There is no “right” way to be black, but because of how culture works, there are similar or shared experiences. Being a member of the culture and seeing myself as different caused me to reject some ways of displaying culture norms and widely accepted behaviors. Trying my hand at archery, being a gymnast, camping (which I’m still not sold on, but I’ll do because I love spending time with my friends), and a variety of other things are examples of “non-normal black people activities” (Stereotype).
My context has most often been US-based so my perspective is influenced by the culture in the United States. Consciously and unconsciously, I received information about what it meant to be black in the world from all sides. From how to speak and dress to the types of lives we “lead” and what we’ll be successful at. I needed to find representation. I needed to unlearn the stereotypes I, myself, held about blackness and black people, while also being true to myself. I needed to find present-day mirrors that reflected me back at me, while I worked to embrace blackness as a whole so not to exclude others.
I found a treasure trove of artists, friends, family, peers, icons, people larger than life and historic figures that transcended generations. I think of Donald Glover who is as creative as it gets. He continues to dive deeper into the work that inspires him, while also addressing issues affecting black communities through shows like Atlanta. I think of Andre 3000 who challenged the notion of black masculinity, while giving us great music and meaningful messages. I think of rap music and all its form. I think of Ava DuVernay who’s given us amazing films and commentary on issues that affect our people generation after generation. I think of Michelle Obama, and the grace and commitment she shows through her health and women’s initiatives. I think of where I was when Barak Obama was first elected. I think (often) of James Baldwin, who shared the feelings of wanting to leave or escape the US, but ultimately felt compelled to come back. (In some places around the world, the grass is actually greener for black people.)
I think of Nikki Giovanni who said “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.” I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates who discussed stolen moments created by fear as he explored Paris with a new friend he thought might bring him to harm because of what he experienced growing up in Baltimore. I think of Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, and Idris Elba as the superheroes I looked for in all my Saturday morning cartoons. I think of my parents, black barbershops, family, laughter, creativity, travel, fellowship, and community.
I found mirror after mirror, all of different shapes and sizes and colors. I was seeing myself in my community. I learned that it’s not how you show up, but rather showing up at all and being authentic. A lesson learned early on, but later forgotten and learned again later, is that people just want you to be real. No two-way glass. No distorted funhouse mirrors. Just a mirror that might hold a reflection from time to time.
The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #14: Curiosity will be up and ready for your reading.