally finding ones with a brain after I left Florissant, MO.
Step #4: Graduate — Graduating from college represents a sort of point of no return in my excelling out of the community. I went from seeing tons of black people every day at school to seeing zero at my first three jobs in advertising and journalism.
Step #5: Capitulate — Since I’m not made of granite and love people, eventually I mellowed out on my “MUST HAVE BLACK FRIENDS” mission and began to hang out with whomever life gave me. This was deliciously freeing. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel burdened with carrying some one-woman racial cause. I stopped thinking that I had to constantly “represent,” and just became “Danielle.”
Step #6: Commiserate — Opening my mind to a more diverse group of friends led me to embracing different cultures, music and religious ideas. Unfortunately when I sometimes tried to share these things with my own I got a lot of side-eyes. My insecurity about being judged would return and I would retreat to just hanging out with tons of white, brown and Asian people. I could especially relate to Asian-Americans, as they were often from families who were just as strict and driven as my own. Despite this though, I still missed blackness terribly …
Step #7: Eviscerate — Therefore the Great Purge began. Up until this point I’d been the walking personification of WEB DuBois’ “twoness.” I was of two minds about everything. There was Danielle, the open-minded, opinionated free thinker who loved black people even though she really couldn’t relate to some of them anymore and there was “Black” Danielle, who was defined by her racial identity and felt incredibly guilty over owning David Bowie albums. One of those Danielle’s was going to have to be eliminated so the other could live her life. I’ll let you guess who got the axe. Ground control to Major Tom, anyone?
Step #8: Perambulate — After you’ve purged your “black first, me second” mentality you may find yourself walking away as fast as you can from things that are stereotypically black. I ran away from Kwanzaa. I’m not proud of it, but … gosh. I just can’t get with that.
Step #9: Consolidate — Once you’ve separated and walked away, you have to put yourself back together. The person you form will basically be who you are for the rest of your life. I became a woman who is proud of being black, but isn’t solely defined by it. And while it was/is freeing to just rock your Keyisha Cole with your Lady GaGa and your Rilo Kiley, you never really stop missing the “good ol’ days” of playing Miss Mary Mack in the backyard. You pine for old black history plays and Negro spirituals. You reinvest in parts of black culture you love … even if those parts aren’t the most popular ones. Like lugging around the Harlem Renaissance Reader, owning jazz records or quoting Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems. You’re a square, but you love it. But will others accept it? Especially when you work and live in a mostly white world?
Step #10: Assimilate — Compete assimilation is the last and final step. I have never fully completed this step because assimilation would mean giving up the parts of blackness that I love and abandoning Negroes under the assumption that we’re a “lost cause.” I’m not of that mind. Probably never will be. But I’ve known people who’ve reached step ten and feel at peace about it. They like saying they don’t consider themselves to be black, just human beings or that color isn’t an issue for them. They enjoy being the only black person in the room. For the love of Turnip greens and Bobby Rush, may I never reach step 10.
Agree? Disagree? Share your comments and opinions below. And if you’re so inclined, you can write the counter-argument to this post, and we’ll print it here on The Black Snob. This story is part of a series on interesting, unusual, funny and unconventional takes on issues. To see the full list of issues that will be covered, click here. To read past stories, click here.