With the foundation of the rural Oregon start I had at the beginning, the first early cultural lessons about hair, and my elementary school years behind me, I entered into adolescence without any real sense of personally experienced “Blackness”. I wasn’t aware of how much of a deficit I had however and was just navigating my teens dealing with universal issues of popularity and crushes. That lack of awareness would not last much longer.
I had said in the last entry about my elementary years that I never had anyone tell me I was “acting white” but I am realizing that is not entirely true. When I was about 11 years old I was at a bowling alley with my (white) best friend’s family and there was a Black girl there who did the thing that I now take for granted: she found the other Black person and immediately made the “we in here” connection with me. The thing is I was a half breed child raised in Arizona and I barely understood this 13-14 year old Black girl from Dallas. I had never heard a Black person say y’all before! To me that word was part of Hee-Haw hillbilly white culture and not just a southern word. This girl was the first person to tell me about how “proper” I talked. She didn’t specifically say “white”, but in retrospect that was implied. It was my first experience with another Black person of a similar age where we didn’t have the same isolated life experience and it became a sort of foundation for future interactions with other kids who had more of a “Black experience” than I did.
Let’s talk about the “Black experience” for a second. I did not grow up in a Black neighborhood. I was not from the south or the urban northeast. I was not exposed to Black history in any form in elementary school. For me Blackness only existed in the movies and on TV. My idea of Black culture was defined by Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening?, and The Jeffersons. I didn’t even get to watch these shows that often because the culture of my home was not Black. In the 80s I rarely got to watch the more high standard shows like The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Frank’s Place for that reason too. This is why in my teens when I came across kids who had these life experiences, I felt almost like an alien in my own skin.
My teens were as awful as teenage years can be. I was an awkward smart girl afraid of pretty much every kind of social interaction. Interestingly enough though, my first experience with other Black teens was extremely positive.
It was the first day of school at a new school half way through the 7th grade school year and I was sitting in the first seat on the bus with my (white) friend Kelly when at the next stop a boy with a bass violin got on and the bus driver told us to move. Kelly went off to the back and I asked the (Black) girl in the seat across from me if I could sit with her. She said yes and as we rode to school she was doing something that I still to this day can’t do well: she was braiding her own hair. That magical girl was named Monicia (mo-nee-sha) and on top of letting me sit with her, when she found out I didn’t have a locker yet she offered to share hers!
Suddenly I was in “Black Land” at this school (the other school I went to had very few Blacks). Monicia happened to be a popular 8th grader and I found myself in the middle of a group of other Black kids who were FASCINATED by the texture of my hair. They did the thing that Black people complain about white people doing to them: they all stood there fondling my hair! They didn’t use the phrase “good hair” at the time but I realize now that is the phenomenon that I was witnessing first hand. My brush with Black popularity ended abruptly when my locker was finally assigned and it was no where near any of the kids I had just met and none of our classes had us crossing paths in the hall.
I don’t remember now how the rest of that year went but I do remember that 8th grade was NOT as positive. Actually the rest of my teen years were spent in cultural isolation so harsh that when people asked me my ethnicity, I said “mixed” instead of Black. It was then that my classic “tragic mulatto” story came to unfold.
The sad part of my youth was that it began this odd time where I was rejected by both sides and told by both sides that I wasn’t Black. I was told to my face by a (white) boy in 8th grade that the rest of the Black kids on the bus were OK but I was a nigger. I was told to my face by other Black kids when ethnic and cultural things would come up that I wasn’t Black. I got teased for “talking white” and being an “Oreo” to the point to where I chose not to even join Black Culture Club and be around those heifers (which in retrospect probably just made matters much worse).
The picture above is a cut out from a group shot of my social circle in high school:
The experience of my teens made me uncomfortably aware of my lack of knowledge about what “Blackness” is and how I fit into the equation. I found it deeply unfair that I was pushed out and rejected by people who were supposed to be my “Brothers” and “Sisters” in that Black Power 1970s sense of things that either never existed or died in southern Arizona in the 1980s. This painful time was my motivation as an adult for trying to learn more about the half of me that I never got to know.