Blackness Is A Cage
I still remember the day I learned that I couldn’t take my blackness for granted.
I was around 11 years old, it was the first day of summer camp, and I was looking for friends. So I scanned the room and made a beeline for the only other kid with a Transformers lunchbox. His name was Rafi.
We started with the standard “get to know each other” questions; which Transformer was the coolest? Favourite ninja turtle? Could Batman win a fight against Spiderman? But something seemed to be bothering him. After a few minutes, in that way only 11-year-olds can, he spat it out.
“You don’t sound black,” he said.
And even at that young age, I understood what he meant; black people weren’t supposed to speak “properly.”
Until then, my skin had felt indelible. Like the colour of my eyes or the shape of my fingernails. A fact, not an identity. So the discovery that there were membership requirements was disorienting. Like discovering there were rules to being an Earthling.
And worse, the feeling that “proving” my blackness meant pretending to be less capable than I was.
But looking back, I can’t help but think that even this was progress.
After all, there was a time when blackness was all there was to black people. When black people’s lives, and their children’s lives, were defined by it. When it was illegal to be educated enough to “sound” white. When it was unthinkable that they could be equal to somebody who was white.
My ancestors didn’t define themselves by their blackness. They fought and died for the right not to be defined by it. They just wanted their humanity recognised.
Given that my blackness was no longer guaranteed, I began to think about what it was. And more importantly, if I even wanted it.
After all, as Martin Luther King pointed out in, “Black is Beautiful," the word “black” is too often associated with “something degrading and low and sinister.”