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As a high school junior, I was chosen to take part in Smith College’s Women of Distinction program, an initiative designed to attract academically high-achieving students of color to the prestigious liberal arts college. During my long weekend at Smith, I attended a lecture on the formation of black racial identity, and first came across the concept of nigrescence: the psychological process of becoming black, or assimilating blackness into one’s identity and self-conception. By the end of the lecture, I had a page full of hastily scrawled notes. This, I knew, was the thing I’d been longing for, and felt incomplete and sketched without.
But, then, I couldn’t shake the notion that this concept — this lecture, this program — weren’t resources I should even have access to. Because I’m only half black. Because, up till age 14, I’d grown up in a majority white school system, in a majority white suburb of Cincinnati, with mostly white friends and classmates. I spent more time with my white mother’s side of the family than my black father’s. My father himself had, in many ways, assimilated to whiteness in order to fit in both in our community and in his work as an entertainer (performing, by the maturation of his career, for mostly white audiences). I didn’t even know my dad’s thoughts on unarmed, black Timothy Thomas being gunned down by white Cincinnati police officer Steven Roach in 2001 — a tragedy that, similar to Ferguson, led to protests, rioting, and a city-wide curfew. It just wasn’t something we talked about.
Not that I didn’t understand the silence about race between my dad and me, whether regarding me and my racial education or his own personas. After all, my mother, a woman he’d deeply loved, was white, as were his in-laws, a huge part of his support system in caring for me, especially following my mother’s death in 1998. I think as a single black, male parent, my father had a lot of prejudiced expectations to defy, from loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers alike. Maybe, in some ways, it felt easier not to discuss one facet of his and our otherness.
Still, it wasn’t as if I didn’t notice it. I noticed when people would react with barely concealed surprise when my white grandparents would introduce me as their granddaughter. I noticed when, after my dad and I invited one of my friends to go on vacation with us, another set of parents had asked my friend’s, “You’re letting her go with them?” I noticed when fellow fourth graders would tell me, with some envy, “It’s like you’re tan all the time!”
I never shared these experiences with my dad. Instead, a fuzzy silence grew around our skin. And by the time of the black identity lecture at Smith, I couldn’t help but wonder what the fuck I knew about being black — and, even more fretfully, how nigrescence could even hope to begin for me.
Still, the concept obsessed me. After returning home to Cincinnati from Northhampton, I wrote a poem about it and shared it with my creative writing class at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), the school I’d figured as my proverbial God-opened window after my dad’s death in 2006 necessitated a move from our former home. I wrote: “I am waiting for Nigrescence to be one of them. / I am waiting for Nigrescence to be of my kin. / I am waiting for Nigrescence to live in my skin.”
Many of my classmates were supportive of the obvious personal turmoil behind the poem. Others — black and white — were mocking of the idea of nigrescence, wondering what it even meant, to “become” psychologically black. Wasn’t it just something you were or you weren’t?
Well, no. If anything, I’d grown up in a racial void. As stated, whiteness was a great influence on my sense of self as a young person. But still — I wasn’t white. Not completely. That much was obvious. So, maybe it’s inaccurate to say I grew up in a racial void. Rather, I grew up with a void where blackness — as a named, respected, and discussed facet of my identity — should have been. I began to sense this void once I began attending SCPA, whose student body comprised roughly half black students and half white students. When I realized I didn’t know what a weave was, I knew I was seriously stunted somehow.
Fast forward to summer 2013: George Zimmerman had just been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin; I was living in Chicago and interning for a progressive organization that services queer youth, many of them of color, who are experiencing homelessness. Working alongside the organization’s queer, anti-racist, radical — and racially integrated — staff forced me to open my eyes to current events that, in the past, I might have glossed over or ignored completely for fear of head- or heartache — and confusion as to my own positionality in the matter.
Not this time. I knew exactly what was up. And you know? It did hurt my head, and my heart, and my spirit. To the point that, showing up for work after the verdict was called, I ended up having to ask for a break to go cry. It was more than unfair. It was more than fucked up. Riding the El into work, I looked from black face to black face and wondered if they, like me, felt like the legitimacy of their very existence had been squashed like a beetle beneath the heel of so-called justice.
Was this, I wondered, what nigrescence meant? What blackness meant? Aching like my psyche was one big wound, and knowing that every single power-that-be didn’t give a fuck?
My boss, Tonya, suggested I reach out to some of my black relatives to find solidarity with the despair I was feeling. This suggestion was especially germane, as that past weekend, one of my white uncles and I had gotten into a hideous argument about the Zimmerman verdict.
I was horrified: here was someone who I knew loved me — and who I loved very much — telling me that the verdict had nothing to do with race, that the media sources I was citing were skewed, that we’d “never really know” what exactly Martin had “done” that night — as if it mattered. As if any question of legal power is ever unrelated to race. As if the mainstream media sources he followed had no ulterior investments — and as if those investments weren’t the ones to be suspected. As if anything unarmed Martin could have done would make Zimmerman gunning him down — then being acquitted of it — okay.
It’s hard to convey the despair I felt as that argument intensified. Not only did my uncle claim I was failing to understand a tragedy I’d thought and felt very deeply about, but he couldn’t seem to grasp why the verdict and Martin’s death would affect me to the point of furious tears — which, once shed in his presence, predictably elicited claims that I was being too sensitive, that he wasn’t trying to “hurt my feelings.”
He didn’t understand that it was beyond that, beyond a two-person confrontation or difference of ideas: It was a willful ignorance of systematized racism, of centuries of life chances taken from black people, and of the continued treatment of black people as lesser-than, as inherently suspicious, as inherently deserving, for some reason or other, of violence, including to the point of death.
It was a willful ignorance of the fact that I, his niece, am black.
And they are white, I thought to myself as I kept crying quietly and everyone else in the car, my uncle included, clammed up. They are white, I thought — and for the first time, that meant something other than melanin levels to me, and to our family. They are white, I thought, and I am of color. I am mixed. I am black.
Is this what it means to be black? To feel fundamentally misunderstood by white loved ones? To be consistently betrayed by those in power and by the media? To feel unsafe on the street, in the presence of cops? To “know” that I am less trustable, less respectable, that I have to go the extra mile to be perceived as intelligent/educated/cultured, all according to the rules of a racially-biased mainstream culture? To feel twin flames of rage and despair singeing my spirit when yet another unarmed black person — another boy, another baby — has been slain, and justice seems unlikely, and a total of over $400,000 (so far!) has been raised to benefit Michael Brown’s killer?
Yes. Unfortunately, yes. My blackness encompasses all of this fury and pain and despair and feelings of powerlessness and displacement and unwantedness and fear, for myself and for those I love and for those I don’t even know. Fuck, for this country. These days, my spirit is filled with all of this.
As a biracial person — and one who spent much of her life alienated from her black heritage — I, for whatever reasons, feel I have more of a “right” to claim these difficult, psychically draining experiences of being black than I do the joyous ones: Black art. Black intellect. Black resiliency and community and fierceness and strength. The richness and diversity and ingenuity of black culture. While I feel “entitled” to the pain of being black, I feel the many joys of blackness are not mine to take pride in.
That’s wrong, though. That risks making a wound of my blackness. My blackness is not a wound; it is a gift I’m trying, consciously and earnestly, to understand and protect and witness.
Part of that understanding is interrogating my racial education with compassionate but truth-seeking eyes. Part of that protection is knowing that sometimes, even those with whom I share some of my blood (or my friendship) will not understand the depth of my pain and rage when black people are murdered in broad daylight. And part of that witnessing is this: forcing myself to think all of these thoughts, then sharing them, and trusting that they will be as respected as the multitude of affecting and effective personal essays about Michael Brown, Ferguson, blackness, and racial oppression that I’ve been reading over the past few days.
No act of witnessing the culture is complete without also witnessing the self. Here is what I’m seeing: Many black people in America both frightened and furious. Legitimate displays of anger and solidarity, and rejection of police violence and racial injustice. Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, sobbing for the loss of her son. Darren Wilson, Brown’s killer, being protected as white men have been protected for centuries. Myself, no one to Brown, but despondent and irate and fearful, and black. And — always, always at the center of it all — young, black, unarmed Michael Brown, shot down.