I’m Creole. Which means I’m a Black person from New Orleans who’s got so many things mixed around in my family history that it’s easy to confuse me as a White guy. There’s a substantial population in Louisiana that looks just like me. They have curly hair, light eyes and aren’t much darker than a White person who spent a week in Barbados. I have three half-sisters. One is my complexion. Two are darker. I have cousins who are fair-skinned. I have cousins who are brown. I have uncles and aunts who have been called White their whole lives.
So my house would look like it’s full of a racially ambiguous group of people every Thanksgiving. For that reason, I had no concept of race growing up. I did’t even know race was a thing because I didn’t differentiate myself from anyone as a kid. When I walked outside I saw all shades of people who look like they could be in my family.
Then I moved to Mississippi.
My family moved to Mississippi when I was six years old and my parents enrolled me into a private, all-Black school with a strong focus on Black pride and education about our history. So naturally I was hit with the big question on my first day of school: are you Black or White?
It was the first time I’d heard the question and I had no clue how to answer. I mean, I used yellow crayons when I drew myself. And as I contemplated my answer, I looked around and saw that all the kids were considerably darker than I was. I felt like, for the first time ever, I was seeing skin color. I still didn’t understand race yet, but I saw people that I didn’t think looked like me. So I answered: “I’m White, I guess.” So for a whole school day, I was a barely-literate, elementary-aged reverse Rachel Dolezal.
Then recess came, and word had spread that there was a White kid on the playground. This was 1992 and White Men Can’t Jump was fresh on everyone’s minds. Naturally, when I hit the basketball court, a few of the kids decided to chant that damned movie title at me. To no end. I can still picture the kid behind the basketball goal yelling “White men can’t jump” at me while I went up for layups.
I didn’t want to be White anymore.
That night my dad caught me crying to myself at the grocery store. “They yelled ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ at me at school today!” I remember crying to him about it. (My dad still thinks this story is hilarious, by the way, and will bring this story up within two minutes of talking to anyone I know.)
That night, my parents explained to me that I am in fact Black. They showed me Eyes On The Prize. I watched videos of my dad speaking at his friends’ funerals. I saw how White people saw me. A flood of memories I didn’t know I had came swarming to the front my mind. I remember crying that night to my dad that I thought the KKK would come and kill him. Over the course of a few hours, I realized my Blackness and what that meant about my life in America. Again, I was six.
For a lot of Black people, we sort of know about our Blackness from birth and don’t get that moment of clarity about our ethnicity all at one time. For others, we have this jarring moment where we have to apply these definitions to our existences all at once. Of course, as I learn about what Blackness truly means, I understand what it means to love myself and the blessings that come from being Black.
I can still pull up these memories of discovering my Blackness like it happened yesterday. And I can’t imagine what Shaun King is going through right now as he’s had to relive similar moments in tandem with embarrassing skeletons in his family’s closet.
According to King, he found out he was Black at the same time he found out that his dad wasn’t his real father. And he’s had to relive this moment in front of every Twitter account and Facebook status’ watchful eye. His race and family history has become a public spectacle that’s been picked apart for the last 72 hours. He’s had to justify his Blackness and relive a moment of trauma because of a desire to discredit his contributions to #BlackLivesMatter. (And I’m not sure this is even something conservatives try to dig up if not for Rachel Dolezal. So shout out to her for that. Thanks.)
Being Black is beautiful and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Blackness is a gift and I love every moment of it. But that moment you feel the weight of your Blackness all at once brings its own level of trauma.
That’s why when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God I think about the moment Janie realizes she’s Black and how it defined the rest of her life:
So when we looked at depicture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark child as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
Dey all useter call me Alphabet ‘cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
’Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’” (2.3-8)
I’ve always felt that Janie spent the rest of the book looking to reclaim the beauty she’d felt she lost the moment she realized she was Black. The trauma of finding out she was perceived as inferior led her to look for that vindication and acknowledgement of her beauty. Unfortunately, Blackness in America comes with trauma. But the beauty of Blackness is the ability to love ourselves despite how we’re trained to feel about our skin color.
Shaun King found out about his Blackness in what had to have been one of the most trying moments of his life. And he’s embraced it to become one of the foremost voices to remind this country that we matter. Because he’s learned – like I’ve learned – that Blackness isn’t a burden. It’s not a curse. It’s not something to hide. It’s something to be proud of. And the defense of our Black lives is as important as any goal we’ll ever have in our lives.