When I Realized I was Black

Baratunde Thurston writes, “In that moment, the black pride I absorbed in my home was balanced by the embarrassment, rage, paranoia, and self-restraint that often accompany blackness in the outside world of America” (26). Born in Lagos, Nigeria, my family and I moved to the United States when I was barely a year old. We found a permanent resident in Newark, New Jersey, a city composed predominantly of African-Americans and Hispanics. As a child, I believe that myblack-and-white-baby parents took it upon themselves to ensure that I was always aware of my culture. My mom, working as a seamstress at home, made sure that the family was well equipped with the formal agbada and other Nigerian attire. My parents would only speak Yoruba and most of my childhood was filled with delicious Nigerian dishes. The point of me telling you all this is this: I knew my culture. However, I did not know my race until a particularly incident occurred in pre-school. It’s funny because I still remember it like the back of head. One beautiful afternoon, while returning back to the school building after recess, one of my classmates stopped me and said, “Do you know that you’re black?” Stunned by the question, I couldn’t help but looked puzzle and say, “What are you talking?” I looked down at my hands, looked back up at him and said, “I’m brown.” As though I was speaking another language, he responded, “No, you’re black. I’m white” I was baffled by his conviction and couldn’t understand what he was talking about. I began to question whether or not I knew my colors. “Was black another way to describe brown?” This question left me confused or a whole 25minutes before I gave up thinking about it and carried on with my day. Today, I look at thatwhite-and-black-preschool-girls1 moment and wonder what my mom would have said if I brought the incident up to her. “What did he mean I was black? It makes absolutely no sense.”

 

Although the title of this blog is “When I First Realized I was Black”, I can tell you that on that day I did not realize that I was black. However, I did realize that stark categories for defining people existed. At that moment, I was aware that I was the other: that I was (in some way) fundamentally different from the person I was talking to. However, I did not realize the type of social implications such differences would mean in my life. I look back at that day not as the day I found out that I was black but as the moment I knew what being black meant: an irrevocable label that determines how others see and treat you. I actually wish I could go back to that day and tell my classmate: “so what?” I think that would’ve made for a much more interesting conversation, even if were just preschoolers.

black-and-white-friends

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2 thoughts on “When I Realized I was Black

  1. I am jealous that you grew up surrounded by Nigerian culture. My father is Nigerian and my mother is Afro-American. My parents got divorced when I was four and I was raised primarily by my mother. I did not learn about my Nigerian heritage except during the brief moments when I visited my dad during the summer. In “How to Be Black”, I especially enjoyed Jacquetta’s advocating for a black equivalent to Chinese school. I think I would have benefitted from that idefinitely.

    Additionally, have you read Americanah? I found it a very interesting and enjoyable read. It’s about a Nigerian woman who moves to the United States and confronts her black identity for the very first time. In Nigeria, she was part of the majority. Coming to the states, she entered the minority. I’m reminded of this book when you wonder at how your mother would have responded to your question. I’m reminded of this book mostly because I’ve made the assumption that your mother grew up in Nigeria; I think that would have influenced her response, indefinitely. All of this is to say I wonder how your mother would have responded, especially at a moment where she may have been confronting her blackness for the first time too.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It seems preschool is a formative time for beginning to explore the concept of race, as it is the first time we venture outside the closed environment of our own homes. I thought I’d share what for lack of a better term was my “realization of race”, coming from the other side of the issue. I am white, and visually pretty indiscernible from anyone else you would describe that way, but my family is also very aware of its origins, my mom is first generation Greek and my dad is part Cherokee, so even as a three year old I was accustomed to Greek food and going to the National Powwow in Denver every year. At school I was generally the different one, especially with regards to unusual food I brought to school with me. My best friend happened to have darker skin than me, but that’s just kind of how it was; everyone was a bit different from everyone else. Than one day in response to I don’t remember what question, our teacher had to explain something about the Civil War, and how slaves were black, and what black was, and I can still see the way my worldview broke, because now me and this friend weren’t different, we were different. That didn’t mean anything in terms of how we treated each other, and we were friends for the rest of the time I was at that school, but looking back I find it immensely sad that there is a crack in my world view that I’ve basically been trying to glue back together ever since.

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