For me, it has been a long time coming. My Four stages of Blackness.
I grew up afraid of myself and afraid of the girl looking back in the mirror
A definition of what society had decided would be my fate. As a grew up I wanted nothing more than to change society’s perception of blackness and of how one can “overcome” it.
It was many years until I embraced the beauty and sadness of being black.
For my first stage, I tried everything to get away from what I assumed would be the inevitability of my blackness. I attempted to take head on the stereotypes floating around my head and in front of my eyes of blackness. I worked hard. I played hard. I talked the way it felt comfortable to talk. I got good grades and I dated whomever I pleased. I traveled, I spoke languages, and I avoided controversy when it came to race.
But then I discovered it was not enough. I was still and would forever be black. It was clear in my gut reaction to the words “nigger” rolling off a white friend’s mouth as they described a “naughty” black man and their disapproval of him. It was the recognition on their face that I was there, in front of them, a part of the conversation, and their verbal acknowledgment, that it was “not related to you, you are different,” that I resigned to a blackness which was inevitable.
My second stage came as I grew older. I let go of my old fears of being surrounded by blacks and how whites would perceive it and I surrounded myself around the philosophical musings of my black and brown college friends. I joined organizations with “black” in the name. I volunteered for black groups. I got directly involved in race politics locally. I had never felt more black. But with the new founded blackness, the kind of college intelligentsia blackness that often moved this country in new directions, was a new sense of fear. My blackness was not without backlash. Scrawled racial insults and direct confrontation were common.
Then I traveled the world and my blackness was for the first time an asset and a for the 100th time a curse. But for the first time in my life I saw blackness through the eyes of otherness and I was not the ultimate hated enemy. It was liberating and deeply disturbing because it presented a kind of philosophical question into the nature of man. It was at once inescapable to ponder if love was not enough.
My return to America was a foray into the “real world” where the comfort of camaraderie and honest questions leave you and quite desperation takes over your dreams. I began experiencing the limitations of being black but had yet to experience the power of black networks. Opportunities disappeared as my black sounding name scared them off or my blackness in interviews worked against me. My anger, clear, but my resignation, stronger, allowed me to get through uncomfortable periods where I would shrug “This is the way it is” not overt but rather systematic. It was easier to accept that there were opportunities not available to me then to question.
But I began to notice things. Which entered me into the third stage of blackness. From escape, to acceptance, to absolute horror. You see I began to notice the small things. Not microaggressions but the systems of power. This was when my mental health started to suffer. Jobs catering to black and poor problems run by profiting white men. Black faces as salesmen before a jury to hide true exploitation.
Then the killings of black men became national news again and I stayed mostly away. I was angry. I was sad. But I had spent a good amount of time in a dangerous neighborhood growing up. My youth was spent being afraid of being shot. I had always seen more danger in black faces then in white faces. I was more likely to die by another black person than by a cop. I wanted to work on the issues to keep me and people like me alive – not something that I perceived, at the time, was related by not a silver bullet.
You see, when I was very young, we owned guns – legally. It was for our protection. Our neighborhood was dangerous and most holidays were spent on the floor hoping not to die by a stray bullet. Then our home situation became dangerous. Domestic violence related and I was afraid for my mother. I was afraid for my dad. My mother called the cops begging for help. They never came because we lived in “that” neighborhood. So you see I wished the cops had come to save me but they did not. At the time, I did not understand how wrong I was. The BLM movement was about police brutality and it was about law enforcement accountability. It was about solving murders instead of arresting low key drug users and prostitutes. It was about valuing black lives enough to bring the full force of justice into the mix when one was taken. And of course it was about why police felt entitled to take a black life when they were doing so little to protect black lives. Criticisms that go beyond individual police to a system and criticisms that even individual police would agree with. But I had not awoken yet.
I began working for a non-profit working in violence prevention, or so it claimed. It became clear to me that I needed to widen my network. My Fourth awakening to rage and sadness began.
As I surrounded myself around black and brown co-workers (of which there were little) we worked tirelessly on moving the organization in the direction of more internal diversity and more external diversity.
But it was never to be. The voices who were allies disappeared and the election of 2016 laid to rest any hope of change. The organization leadership openly declared it did not- despite them accounting for most of the homicides – want to work with or engage black and brown communities. That it was more important for them to reach out to white communities and not follow it’s mission to end violence in all communities. When confronted and asked about internal diversity – they said it did not matter (in so many words). When asked and confronted about the efficacy of working on violence if the number one community affected by it was not in the picture or a focus – they responded with disregard.
This white male run organization used black deaths as a fundraising tool for political gain while actually not valuing black lives enough to work on solutions that cater to them, even a little. This liberal white run organization was the epitome of the most racist thing I had ever experienced. It was systematic, it was liberal, and it lied about it’s mission. I was enraged. I felt lied to my entire life. This had less to do with “changing hearts” than it had to do with the revelation of how black lives were truly valued.
It was symbolic. I thrusted myself into rage, depression, and study. I found solace in the company of brown and black people. I talk openly about my feelings. I read and I read and I read. All the dots I had seen throughout my life came crashing into one and it was then that I fully understood what it meant to say “Black Lives Matter” and what they had meant before even their message was hijacked by dissenting voices and the media. It became clear what black pride was about. What the black power movement was about. It was a struggle for survival and recognition in a society which systematically devalues black lives.
My fourth stage was complete. I was wallowing in the weight of my discovery and the sheer shock of it all. Something my mother and my grandmother knew their whole lives. I could barely walk. My legs suffered and my heart sank. It was an earth shattering moment and it still is. But the after the fourth stage of blackness there is no return. It is hard to see the world as it once was. The wool was ripped from my eyes and I could no longer return to the folly of ignorance. I unapologetically understood I needed to heal and I needed to learn and I needed to fellowship with those who could understand.
The fourth stage is long and continuous. It may change nothing of your current situation but it changes everything related to your outlook and perception of self and your surroundings.
What is next after the fourth stage?