Michigan in Color: Taking back my Black

Photo Courtesy of Sundai Johnson
Buy this photo

BY SUNDAI JOHNSON

Published October 23, 2014

“I got 99 problems and my race and gender are among them,” said a friend of mine to me and another friend over our sushi date near the end of this past summer. We, three young Black women, sat with partially fearful and painfully uncomfortable eyes, peering curiously at our backs as we sat, talking about what it means to be Black and what it means to be women. And how for us, those two identities cannot live separately, hence their presence — and great presence at that — is among our 99 problems. A familiar part of me felt a tinge of guilt about our not so quiet declarations that were clearly encroaching on the comfort zone of the predominantly White diners.

Then I remembered that discomfort was something I had an incredibly intimate relationship with and had begun long before I could articulate it with words. I conquered discomfort at a very young age — cradled it, nursed and nurtured it and navigated its complex twists and turns with ease, if for nothing more than for survival. And so with this realization, I admit that I spoke a little louder. Not with malicious intent, but simply because the little capacity I had left for silence was rapidly diminishing.

At dinner that night, from a dormant place inside of me, arose this feeling of not wanting to offend white people by talking about being Black. I had, at one time in my life, been afraid to be “too Black” in fear of offending the group of people I was surrounded by in academic and social settings. I cautioned my Blackness so as not to elicit any discomfort in those that were, as a dominant group, responsible for my own discomfort. This was something I had faced as a child and as a young teen that I believed I had obliterated long ago.

The turning point was the day one of my closest middle school friends referred to me as an “Oreo,” as the whitest Black girl she knew. First of all, I am not a cookie. Please do not diminish my identity and experiences to your trivial understandings of them, simply because I do not comply with what you have been taught or assume to be “Black.” I was a token. A spectacle. “You’re the prettiest Black girl I know” became the anthem of my adolescence and never ceased to sound like a surprise. But I was the only Black girl they knew and their so-called compliment was rooted in the racist belief that my brown was inherently un-beautiful and undesirable and if it happened to be, was only rarely so. They carved for me an identity that I had wrestled with since elementary school upon the realization that my hair wasn’t like theirs. A sense of self that had been dictated by the white girls that told me what colors looked good on my skin, what lipstick shades and nail polish I shouldn’t wear and the white boys that “preferred” my hair straight and only liked me when their friends didn’t know. I had only been able to see myself through eyes that didn’t look like mine and through opinions about who I was that I had never asked for. They chewed me, spit me out and molded me in their saliva into what they wanted — needed — me to be. But I grew up and out of their constraints, as it became imperative to me that I for one was the agent and master of my own identity.

Praise be to the good Lord above for my mother who scolded my milky-fleshed grandmother for calling me in from under the summer sun. Who taught me that beauty is colorful and expansive and transformative and is not fixed to the limitations they gave that I could not fit into. Who spelled beautiful with the letters in my name and told me my existence need not be apologetic. She cradled but never coddled and raised me up a warrior. She melted hard kisses in my cheeks and taught me to shine something fierce — to be something fierce.

So that night at dinner, as that silencing tried to move its way back in, I pushed it aside because I had fought this battle once and won. I should not have to yell for my voice to be heard, but I will. Because while we Black women have fought to forge our own identities, everybody still seems to have their hands on us, and the incessant need of ownership over who we are persists. I know that appropriating and praising historically criticized aspects of Black female identity, when it’s on bodies other than their own, is trendy, but I am not an accessory you can put on your keychain and tote around. I still get angry with the white and Black boys who ask if I can twerk and frustrated when they assume I can and expect me to, because hyper-sexualizing Black women’s bodies is still a thing. Every single day I simultaneously navigate the complexities of these two identities that I hold. Yes, I get tired, but I am not defeated. Because despite popular belief, I cannot be consumed. My skin is not edible like the deserts you compare it to. My living is not performance for you to watch and applaud or condemn. I grew up as a victim of thievery of my identity and I have spent years taking it back — peeling away the fingers that grasped it so tightly. And I refuse to let go. My Blackness, my Black Womanhood, the whole of my identity, is mine. It belongs to me and I carry it in calloused hands. I do not tiptoe, I stomp. I rumble and shake and move the ground like earthquakes. And I conquer victoriously — with my crown made of black gold.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.