“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. . . . Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” – Zora Neale Hurston
I’ve gotten compliments on my skin for as long as I can remember. It’s not abnormal for strangers in grocery stores or coffee shops to comment on its clarity. My mother would tell me how much it reminds her of her mother’s skin. “You have such a pretty pecan color–just like my mom,” she would say. When I was a teenager this lead to me freaking out if I noticed a pimple on my face. I’ve never struggled with acne, per se, but I’m not immune to biology. Blemishes don’t play favorites.
As a young adult, my blemishes are probably the worst they’ve ever been. My pigmentation is even, but there are some marks and a few scars on my face. Sure, they’re small, and I’m thankful for that. But because my skin was so complimented (and often still is) I learned to wrap up much of who I was in my skin tone. Not too dark, not too light, but a “pretty pecan color.”
My identity as a Black person became wrapped up in my melanin level. This, of course, led to the sin of colorism. A sin to which I thought I was immune, but was lovingly shown that I, in fact, am not. That is hard to admit. I don’t want to admit it. Even after repentance, I still struggle to own up to a way of thinking that labels me as “sinful,” or more currently, “un-woke.”
When I was 11, my parents and I moved from New York to North Carolina. It was then that that the conversation really started. If you’re also Black, you know exactly which conversation I’m talking about. The, “you have to work twice as hard for half the credit”, and “be sure to always use your manners when speaking to adults,” and “your friends might be able to do things, but you can’t,” and “if people say the N-word to you, don’t fight back, ignore them and tell a teacher,” conversation. I don’t remember all the details of this particular conversation, but I do remember being shocked by it. Up until that point in my life, I had absolutely no category for racism. I’d grown up in a beautiful and ethnically diverse neighborhood. In fact, in elementary school I could count the white friends I had one one hand. Never once did I look in the mirror and feel shame because my skin wasn’t white.
But in the same way that I freaked out about blemishes in high school, I freaked out about coming across as “too Black.” On the first day of school in North Carolina, I was hit with the harsh reality of being the only black girl in 7th grade. There was one other Black boy whom I avoided like the plague because I was afraid that everyone would assume we liked each other (which they did). The idea of liking boys, while appealing, was not something I wanted thrown onto me. However, part of being Black in America is learning that so much of what you don’t want is thrown on you for no other reason than that you exist.
One day, in math class, a boy stood up on his chair and proceeded to make a declaration to everyone in the room. He said, “Jayna, I know who you like! You like ______ because you’re both black!” The class erupted with laughter and I was mortified. My teacher told my classmate to sit down and I awkwardly smiled, not because his accusation was true, but because I was uncomfortable and didn’t have anyone else in the classroom that looked like me to back me up or at least empathize with how I was feeling.
*Side note: Sometimes women smile in awkward and uncomfortable situations. This doesn’t mean that we are necessarily enjoying the current situation we’re in. If you’re unsure, ask. We’re certainly happy to clarify if you give us the chance.
**Another side note: the only other Black kid that everyone thought I liked and I avoided like the plague throughout most of middle school is now one of my best friends. Naturally, we were voted “Cutest Should Be Couple” our senior year. We loved it though, because of how close we’d gotten. Now that we’re older, we can laugh about the silliness of our adolescence. This summer I get to watch him marry the love of his life and I couldn’t be more excited.
Throughout middle and high school I became obsessed with fitting in. Sometimes that looked like going along with racial pejoratives thrown my way. I wore a baggy jersey to a friend’s 13th birthday party. It was a costume party and there was going to be a prize for the winner. I went claiming to be a “gangsta” instead of wearing my 70s hippie costume. My mom suggested I wear the tie-die shirt and pant combo, but I made a fuss about how I didn’t want to. I never told her why. I let a friend borrow the costume and she ended up winning the contest that night. Other times that looked like researching bands my friends liked and trying to know their music so I could talk about it at school the next day. I don’t want to thank assimilation for my deep, deep love of pop music–because I probably would’ve fallen in love regardless– but the thrill I got when listening to America’s Top 40 on Sunday mornings before church was not a passion my parents fostered, I can tell ya that much!
Regardless, as I navigated the waters of junior and senior high I swam mostly alone doing whatever tricks necessary to make sure people liked me. (I say mostly because in 8th grade another black girl joined the school and by senior year there was a grand total of 6 Black students in my class!! Alert the media!!) And so began my overwhelmingly white-washed friendships. These relationships, at the time, felt normal and good. I realize now that they were good, but not normal. In college, I would brag about how wonderful my friends were…are. Some of the bonds I made during my time at Appalachian State University are ones that I am confident will last a lifetime. (I’m the Maid of Honor in my best friend’s wedding this spring. I met her during my first week on campus.)
I didn’t understand my need for black friendship until I found it. The summer after my sophomore year, I became a Student Orientation Undergraduate Leader and quickly bonded with the two other black SOULs. We’d all grown up in similar environments and been told similar things by our white peers. These common experiences led to conversations of empathy, nostalgia over common black childhood memories (a personal favorite being seeing the movie Set It Off at far too early an age), and endless nights of watching Kevin Hart’s stand up comedy on Netflix. I loved it! I had found a group of people that got me without me having to explain myself. They understood a part of me I didn’t realize was begging for someone to listen.
But we each had our already established friend groups. While the three of us did hang out outside of Orientation, our home bases were amid our predominantly white relationships. Often times, that’s where I felt the most comfortable. I had been navigating having mostly white friends since I was 11, I knew how to do it.
I’m 24 now, living in the city affectionately called “The Black Mecca,” and I have two Black friends. When I moved to Atlanta, I had all these expectations of finally being able to be in consistent community with people that look like me. Since graduation I’ve learned so much and I need my people to help me process through all of this. In college, I wafted between wanting to join the Black Student Association but thinking I wasn’t Black enough and thinking that BSA was altogether stupid. Now I wish there was an all Black organization I could join.
I attend a trans-cultural church under the pastorship of a Black man, and yet the majority of people I’ve connected with since attending are white. My roommates are white, all of my co-workers are white, and most of my seminary classmates are white, too. Are white people just drawn to me? Do I have a scent that attracts them? Is there some invisible beacon I posses that repels Black people? Why do I have to work so hard to find community amongst people that understand the hesitancy I had in wearing a head wrap to work the first time without me having to explain it? Am I not Black enough to have Black friends?
These are questions I ask regularly, to myself, and to the Lord. I wouldn’t trade my friends for anything. Please don’t hear me shame them. They are beautiful and wonderful and have been with me through some of my best and absolutely worst times. And I don’t wish they were Black. I think I more so wish that I felt confident to be who I am in the spaces I frequent. In middle and high school I ran from anything that would make me too Black, but at 24 I find myself running towards those things. The changes I’ve made have been minimal, but to me they feel life altering. I love being Black and I want people to know that, but sometimes I fear that because I’m rarely seen with other Black people, my love is illegitimate. So to counteract my lack of melanin filled friends, I feel like I constantly have to prove my blackness.
The thing about trying to prove yourself, though, is that eventually you will grow tired. I’ve realized recently that I’m not trying to prove my blackness to other people, I’m trying to prove it to myself. It’s not that other people don’t believe I’m black enough…I don’t…and I’m exhausted.
A good friend asked me what I thought it meant to be Black. I haven’t come up with an answer I’d be willing to die for just yet, but here’s what I have so far:
Maybe being Black doesn’t have to do with the friends that I have. Maybe being Black has nothing to do with the way I dress or talk or what music I listen to. Maybe being Black isn’t something that must be achieved. Maybe being Black is just being me…because I am Black. No questions asked.
But if ya know of any Black people in ATL that are lookin’ for a fellow, Black gal pal (who’s young and fun) , let a sista know! 😉
Thanks for making me Black. Thanks for choosing my specific skin tone to be one that reflects a part of your nature. That’s pretty cool and kind. I love you.]