*This is a long one so I really appreciate you reading. It was scary to write but the only thing harder than being honest is being, well, not.*
One of my favorite toys growing up was my collection of paper dolls. I had a few books of them and I would painstakingly cut out the dolls and their delicate outfits. The book of Russian ballet dolls, with their elevated arms and intricately shaped costumes, were especially difficult. But the collection that sticks out the most in my memory was of famous African-American women.
There was a group of women on the cover, all from different time periods with different expressions on their faces. I think one was even holding a baby. Some you would probably recognize and maybe a few you wouldn’t. The pages were filled with women who would become my heroes as I grew up. At the time though, Madam CJ Walker was my favorite simply because I liked her dress and hairstyle the best. A lot of the other outfits looked kind of funny to me or too drab, like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were in dark, plain dresses. They weren’t intricate or colorful and I don’t think I ever even cut them out of the book. I knew their names but not their worth. These pillars of Black History and Black Womanhood, overlooked by a pink-obsessed black little girl.
I don’t remember when I received this book or who gave it to me, though it was almost certainly my mom. I don’t know why it was given to me. Maybe for the same reason I get Ella black Barbies and tell her how lucky she is to have curly hair, even when she pulls away as I brush through the inevitable tangles. She sits on the floor in between my legs, just like I did when my mom did my hair. A natural hair tradition; a pillar of Black History and Black Womanhood.
I always say my racism story is tiny. Being from Baltimore, that’s a blessing. I had no run-ins with police, though I was afraid of them. I don’t know that I was taught to distrust or simply saw how they distrusted. No one’s ever called me the n-word; people usually call me other races which is more cringe-worthy than cruel.
My racism story has been more discomfort than danger. It goes something like this: Putting my head down on my desk when we learned about Ruby Bridges in 3rd grade, the screaming white adults in the movie scaring me. It’s thinking “negro” must be a bad word because of how people would say it. It’s being in middle school at the mall, knowing how I stuck out in my group of white friends. It’s being in my prep school uniform, getting to walk into a store first, past the black public school kids who had been waiting longer but weren’t trusted to come in in large groups. My uniform, an expense I hadn’t paid, shielded me from the judgment of adults but exposed me as some kind of traitor. It’s people asking me where I’m from but answering, “Maryland” doesn’t satisfy them. They don’t want to hear how I love Ray Lewis or that I’m the one person who doesn’t like soft shell crab. They want an explanation for my hair and my skin, both of which are in between, in a racial purgatory.
And most hurtful, most frightening of all, it’s comments about my daughter’s skin. She was compared to shrimp once. It was gray, lying dead in the sink. A woman at church–at church!– asked if the white woman beside me was Ella’s mother, even though she was on my lap and holding my fingers.
Of course, Black History is more than just a racism story. It’s almost a mythology, a true epic with love stories and tragedies and war after war. Pain, sacrifice, bloodshed, turmoil– these are all a part but they don’t define it. Ruby Bridges’ story isn’t defined by the screaming adults; they don’t even have names. Her innocence was more powerful than their ignorance and it’s her name we remember. Black History is a story of triumphing over evil and a relentless pursuit of equality and excellence. It can be a burden, yes, but it is no curse.
I wonder now if being black would be as important to me if it hadn’t felt like this thing that people tried to take away from me. Telling me I look like another race like it’s a compliment. It’s not. I’m proud of my black history. I’m proud to be my parents’ daughter. I’m proud to be a descendant of sharecroppers and slaves. I was born in this country because of their sacrifice, their atonement. They were victims and I am not. It’s not something I can repay but it’s certainly something I can honor by living righteously and freely in the land they built.
And part of being free is living without the shackles of anger. I can’t change the past; I can’t take whips out of masters’ hands or untie nooses or put ignorant words back into people’s mouths. I can’t change my skin or the questions people ask about it. I can only forgive them and stop questioning myself. Know my name and my worth.
This is easier said than done, obviously. Even remembering the shrimp incident made me want to go back in time and say my piece and storm off. Even now, I worry that black people aren’t seen as unique, like maybe we’re not allowed to be more than one thing. I wonder if I’m not the right type of black. If that’s why the questions and invalidation come. I’m not black enough to marvel or sneer at, I’m not woke enough to get a voice or stereotypical enough to comprehend and place in a box. That’s why telling those people I’m from Maryland isn’t enough. They don’t care where I’m from– they want to know which box to put me in.
Well, I choose the triumphant box. I choose the box where equality and excellence are the standard. I choose my history. I choose to forgive because anger is the real burden, the real curse. I choose because I am free to choose and I choose the blessing of blackness.