Back to Black

Sometimes I wonder if there is truly a ‘best’ way to raise a Black child that allows them to treasure their Blackness, to know that it is something precious and wonderful and something to be grateful for. I’m sure there are many great ways to do it. I’m just as sure that it’s possible to forget this part of upbringing even with the best intentions. I guess it’s hard to really know if you’re not a parent or caring for a child.

When I named my blog Nigra sum, which is Latin for “I am Black”, I didn’t know all about the deeper meaning. For my 10th grade music history project, I chose to present on Palestrina, one of my favorite composers. My teacher gave me a CD with a mass, Nigra sum, to present on as well. The music was so beautiful that I would spend hours listening to the mass on repeat. It stuck with me for years, and still does to this day. It gave me a sense of inner peace and strength when things got tough, so I thought it would make a good name for my new blog shortly after graduation. Nigra sum is still a perfect fit, but for a new and different reason.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I had an incredible foundation when it came to loving my Blackness. Growing up in West Philadelphia provided daily opportunities for me to feel like part of a group, be it with my family, neighbors, or friends. I never felt like the odd one out, because just about everyone looked like me, and those who didn’t still treated me with respect. My very first elementary school, though private, was predominantly Black and I had Black teachers from ages 4-9. They taught us Swahili; my dad still laughs about how I would come home singing a song about numbers that he didn’t understand, and how I would try to teach it to him. They taught us history; not just American history, but African-American history just as frequently, if not more. Everywhere I looked I saw posters for different important figures: Martin Luther King, Jr, Madame C.J. Walker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jessie Jackson, to name a few. I knew their accomplishments, their beliefs…in some ways, I felt I knew them. I was surrounded by Black excellence all those years, and taught to live up to those standards. I was taught that Black lives mattered, that my achievements were just as valid and worthy of being celebrated as anyone else’s.

When I left my first school, I spent a year at a charter school, again among a predominantly Black student body. This was my first time being taught by non-Black teachers. There wasn’t a sense of home and belonging in this place, no sense of my history, and other than a handful of friends, it was hard for me to adjust and feel accepted. I’m sure part of it was due to the fact that many of my classmates had gone to school together for years while I was just one of the new kids, but I don’t think that was the only reason. I missed talking about important figures in Black history, past and present. I missed learning about Black things, Black cultures, things that I could identify with, even though I enjoyed learning about things foreign to me.

Moving to Georgia after that year in charter school provided me with so many new experiences. Southern culture was so foreign to me; it was something people talked about in the North but never really explained. That year, fifth grade, I found myself in the most diverse class I’d ever encountered. My teacher, who was Black, made me feel welcome, and so did a number of my classmates. I think this healthy mix was good for me.

But not all of my peers were so kind. One spring day, at recess, I heard the N-word for the first time. Said to a Black boy in another class, by another Black boy. I don’t know the context, I just know they were arguing and out of nowhere came, “Shut the fuck up, nigger.”That still sits with me, because the boy who said it didn’t say it in the way most Black people say ‘nigga’ today. He said it to hurt someone else. He said it to make them feel angry, dirty, and ashamed. I still haven’t quite figured out why. I knew what the word meant, of course; it’s hard to learn a certain amount of Black history without needing someone to explain it. But I think that was the first time I ever considered skin color to be a bad thing in someone else’s eyes. It was my first experience with anti-blackness.

Throughout middle school, I began to lose touch with my Blackness. As I got into more advanced classes, usually taught by non-Black teachers, the number of Black students shrunk. The only places I could really interact with Black kids in a social setting were Homeroom, Orchestra, and any extracurriculars that I did outside of school. When I became First Chair of my viola section and joined the Chamber Orchestra, I was practically alone. I was attacked, with increasing frequency, for things I couldn’t control: the way I spoke, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to. Never mind the fact that other Black kids were in the orchestra too; I was singled out because I actually liked classical music. I may have been the Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook, but for the most part everyone preferred to take direction from a White student. I won accolades, but they barely meant anything to me because so many people told me that I only received them because I was Black…and I was starting to believe it. By the end of eighth grade I felt so alone, and I began to wonder, “Is my skin color a mistake?”

I wish I could say that high school was different. I wish I could say that I learned to love my Blackness again, that I found my confidence, that I blossomed. I did well, but I was far from Black culture. The only Black adults I encountered cooked food in the Dining Hall or cleaned the buildings on campus. Out of over 250 students, I don’t think the number of Black students ever went above 20-25 any given year. I still got the “You talk like a White girl” comments, and now I got “You’re not even a real Black girl” from Black and White classmates alike. No, really, I would walk on campus with some of my Black friends and hear, “Oh look, here come the Black girls…and Ashley.” It was a confusing time, because I didn’t know if going to a school near home would help me any more than sticking it out would. My teachers were wonderful and understanding, but they didn’t really know how to help me with these situations. Eventually I found happiness again, but not without suffering a lot of micro- and macro-aggressions along the way.

Towards the end, in my last semester, I stopped caring. I had college on the horizon, my DREAM college to be precise, and I couldn’t care less about the negative opinions people had about me. I started to really think about what made me happy, and without even realizing it, I started to love natural hair. I had always shied away from it because I didn’t think my natural hair looked good before I started relaxing my hair, but I started entertaining the idea of going natural after graduation. Why shouldn’t it look good on me? Why shouldn’t I embrace what God gave me? Of course the rest is history (although if you’re curious you can read about it here and here). I don’t want to say that I cut my hair just to prove my Blackness, because I didn’t, but cutting my hair did help me become more confident and grow to love an aspect of my Blackness.

Along with thousands of other reasons to be scared and excited about meeting new people in college, I had anxiety about meeting new Black people specifically (not to be confused with New Black people). I was afraid that I would be judged before I had the chance to really show who I was. I didn’t want my love of classical music to turn people away because I still loved reggae and hip hop, too. But I was scared for nothing. The Black community at my university has been incredible. I’ve met so many supportive, caring, funny, successful people who know what it’s liked to be judged for the color of their skin, the way they spoke or dressed, the neighborhoods they grew up in. In spite of everything, they continue to be great. I’ve learned so much from them, and I’m so grateful for the acceptance and love that I’ve received.

I say allllllll of that to say that I’m finally comfortable with my Blackness. I could never see it as a mistake, and this time I know that feeling won’t go away. I’ve also realized that there isn’t one standard of Blackness. It’s deeper than accents and music preferences. It has to be felt in a way that I can’t really describe. I’m not sure if I had one defining moment where I embraced my Blackness. I think it just happened over time as I started pursuing things I had always loved. I found that comfort by celebrating the amazing things that come with being Black. I give thanks for my gravity-defying hair, my full lips, and my curves. I give thanks for Black history, music, food, and culture. I celebrate the special kind of resilience that comes with being Black, the kind that allows us to pursue greatness regardless of the obstacles and prejudices we face. I’m thankful for the knowledge that the color of my skin is a blessing, and that it is a source of strength and pride.

Nigra sum, et formosa. I am Black, and beautiful.

Ashley

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