I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.
Zora Neale Hurston
A Reconciliation To Blackness
When I was a little girl I preferred white dolls to black ones. I remember a home video of my 5th birthday at Chuck-E-Cheese where I complained at the sight of a black baby doll. “I wanted a white one.” I complained. This frustrated my parents who could not understand this preference of mine so they continued to buy me black dolls. I’ve always wondered why I was like this. I hadn’t experienced racism yet. I had no self-hatred or shame towards my race. I can only guess it was because I had no representations of black women in the books and TV shows I watched. There was no black Disney princesses at this time, no black kids starring in the shows or movies I enjoyed. All the characters I loved were white.
I loved Barbie as most girls did, but it was white Barbies that mostly graced store shelves. And the what did I have in common with the black Barbie? Other than her skin tone? And really not even that, she came only in a dark brown shade and I was not that. Her hair wasn’t like mine, and neither were her features. She was a darker version and that’s it. A second-rate copy, no more similar to me than white Barbie.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t experience racism in my early childhood. Although I was among one of the few black students in my classes surrounded by Latinos and Asians, the other kids never made me feel any different. Maybe because we were all growing up in a culturally diverse area and we were used to it. It wasn’t until I left the tolerant west and came to the not as tolerant south that all that changed.
It was made very clear to me early on that here in the south my “blackness” mattered to everyone. First of all the school I intended had been segregated in the 60’s. This shook me because in California, America’s checkered past wasn’t so easily seen. The buildings were newer, historic areas weren’t common. But even though the school wasn’t segregated anymore the students acted as if it was. The white kids hung out with the white kids, the black kids with the black kids, latinos with latinos. Furthermore certain races were expected to walk and talk a certain way. If you didn’t act “black” then you were acting white and therefore trying to be something that you’re not. This was made known to me the moment I opened my mouth to speak, I got some very confused looks followed by a “Where you from?”
I had no twang and used no slang, and was soft spoken. None of this was “typical” of black girls and therefore I was talking like a white girl. Up until to this moment no one had ever commented on the way I spoke. Not only did I not talk like them, I didn’t enjoy the same music or activities. I was shunned and branded a “Barbie.” Go figure.
So there I was in a social no man’s land. Not black enough for the black kids, but still too black for the whites and latinos. So I fell in with rest of the rejects, the gays, the pothead’s, and other troubled teens. They didn’t seem to care what I looked like, or how I spoke.
This unofficial segregation wasn’t only in the schools, it rippled through the rest of the small city of Amarillo, TX. There was a clear-cut area which was the black side of town, which in itself isn’t that uncommon. What perplexed me is that the blacks rarely even ventured out of their side of town as if there was an invisible wall around the east side of Amarillo. So when me and my family would go to restaurants and stores anywhere else in town we were usually the only black people. I can remember vividly one night when my family and I went to a Mexican restaurant, it wasn’t upscale in any way just your average family restaurant. As we entered the entire restaurant stopped what they were doing and looked at us. You’d think we were aliens dressed in purple the way we got everyone’s attention. They served us and the waiter was polite but no one expected us to be eating there. 2007 and a black family in a restaurant was unexpected!
Over time I came to expect uneasy stares because that’s usually where it ended. But one day as I was strolling through the “white” Wal-mart, that wasn’t where it ended. I was walking through the aisle and as I walked by this elderly white woman she pulled her purse closer to her.
“I don’t want your purse you old hag!” I wanted to yell.
She didn’t know but she had offended me deeply.
I hated that my “blackness” carried automatic suspicion. I hated that my “blackness” was the first thing people saw. Most of all I hated that this was accepted by everyone.
I was so glad when I left the accepted racism of small town America for the big city. I’ve heard Altanta called the “Black capital of America.” Not sure if that’s true or not but I know I found it very rereshing to able to walk through Target without drawing one iota of attention. In Amarillo it was rare that you saw a black face in Target, it was too “bougie.” But here I was in Atlanta in a Target where everyone was black! Everywhere you looked there was black people, in nearly every part of the city! There were affluent areas filled with black families! It was hard to find a well off black family in Amarillo, let alone a whole neighborhood filled with them. Maybe Atlanta is the “black capital of America”, it defnitely is the black capital of the south. Are things perfect here? Of course not, racism in America is a chasm that runs very deep. It is an anomaly though because the moment you leave the Metro-Atlanta area things start to look like more like the traditional south.
I’m grateful to Atlanta for patching up my racial wounds. I’m now surrounded by black people who are not “tragically colored” but are educated, empowered and independent. I am proud to be counted as one of them.
*Photo by John W. Mosley