I first found out I was black when I was about eight. To be fair, I knew that I was black before then, but I didn’t know that it meant anything. Certainly nothing bad.
But it was at eight when, upon meeting me, the parent of one of the friends I’d made at my very exclusive, very white private school looked at me in shock that someone their kid had grown fond of, with a name as plain and “acceptable” as mine, was also a little black girl with unruly ponytails and penny brown skin. I don’t know what happened after my friend was hustled into their waiting car, but I do remember we didn’t seem to play as much after that.
There weren’t many invites for sleepovers or birthday parties. And there was the assertion- at that same school many years later- that I had to have cheated on a science test because “you people usually aren’t this good at science.” There was the time I wrote a paper so good that my teacher was sure I plagiarized it because she couldn’t believe that I was smart enough to write it. It wasn’t until a black teacher’s aide I’d had the year before came to my defense that the ‘A’ I’d earned was allowed to stand. All these years later, I still remember the stinging humiliation of it. It would be years before I ever wrote another thing for pleasure.
In high school, there was the time someone assumed I was a janitor. And when an employee followed me around a store I’d just been hired to work in to make sure I didn’t steal. There was the time when leaving a club, a cop assumed I was a hooker, not just a college student trying to get home. There was the time when leaving my job in a wealthy part of D.C. late one night when a cop pulled over to question me, and wouldn’t believe I was just leaving work until some of my white coworkers also left and vouched for me.
Being black in America is being followed in your own neighborhood and called a nigger bitch by a group of white boys in a pickup truck adorned with a rebel flag. Being black in America is being pulled over on the side of the road in southern Georgia while on a road trip with your mother. Being escorted from the car and questioned at its back bumper about whether or not you’re running drugs for your boyfriend. It’s being asked if you’ll consent to a search of your rental car, as two more cop cars pull up. It’s the flippant remark over a uniformed shoulder when they realize there’s no wrongdoing here that you “sure are pretty for a colored girl.”
It’s being followed in stores, and the assumption that you’re the secretary or that you can’t afford anything in the expensive store you’re shopping in. It’s strangers asking to touch your hair, and waiting on pins and needles for white people you love that you know love you to say something off color about a black issue and you never again being able to regain the full warmth you once had for them. It’s people assuming you have children and being shocked when you don’t, and telling you how articulate you are. Being black in America is watching the news and feeling terrified and helpless and stricken as your racial PTSD is reinforced for you.
As I watch the coverage of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, trying to choke back tears and still work, I wonder how I am to exist and function in this white space of work, of the world, all while recognizing that there is no safe haven for me and for my blackness. I wonder how I could, in good conscience, bring a child into a world knowing that their skin is a target on their back. It is why I will never support the Rachel Dolezal’s of the world and people like her who use blackness as a cloak or costume or convenience.
Because being black in America is a great joy and a great burden that I cannot take off at my leisure. It is a responsibility and a reckoning. It is the idea that even as you exist, you can become a martyr. It is the recognition that even as you walk the land of a country grown from soil stained with the blood of your ancestors, you are not a citizen. That you cannot live the full breadth of human emotions in public, lest you be gaslighted or arrested or murdered. Being black in America is knowing that even the aisles of your house of worship can run red with your own blood.
And that there’s nothing you can do about a country where blackness is the enemy.