Saturday, February 11, 2006

Herstory, History, Story

I was doing patient reminder calls the other day, and one woman’s voicemail wished me a happy Black History Month.

I’ve been thinking about blackness and what it means to me, lately. How good it feels to see faces like mine every day. Because, you realize, that in my entire county (in which I spent my first seven years) there were two black faces. Mine and the similarly adopted girl down the road.

Something happens to one’s psyche, when nobody else looks anything like oneself. There’s no one to share one’s physical being with, on any level other than the most shallow, such as, “we’re mammalian primates”.

I have scars from ingrown hairs, and to have someone just nod and say “Mhmmm”… well I was so impoverished for my people that I viewed that moment as a gift. I still do.

To be able to come home and hear someone ELSE rant about how weird white people can be…and get the chance to nod and smile and give reassurance that I never got. “Yes, baby, they’re crazy sometimes. They do use semantics to avoid working on their issues. Yes, I know, I’m sorry, come here, it’s over now.” I know I’m not alone anymore.

I got on a bus the other night, and the driver wanted to talk about the vast number of factors which conspire to keep “us” in “our place”. Had I tried that in MN, I’d have been locked up as a paranoid schizophrenic, or simply laughed at.

Yes, I was spared the “good/bad hair” debates, but it just means I had “weird” hair that nobody knew what to do with. I still don’t know what to do with it, but I have a lead on a barber now, who might be able to help me out. I also didn’t get the paper bag test, but that was because it had been trumped by the one-drop rule.

I almost believe my mother when she tells me the social worker said I was some fraction Latina, because the Hispanics, and especially mestizos, tend to address me in Spanish first, then English. I almost feel bad, considering I speak almost no Spanish. Try me in German.

My mother was once waxing rhapsodic about how she’d “saved” me. I had a moment of clear-headedness (usually a bad sign) and asked, “From what, exactly?” She has always maintained I was adopted through Lutheran Social Services, from Catholic Charities, in Texas. So…you’re saving me from the dastardly Lutherans (I’m a baptized and confirmed Lutheran) too late, evil Catholics (went to Catholic women’s college and don’t regret it) also too late, or were you saving me from being raised by black people? What horrors do you imagine there would have been? I assure you, millions of black babies are raised by black parents every day in the U.S. and even in Africa! Who’da thunk it? Had she stated she was saving me from being raised by Texans, well, I might have bought that. It would have had to have been on sale, however.

Sometimes I wonder, who I would have been had I not been where I was. A friend of mine was telling me she had played the Mother Abbess in her high school’s production of The Sound of Music. I got to tell her about how I was banned from auditioning for my high school’s musical in my senior year. The drama and English teacher’s rationale was, and I quote, “There weren’t any black people in Grease, nor were there any in America in 1950, so don’t audition. Even if you do, we won’t cast you.” I auditioned, and wasn’t cast. Thanks Rolf Olson, you acne-covered piece of shit.

This was of course, after being cast as a Jet in West Side Story. If you don’t recall, the Jets were the white gang. No, I can’t explain it either, but it’s one of those memories that just makes me angry when I hear yet another (white) person go on and on about how there’s no more racism since formal slavery ended. Yes, there is, and it’s everywhere.

I may walk home past a park named for Marcus Garvey, but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s badly kept, dangerous at night, and host to several homeless people. My windows may look out upon MLK Jr. Blvd (may the Universe rest Coretta Scott King’s soul), but I cannot overlook the fact that it’s still a mildly dicey part of town. The only place in the U.S. where MLK Jr. Blvd is in a good part of town is in Berkeley, CA. Luckily, that’s about two miles up the road.

My friend took me to a soul food restaurant the other night, and taught me to look at black babies as the future. I’d never really thought about that before, since all my nephews, nieces, great-nephews, etc…are all blond, and many are even blue-eyed. I think I failed to see the beauty and joy of black, because I never saw it.

I’m learning now, to celebrate my connection to my skin, rather than be quietly ashamed of it. It is less the badge that keeps me out, now, and more one that lets me in to a world I suspected existed.

Yes, I’m aware that this is supposed to be a column about being gay, but I don’t get to leave my skin at the door. I’m gay, true, and black, and Hispanic and short and outspoken and all sorts of things. They are not separate: one bleeds into the other. If gays are 10%, then 12% of that 10% is black, too.

Apparently, Samuel Delany wrote a really good book about being gay and black and a bunch of other transgressive identities. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that I had never heard of it, until I made significant contact with a gay-identified black man (last week).

The more adjectives you layer, the fewer people can identify, until one is back down to oneself. I hope I never reach that place again, because it was desperate, painful, lonely and exposed.

That raw bleeding place is what I’m salving when I stare into eyes darker than mine and drink deeply of what I find there. Someday I hope to form a scar over it, but right now I am content with bleeding a little less, every day.

Do me a favor. I know most of you are white, and I know most of your history. Take five minutes this month and go learn something about black history. Google Benjamin Banneker, Guion Bluford, Queen Mother Nanny, Crispus Attucks, Marie Daulane, Daniel Hale Williams, etc.

I know, y’all don’t care, because “black culture” is just rap music and thuggery. You know what? It’s not. That’s just what the media wants to tell you, and many in the majority culture want to believe because it’s easy, tame, safe, and dismissable.

I expect better of y’all. Do me proud, and post me back here. Happy Black History Month.


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