Monday, January 2, 2012

When Black is a Bad Thing

“Act your age, not your color.”
Old saying in the African-American community.

I clearly remember hearing older Black people warning those of thought to be acting out to “act our age and not our color.” And though I found it odd even as a child, I never questioned the adults who uttered these words that have stuck in my psyche all these years. It has taken time to grapple with and come to some understanding of the meaning of a statement that was meant as an admonishment against inappropriate behavior, but was actually a thinly disguised veil for yet another layer of self-loathing that so many of us African Americans find ourselves so tightly wrapped in it that we don’t even realize we’re choking on it.

This article hit the proverbial nail on the head about being “too black” whatever that is, which is opposite of not being “black enough.” In my forty something years of blackness, I have yet to learn what is the exact degree of blackness needed to simply just be who we are with no apologizes to the rest of the world.

We have gone from colored to Negro to Black to Afro American to African American, from the ghetto as a place to a state of mind. But through it all, the painful truth is we have always been the niggers of American society I don’t care how much we try to run away from it. We’ve tried burying it, and calling it the N word. But what America believes about us in this pretend age of post racialism, we also own. Ouch! That hurts. But we live with it.

I know black people who will tell you point blank how much they hate niggers following the whole Chris Rock, there’s-a-difference-between-Blacks and niggers routine. And although I wanted to slide under the table when my friend explained his I-hate-niggers philosophy to our white co-workers, I felt the same feelings of animosity wash over me when I woke up in the middle of the night to hear my car alarm going off and I saw the shattered glass of the passenger side of my car window. In that moment I hated Them who had violated Me.

The duality that W.E.B. DuBois spoke of so many years ago is true today. I have fought valiantly with the duality of my existence, and I am not always clear on who the victor is as I look for oneness in the many reflections of what it means to be Black in America. I have been the woman in this article—acting my age and not my color--because to act Black was to discredit the race. Even though, at the time, I understood it to be “being raised right.”

I grew up on the idea of speaking “proper” English and I had a “snobbish” attitude about it looking down my nose at those who did not speak the King’s English. In my early years as a teacher, I noticed that my students consistently made the same grammatical errors, and my perplexity sent me on a journey to find out why. What I learned about African-American English Vernacular (AAEV), was life changing. Contrary to rumors about Ebonics, we are a bi-lingual people. And so I accept that I have a mother tongue as well as a second learned language. And while I am fine with it, it doesn’t sit well with some of my family, friends or colleagues. It’s a constant battle to reconcile two tongues and be ok with it in front of non-black people.

Once I wanted to strangle a friend of mine in heated debated about the validity of AAEV. Although he acknowledged that it existed, and that he and his wife spoke it, it was adamant about his children not speaking it which was stupid because they live in to house with him and so they will absorb it as he did. I thought that his public denouncement of AAEV gave others permission to continue to devalue our culture.

Another time an upper middle class friend of mine, the daughter of a doctor back in the day when the title meant something, was irritated by my use of the vernacular “ax” in the front of a White woman. First of all, my sister drilled “ask” into my head as a child and I can remember a White woman remarking that I was the only Black person she ever heard actually say ask with a “k” sound and not an “x” sound. So, I was usually conscious of articulating the “k” sound, But I guess on that day during our three person wring group—the two of us and the instructor--I took off my educated cap and slipped into the comfort of the vernacular and committed the unthinkable.

It’s been years since the incident, but I can still feel the sting of her comment not because I said in front of a White woman but because I embarrassed a Black woman in front of a White woman.

I am a teacher. I am a writer. I love words. I love language and I have grown to appreciate all of its varieties and I try to teach it that way. Language is constantly changing and evolving just as we are as people.

And language is only one obstacle to learning to love and not loath who we are as African-American people. Everything we do is under the microscope. As a child, I loved the TV show The Monkeys, and my nieces and I often monkey walked down the street. One year we went on a cruise, and it was Kerokee night. I wanted to do the Monkeys, but my niece refused. She said she would not give white people permission to call us apes when that’s what they thought of us anyway. I know people who won’t eat watermelon or bananas in the presence of non-white people. The list goes on as to what we won’t do to identify with being “too black” which translates into “ghetto” which translates into “niggerish”—non of which any self-respecting African American would want to be associated with.

It has taken time to be comfortable in my skin—all aspects of it. I’ve reached a place where I don’t care what others think because if a person is prejudiced or bigoted in any way, my actions will not change the feelings in their heart. So, when a foot-stomping, head bobbing, finger-snapping song comes on while I’m driving, I like to turn the radio up and sing and dance along. And for those who find my behavior deplorable because it feeds the beast—the stereotype of the singin’/dancin’ happy, but clueless Negro, I make no apologies for “neither acting my age nor my color.” I’m not tiptoeing around stereotypes; I’m living my life out loud.


  1. Wonderful Commentary

  2. That's cause you be a "bad mama jama"! You talk the talk and walk the walk. Keep steppin' with dignity and courage. I applaud you.

    Jennifer (the mentor and friend)

  3. I love what you had to say. Thank you for sharing your heart...I believe you described brilliantly the ambiguity that is out there in society. I am sad that anyone would have to question how they present themselves singing, eating or dancing. I want to live in a world where people can feel free in being who they were created to be.