Am I Black?

Regardless of my mixed race heritage, I was raised by my parents to represent myself as a proud black man. When people see a person and surmise that they are ‘mixed’, they will generally assume one black parent and one white parent. If my heritage proves anything, it shows the impossibility of generalizing this idea of a ‘mixed person’.

Both of my parents grew up in South Africa during The Apartheid Regime. They managed to escape the situation through academic achievement. My father was able to gain a scholarship to Milton Academy for his senior year, and then managed to stay in America through attending Amherst College. My mom left by getting a scholarship to Smith College. They met here, in the Five-College system.

The greatest fear of the white minority-run government of South Africa stemmed from the idea that, if left unchecked, the black majority could stage a violent uprising through their relatively massive number. Both of my parents represented the manifestation of The Apartheid Regime’s second greatest fear: ‘miscegenation’ or ‘race-mixing’. In South Africa, that meant that they were both defined as ‘Coloured’.

To be ‘Coloured’ does not tell you much aside from the fact that you have white and black in you. In the case of my father, we know he probably has Khoikhoi (black), white, and Malaysian in him. My mother has Zulu, Xhosa, white, and Indian. For both, it is impossible to find a single white or black ancestor, not that we have tried. The heritage of these two, and thus myself, shows  how any generalized term cannot aptly apply to any one of us. So why did my parents choose to raise their children as black Americans?

Well I will not speak for my parents, but I can only assume that because they faced the same oppression as black South Africans, and were both very active in the anti-Apartheid movement, they could only see themselves as black South Africans. They have never once expressed any confusion about their racial identity… but I have.

When I visited South Africa for the third time,  I lived and attended school in Pretoria for about eight months. In that time, after my peers learned of my South African heritage, they immediately told me that I was ‘Coloured’, not black. When I tried to tell them that I was taught the term represented an outdated evil from The Apartheid Regime, the one other ‘Coloured’ student in my section asked me why I would not be proud of my race. Imagine my confusion when I tried to explain that I was proud, in fact very proud, of my blackness.

The summer of 2014 was my most recent visit, and I was finally old enough to participate at ‘the grown up table’. While eating, my uncle lamented about the employment opportunities available to ‘Coloureds’ because the economic empowerment system in place in South Africa prioritized black people. Without examining the validity of this statement, for the first time in my life a family member openly spoke about an issue from the perspective of a different racial group. The confusion of having two racial identities based on my location was brought up once again. It was my turn to lament. I thought to myself “did I get so lucky as to not have a single nation on earth where I am not marginalized due to my race?”.

I have reconciled myself with this idea, and instead chose, consciously and unconsciously, to continue to stand tall as a proud black American , as that is the only life I know. The predominant race in my blood is black; at least if I adhere to the ridiculous notions of racial blood, the absurdity of which we have already examined at length in this class… If there is one good that comes out of the overt and implicit racism I have faced throughout my life, it is its role as evidence of my blackness.

The funny thing about race is that everyone around the world sees it differently. I can take solace in the fact that my many drops of ‘black blood’ far surpass the requirement for blackness in America.

The very same uncle that brought confusion to me, dispelled it a couple weeks later when Michael Brown’s tragic death, and the ensuing demonstrations, headlined the South African news. In his dark humor, he joked to me, “Don’t worry Kyle, our cops won’t kill you cause you’re black. They’ll kill anyone!”. He may not know it, but with that tragic joke he calmed my soul. I am, and will continue to be, a proud black man.

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2 thoughts on “Am I Black?

  1. One of my favorite quotes from the Fields’ “RACECRAFT” reads as follows: “Diallo probably defined himself as a member of his nation or tribe or lineage, rather than as ‘black’. But it was the officers’ definition of him, not his definition of himself, that held the balance between life and death” (Racecraft, 109). Born in Lagos, Nigeria by two Nigerians, I am – in all sense of the word – African. However, growing up in the States has muddied this image for me. As a child in the United States I was always made aware of my “Africanness”. Whenever I went to visit Nigeria, in contrast, I am always made aware of by “blackness” or “Americanness”. Thus, I struggled to truly identify with one or the other. Today, I consider myself to be African-American but not black perse. By this, I mean I consider myself to be an African man fully integrated into the American system – understanding all the implications, advantages, and disadvantages that goes along with the color of my skin. I say all this to make the following point: I believe that the way in which we come to identify ourselves is predicated on the way in which comes to identifies us. You write, “The funny thing about race is that everyone around the world sees it differently.” This is very true. The way in which our environment sees us determines our relationship to that environment. A white man will have white privilege in the United States whether or not a white man wants the privilege or not. As we grow, we learn to understand and affiliate our race through these shared relationships as they make us who we are and will impact our future. The quote from the Fields accentuates this idea. It reveals how much of a role our society plays in our understanding of race whether we believe in those classifications or not.

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Your title immediately caught my interest. Your story kept me reading. Your stance made me reflect. I believe everyone must go through a period in their life which they must identify who they are. This identification allows us to know how to engage with the world in which we live. However, I also believe it is important to understand how the world sees you because, ultimately, that will determine your fate.

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    • Thank you for the compliments. The depressing truth you bring up in your response is that even if we can develop our own identities and feel secure in them, the real world effect of our heritage only comes from other’s ideas of our identity. You also talk about how you arrived in the US from Nigeria at a very young age. My parents mainly associated with people from other African states if they could, so I grew up with a lot of other first-gen African-Americans or African immigrants. Most of those family friends that are my age who I still hang out with arrived anywhere between 2nd-5th grade. They all heavily assert their identity from whatever nation they were born in, even slipping in words from their respective language whenever possible. But the younger ones actually assert themselves as African-Americans, regardless of where they were born because all they really remember is America. Not to say these examples show what age of immigration allows for what identity. But it does reinforce your idea of ‘muddying identity’ that immigration can have. But just as you and these others recognize, your identity is yours and yours alone. And regardless of how people see you, you ultimately make that choice.

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