The Forming of a Personal Cultural Identity — Part Four: A Teenage Love

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me at cholla prom

1989 Senior Prom

 

With the foundation of the rural Oregon start I had at the beginningthe 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:

1989 Senior Prom group picture

1989 Senior Prom group picture

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.

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The Forming of a Personal Cultural Identity — Part Three: Elementary My Dear

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circa 1982

circa 1982

My cultural education as a child was tempered by the fact that I was moved around a lot.  My mother and I stayed in Phoenix and then in Tucson and then in Phoenix again before I ever started kindergarten. It was a far cry from the rural Oregon start I had at the beginning and the first cultural lessons with I was bombarded with were a bit much for my preschool mind to take.

My mother got with my (white) stepfather shortly after we got to Arizona.  At the time I didn’t know that Arizona and this man were a part of her personal history and the little blonde girl I met at the birthday party would become my stepsister.  So this is my childhood: growing up as the brown person in a world of white adults and mainly white childhood friends (occasionally a Hispanic or native or other mixed raced, but rarely other Black children).

I went to SEVEN elementary schools and at each I was usually the only Black child in my grade or if not I was the only one in my class and only one of two or three in my grade.  I was never actively given a cultural identity so what I gleaned was more of just a personal sense of self as the odd one out in so many ways (skin color was just the most obvious).  Because the other Black or mixed children were in the same boat as me, they did not judge me or make comments on how I was “acting white” or that I was “not black enough” (that would come later).  I did not have the “tragic mulatto” syndrome where I was rejected by both sides.  Thankfully, we were all just children back then.  The only events in my childhood that had anything to do with my race were very spread out.  One was when I was six, and the next was when I was nine, and the last one I was about twelve.  All these incidents had to do with the n-word

The first when I was six happened during the summer when we lived on an unfinished ranch house in a former mining town out in the middle of nowhere Arizona.  I know it was summer because my (white) step brothers were visiting as they did every year.  At some point we heard a very silly sounding word that tickled us so much we yelled it at the top of our lungs at the cats to watch them run away. The word of course was “nigger” and we would yell it and then laugh our guts out when the cats would run away.  My mother was appalled!  She told us how we shouldn’t say that word and it was bad.  We of course had to point that we heard the word from the adult who was visiting.  What followed was the most incongruent and surreal explanation of why not to do something from an adult that I ever had.

The guy was in his late twenties or so. He was a big burly Harley biker who proceeded to explain to us that we kids “shouldn’t say nigger because a nigger died in my arms in Nam” WHAT??  This line of adult “logic” broke my little six year old brain.  It set the idea in my head that there was some kind of inequality and negativity in the brown of my skin. That idea sadly never fully went away.

The second experience that wasn’t directed at me but did effect me.  When I was nine years old, my mother and stepfather were fighting and he called her a nigger-lover in front of me.  I must have given him whatever the side eye was called in the 70s because he changed his course of verbal attack quickly.  I held that against him for TWENTY YEARS and never considered him my father, He was my mom’s boyfriend. I had always called him Bob and never Dad (partially because he never required I call him Dad).

There was one other n-word experience was when I was twelve.  My mother sent me to the store to pick up some things and as I was on my way back a small Hispanic boy (maybe six years old) waved a chain over his head and said “I’m a nigger whipper” to me.  I immediately put down the bags of groceries and head towards him and he ran away.  This experience with a brown person was yet another thing that broke my child brain.  I was young but I knew enough to know that Mexicans didn’t have it that great in Arizona historically so this kids “attack” was just nonsensical.

The good thing is that I didn’t spend my whole childhood being bombarded by overt racism.  I wasn’t called nigger daily or even weekly or monthly (three incidents in eight years and only the one incident was directed specifically at me).  In this I feel blessed and it goes against the perception many I have met have about Arizona.  I don’t know what it is like for Black children now, but in the 1970s it wasn’t that bad for me.

The Forming of a Personal Cultural Identity — Part Two: “Good Hair” … Sort of

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circa 1974

circa 1974

I spent the first few years of my life isolated in rural southern Oregon living with my white mother and black father.  My parent’s split up when I was four years old and shortly after my father left, my mother decided to leave Oregon.  We went to Mexico for a visit before landing in Arizona.  This era was the beginning of my cultural education in that I was suddenly aware that everyone else viewed me as part of a group that I didn’t really have any experience with.

For example, one of my earliest memories of arriving in Arizona was a children’s birthday party where the girl who lived in the house (who happened to be a little blonde haired white girl) was surprised that my hair wasn’t done like the little black girls she was used to (I was the only brown person at the party). She then took it upon herself to correct my style.  She went and got every barrette she could find in the house and proceeded to put my hair into what for most Black little girls was the norm:

When Blondie held the mirror up to show me her handy work, I was HORRIFIED.  I had never felt so ridiculous and silly looking in my short natural fluffy headed life.  This wasn’t the end of the lesson.  Later back at the motel room when my mother was telling some ladies (who happened to be white) about the incident, one felt that if the barrettes ethnic style didn’t suit my taste, she would give me another more appropriately ethnic hairstyle: cornrows.

I was MUCH more pleased with this braiding. I think it was the lack of matching that put me off to the other style. If all the barrettes had been the same color, maybe I wouldn’t have balked quite so hard.  Either way, my mother did not have the patience or the skill to maintain either of these styles so I spent most of my childhood with a fluffy sort of fro. My lessons in “Black hair” were short lived and it would be over a decade before I tried any “ethnic” styles again.

 

The Forming of a Personal Cultural Identity — Part One: In the Beginning…

Let’s start with my story. My story tells how I came to come to the perspective that I have on life and the world around me. Of course my story begins with my early childhood and the things I saw and heard back then.

I was born and spent the first few years of my life in rural southern Oregon. I still have disjointed memories of my white hippy mother in the kitchen or the garden and my dark skinned father going off to cut trees for his lumberjack job. In this isolated life on a small farm raising chickens, ducks, and pigs for food and with a horse in the pasture for riding is where my idea of the world began. This was a quiet beginning with mostly dogs and cats for company along with the farm animals and the occasional wandering porcupine (that I admired from a safe distance I assure you).

As an adult looking back, it is only now that I realize HOW isolated I was. My father and I were the only brown people I knew. There was only one other Black person I ever remember seeing and it was another Black man who was a friend of my father. I remember him because him and his family lived in a house shaped like a tee-pee and his kids’ “room” was a loft overlooking the living room. His family mirrored my own: Black man, white woman, mixed kids (except I was an only child at the time). This was the norm of my early childhood.  I knew that there were other dark skinned people in the world. I saw them on TV and in magazines; they just were not a part of my actual reality.

At the time when I was small, life was simple. It was simple because we were in the country and it was simple because I was so young and had not yet learned the negativity of life. I did not know that the world beyond the small house on the small farm in the small town was filled with a totally different way of viewing my happy little family and those like it. Some days I miss that simplicity of life.

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