Saturday, February 26, 2011

Black History...

"The Negro pigmentizes all American life, literature, music, art, dancing, dolls, dress, oratory, law and love."
~ Alice Dunbar Nelson

          Writing about race is hard (I've been trying to write something all month, but it always seemed to be without feeling or with too much sappiness--I hope the result of this post is neither), but I feel that February (Black History month) needs to get a little black people love from yours truly. I have always had what I like to call 'Subtle Black Pride' know you aren't going to see me at a rally of sorts, but I, in my own way, let you know I love my people. By my people, however, I mean my mixed heritage.
           Although, I have this deep love for my heritage, it has taken awhile for me to feel this power on the inside. In the small town in which I grew up, my sisters and I were the brunt of many racial slurs. Don't get me wrong I love a good joke and we could all learn to laugh at one another a little more often (I do so enjoy that scene in Guess Who where the joking goes a little too far). These were not jokes. The older kids, who only saw our skin color and didn't know us, called us names, kids would play with or would tease me about my hair. Even in high school I had a hard time getting a date for Prom, as the person I wanted to go with couldn't go with me, his best friend said, because his parents wouldn't let him, 'and, you know the reason why, Stephanie', this was 1993, not 1963 just incase you were wondering. And, although my mother is white we were considered black. My mother and my aunts helped us by teaching us to take pride in ourselves and to love ourselves. I spent this time in my life reading all of the books I could get ahold of in search of my elusive black heritage, my favorite, of course, being The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a man who definitely took pride in his black heritage, in being American and in being himself. I took pride in being of mixed heritage and read books like Kim-Kimi, Farewell to Manzanar, Jacob, Have I Loved, The Souls of Black Folk, School Ties, Roots and many other books that talked about identity and heritage.
          It wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that I even knew that black people would and could even segregate one another based solely on skin tone. This reverse racism or colorism (check out The Color Complex for more information) has roots deep in the African-American community and these roots are as old as slavery. At a summer camp, a handful of black girls told me that they didn't mind if I liked rock music because they could tell that I was of mixed heritage (they said they could tell by the color of my gums, by the way), but they did mind that this lovely (dare I say) darker girl did because "she knew better". In college it got worse, with black guys saying things like you'd be prettier if you 'did your hair' and black girls giving me nasty looks in the cafeteria when I sat with all my friends (some of them Hispanic, but none of them black).  I was too 'white' for the black kids and too 'black' to be white. My sister went to school in New Orleans and there people called her 'high yellow' and berated her boyfriend for dating a white woman. She took it all in stride, although I told her that color terms can be just as racist as the N-word.
         About ten years ago I read an article that originated from The Washington Post by a woman named Lonnae O'Neal Parker. This article incensed me. Parker has a cousin named Kim who lives in some small town in the midwest. She was raised by her black father, but doesn't look or act black (before I read this article I didn't know there were so many things 'black people' did or didn't do) and Parker feels she needs to help Kim, who is staying with her, find her roots by going to 'the race place' and doing such things as pointing out all the 'white' people things she does, watching "Roots", by pointing out that it is her black family that is educated and affluent and, in essence, by trying to change her into something she is not. (You can find this article at The Washington Post if you are willing to pay the archive fee). I wanted to scream at this woman, "You can love yourself and take pride in yourself without yelling it from the roof tops." I felt like O'Neal was not letting her cousin be herself and I was reminded of all those people, who, over the years did not allow me to be me.
          My pride in my race grew stronger, but my love for my black brothers and sisters did not.
          One summer, I was asked by a community member if a girl could room with me while she worked at the Public Defenders office as an intern. I said, "Sure". As soon as I met this girl I understood why. She was black, and in a town that's not so ethnic, I'm sure that the person who asked me thought she would feel more comfortable living with me than with anyone else.
          We had a BLAST! She, too, had problems with colorism, but from the perspective of being a lovely darked skinned African-American. She loved black people, she told me daily, and was sorry that I didn't have any black friends because of my past experiences. She told me she hated race words and didn't like the word 'mulatto' any more than all those other words that divide the African-American into sub groups. We laughed at the same jokes, watched the same movies, but, more importantly, we learned from each other. At the end of the summer I was sorry to see her go, however, the lessons I learned about my race, my own prejudices and myself have stayed with me all these years.
          I have learned that, even if people try to classify me and pigeon-hole me into one category, I am more than that. I am black, I am white, I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, I am an American and I am anything else that shows my inner and outer beauty...I ignore all else.

The List
(not in any way comprehensive)

Books and Plays
Song of Solomon
Annie John
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
How to Make An American Quilt
A Time to Kill
A Raisin in the Sun
Short Stories
"Sister Josepha" Alice Dunbar Nelson
"Sweet Potato Pie" Eugenia Collier (can't find a link)
"The Goophered Grapevine" Charles Waddell Chestnut
"The Man Who Was Almost A Man" Richard Wright

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Coming of Age in Mississippi
The Color Complex
Stolen Childhood
Army Life in a Black Regiment
Days of Rondo
The Souls of Black Folk
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Essays and Speeches
Ain't I A Woman?
White Like Me
Light skin versus dark: A painful topic many blacks would rather not confront
My Turn: I Freed Myself When I Embraced My Locks

Poems and Songs

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Guess Who?
Love Song
Jungle Fever
Something New
Corrina, Corrina
Save the Last Dance
Soul Man
A Time to Kill



  1. Very good and interesting post Stephanie. I actually blogged about Black History Month yesterday in my Fantastic Five Friday with great African-American female writers:

  2. And now for my longer comment :)

    Great list you've compiled. I remember Roll of Thunder from when I read it in elementary school. Fantastic book! And I really really need to get around to reading Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this year. It’s literally sitting staring at me on bookshelf right now. But I've read so many of the books and essays on your list. I majored in history (american history to be specific, so that's why).

    I would add in the movie of A Time to Kill as well. I know you have the book listed but the movie is really good too.

  3. :)
    oh my gosh The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks changed my life...really...I'm always amazed to find out bits of Black history.
    i didn't major in history, however...i have enough history hours to have a minor if those hours would have been, in some way, focused...:D
    and, adding A Time to Kill to the movie list, done!

  4. I cannot wait to read Henrietta Lacks (our book group's going to take it on when it comes out in paper this spring)!
    And, Stephanie, I'm so glad that you posted this: In a way, with so much out there, I'm beginning to wonder whether quantity of posts should trump quality. This one shows me that we should go with the latter all the way. You weave in reading and personal history so deftly here, and your story's specific, and as such, engaging from start to finish. Thank you for this.
    p.s. Do you know Robert Hayden's poem "Frederick Douglass"? It's a stunner.

  5. laurie,

    thank-you, thank-you, thank-you! that's really quite a compliment and i am glad, because i was kind of afraid to write it. :) and, you're very welcome, i am happy that you read it.
    i've added robert hayden's is quite beautiful.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this, especially the parts where you wrote about your own experiences (not that the experiences were nice, it was just nice that you shared them).

    I teach in an area that has an established black community that classifies themselves as British (4th or 5th generation) and also a new immigrant community from countries like Nigeria and Ghana. The established community in general looks down on the newer community as their skin is darker, but one of the older girls from Ghana told me that to them darker skin is a sign of pride, not lighter. There's just so many preconceptions about skin colour.

    Wonderful list of books too. I read Malcom X's autobiography at 16 and it was the first time I really connected with the civil rights issue.

  7. What a wonderful post, Stephanie. I read The Bluest Eye and will post a review towmorrow. I'm so glad you talked about this kind of racism within the race itself. Oprah's talked about this endlessly and I think it's an important discussion to have. Hispanics go through this too,...ithink it has a lot to do with our social conditioning about beauty and who is able to assimilate into culture more. I struggle with this myself as a Hispanic. On one hand, I didn't want to be defined by my being a Hispanic, on the other hand, I felt like I lost any sense of culture because I was a 5th generation Mexican-American. It's a tough place to be, stuck in the middle. And everyome seems to pull you in a different direction. Kudos to you for fnding your way through all of this and carving out your sense of identity.

    LOVE the Owl header, btw. My daughters love to tease me about my owl fetish.

  8. Jennifer and Sam, thanks so much for sharing with me stories of the race divide from different aspects of culture. i find the whole idea interesting, but also frustrating and sad.

    And, Jennifer, thanks for loving the owl (I didn't make it), but I love it as well...I, too, love owls, however, my daughter isn't old enough to tease me! :)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...