Was being black a life of sorrow or triumph?
I’ve always been very aware of how I’m black.
You don’t go to a predominantly black elementary and middle school that focuses on African heritage and black pride and somehow get to forget that you are black. It doesn’t work that way. I went to the same school for nine years, and throughout those nine years, I did a total of six Black History Month Shows and three Kwanzaa Shows. African dancing and drumming were offered as classes. My eighth grade senior class trip was to Kenya. I did African dancing at my eighth grade graduation while wearing a traditional Massai kitenge cloth around my waist. Every Friday, we either had African Disaspora (grades first through sixth) or Black World Studies (grades seven and eight). At one point, I’m pretty sure I could recite the countries in Africa better than the states in the U.S. Every day of the school year felt like Black History Month. Pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in the main office. There was a bulletin board of a little black girl and little black boy as soon as you came up the stairs. There’s a Kwanzaa Festival every December.
The black pride was laid on thick during those crucial years of my development. Looking back, I don’t know if my black pride came naturally or was shoved down my throat.I’m leaning towards the latter, though. I don’t look back at those years and remember having a certain fondness towards blackness or my being black. Blackness for me was black history and MLK and giving libations to my ancestors. None of those things were particularly happy: the history of black people in America is covered in lynchings and slavery and oppression; MLK was assissinated for speaking up for equality and civil rights; and we were giving libations to our ancestors who had died, either from natural causes, being murdered, or dying during the Middle Passage.
Where were the positives? Was being black only despair? Wasn’t there anything happy about it?
Then, I moved on to high school. A very, very white high school. So, in case you didn’t catch that: I went from a pretty much all black school for nine years to a school where there were only four black people in my graduating class of ninety-six. If that’s not culture shock, then I have no idea what is. For the first year or so of high school, I was SUPER aware of the fact that I was black. I was more aware than I had been my entire life. At my old school, being black was just a given. It was the default. In my high school, however, I was one of four, and I had never been one of four. I had always been one of many. I became very good at scanning a room quickly and counting/looking for the other black people. I tricked myself into thinking that everything I said would be looked at as “the black perspective.” It threw me off balance the first year.
I don’t know when exactly this happened, but I decided it was time to tap out.
It was around junior year of high school when I was able to forget I was black, in a sense. It was no longer something I was constantly thinking about. I had a friend in high school who once told me a story about how, when he was way younger, he had actually forgotten that he was black. He was so used to looking at people with straight hair and paler skin, that when he looked in the mirror one day, he actually jumped, surprised at the fact that his skin was so dark. I laughed when I heard this story, completely baffled at how someone could forget that they are black. Looking back on it, though, I totally get it.
If you don’t see yourself reflected back at you for so long, you begin to forget that you’re not like everyone else around you.
I went from being consciously aware of how I was the only black person in the room to thinking I was just one of the students. I mean, was I wrong? How come I couldn’t be both?
This blissful ignorance didn’t last long. In February of 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. The trial for his death (I like to call it murder because that’s what it was) was held in the summer of 2013, and I followed it closely. When the verdict came back that George Zimmerman would walk free, I felt hollow inside. My mother wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked. I had held out some hope. That was my wake-up call, but it was only the beginning. I was only beginning to come out of my deep slumber.
That verdicts made me angry. It also made me very aware of how easily my life could be taken, and there would be no consequences for the people who had taken it if they happened to be white and to be doing it in the name of keeping a neighborhood safe.
I was constantly angry, and being black was starting to feel like a burden.
I don’t know when exactly this happened, but I decided it was time to tap out. Constantly reading reports about black people being murdered by police and constantly reading about how nothing was happening to their killers was doing something to my spirit. So, I took a step back and decided to chill for a while. For just a little bit, I was able to pretend I was in my third year of high school and to pretend I wasn’t black. That didn’t really last long because creativity hit.
Fast forward to October 1st, 2015. The document that would hold the idea for what would become my playwriting and directoral debut was created on my computer. Orchestra Seats started out about a play centered around an engaged woman whose ex-boyfriend comes back into her life. My original idea for Orchestra Seats had nothing to do with race, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about how to make it more interesting to write that I decided to make the main character’s fiancé white and her ex-boyfriend black. What a lot of people don’t know about Orchestra Seats is that it was extremely theraupetic to write. I was putting in years of my own thoughts into a play that I wasn’t even sure would ever see a stage, but at least I was finally writing it all down. Orchestra Seats forced me to deal with the fact that I want to pretend race doesn’t matter and live my life, that I am aware of these issues when it comes to race and sometimes it makes me want to give up, and that I also want to inspire radical change and speak truth which is sometimes very scary and will make people uncomfortable. Writing Orchestra Seats made me supremely uncomfortable at times, and the very idea of having it on a stage terrified me.
It was because of these feelings, however, that I realized that it needed to be put on, and I needed to confront whatever the hell it was that was scaring me.
Somehow through the process of re-reading the play, rehearsals, and just having conversations with my mostly black cast, the idea of being black brightened a little. Somewhere between November 2015 (when I first decided to put on the production) and March 2016 (when we opened), I began to love being black again. Not because someone was telling me that being black was about strength and dignity for nine years and also not because I was ignoring it for two years, but probably because I was just around a group of people who I could have conversations about blackness and share personal anecdotes with. I think this was the thing that I had been missing in middle school and high school. In middle school, I was too young to have conversations about blackness as it pertained to the present and my future. In high school, there just simply weren’t enough black people around who I was close to in order to engage in these conversations. Also, I wasn’t ready in high school. While working on Orchestra Seats, I found the outlet I needed while also providing outlets for three other black people.
That was March and now it’s July, and I’ve changed even more in terms of owning my blackness. Black people are awesome, and that’s a statement I will stand by for the rest of my life. It’s one thing to think that your people are awesome, but it’s another to wear it on a shirt, which is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve become unapologetic about loving myself, my blackness, and my hair.
I’ve realized that the white mainstream is okay with black people loving ourselves as long as we’re quiet about it, but that just doesn’t work for me anymore.
If someone has a problem with the clothing I’m wearing that expresses my self-love and confidence in my self-worth, they’d be pretty saddened to know that I don’t care about what they think anymore.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below! Please and thank you!