I'm black there's no question about it. Stare at my dark chocolate complexion and dare to differ. Inconsequential as this admission may seem, it is of great significance to me. You see my blackness not only stains my skin, but it also infiltrates and colors my mind. Possesses my existence. To me, being black is not an option, but a privilege, birthright, and an enormous responsibility. But not an option! It should not, nor cannot be an option nor choice. I will not shun my life's work that cavalierly. For me to take my blackness lightly would be nothing short of a tragedy.
I became acutely aware of my blackness at 9 years of age, when a gangly white boy of high school age sneered and spat, "nigger" derisively towards me. My awareness of my blackness heightened as I entered grade school as one of two black kids in the class. But the other children loved me because I was “so cool.” Yes, even then I had flavor. Being black is not an option.
As I raced towards adolescence, I realized that I had no desire to just fit in. After learning about the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Miss Rosa Parks, I began to feel different, unique, a little out of place, but very fortuitous. Being born in the 60s, my life began amidst great political and social struggle. To acquiesce to submissive behavior and to not take extreme pride in my blackness would have been a grave mistake. I embraced my color, my culture as would a mother, her child.
High school is upon me. Afros are in and baby, so was I. My hair is cropped in a “natural,” so I used a blowout kit and hot comb to keep its shape. My favorite look was when I would wear a visor. I picked my Afro out over the top of the visor and stretched it out so that it would appear to be a scoop of ice cream on top of the cone. I thought I was Dr. J, whose hair would blow in the wind as he streaked gracefully down the court. Cool man.
In high school more blacks than at any other point in my life surrounded me. Consequently, I was able to socialize extensively with my people for the first time. Scholastically, I began to cherish the challenge of taking all the upper-level courses in attempts to publicly flex my mental muscles. Fashion became important to me and my sense of fashion, to a certain degree, defined who and what I was. I even held down my first real job, bagging groceries at Safeway (29th and Broadway) to be able to afford my own name brand clothes. A Jeri-curl became my hairstyle of choice. Sporting a blue derby with my zodiac sign on the back, a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, Jordache jeans and Croker sacs, I thought I was The One. The way I dressed, unmistakably hip, and carried myself let you know that being black is not an option.
"More bounce to the ounce." Athletically, I developed as quite the sportsman. Basketball became my passion, and addictive recreation. I played the game with a zest and zeal. Like basketball was my life's work. I was not raised in the ghetto, but I practiced my craft on cement covered courts on baskets with chain “nets” all throughout the hard streets of Oakland. Ballplayers from all walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, and varying age ranges, came together to form crews on the court. The only thing that mattered when you stepped on, was your game. Nothing else seemed important. Not size, not your complexion, the kind of car you drove, nor your race for that matter. Funny thing is though, it seemed that 98, no 99% of the participants in the tournaments, summer leagues, streetball sessions in which I played were black. Our games were hotly contested, hard-fought, and played with flair and a unique artistic style. "Here's the chance to dance my way, out of my constriction."
"Wasting my time, spending my dimes...... talking til' I'm black and blue.... I wanna get next to you." Socially, I fell in love with my sisters. Their bodies were always so developed, and this "thickness" became a coveted characteristic. I can still remember slow dancing, cheek to cheek, in the St. Mary’s high school gymnasium, all hugged up with any girl who said yes. What a feeling! I can still visualize Donna Bell, my first love. I truly loved being black.
My interaction with my teenage brothers shaped itself and became a poignant aspect of my early adulthood. Close but competitive, we’d try to outdo each other on all levels. Intellectually, we excelled in the classroom while trying to be as “cool” as possible. Appearing to be a nerd or bookworm was out of the question. Athletically, we pushed each other to new heights. Fashion statements were always a plus. To that end, we always dressed sharper than our unconcerned, white counterparts. Combined, all three of the affirmation barometers accumulated, helping us attain our ultimate goal: women. In fact, the brothers who amassed the highest points in the three categories: intelligence, athletic ability, and clothes (or a car) would normally be thought of as having the best chance with the women. By the way, if you did not have any women (like me) you had better prevaricate about it. You know, lie your butt off to the inquiring minds.
Comic minds, and spontaneous, dry wit would always get you out of trouble. Tiny barbs, and jokes would quickly escalate into hilarious "charge" sessions. We would group together in locker rooms, on the playgrounds during lunch break, or on the back of any bus (43A), and mercilessly shoot jokes at each other. Your mama jokes, fat jokes, and infamous, you so black jokes dominated. “You so black….” Hmmmmmmmmm, isn’t that interesting? Being black is not an option.
College-age now and I experienced my first African American studies course. I was becoming more aware of my cultural history than ever before. I began raising questions, as to how a man could, quote, unquote, discover America, while there were already Native American inhabitants? Or why there was no curriculum for historical blacks in high school? Why was there no history being taught? Only HIS-story. Oh, that's right they did teach us about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. But these were now mere crumbs incapable of curbing my ever-growing hunger for knowledge. Being black is not an option.
As I began to understand more and more about my rich culture and heritage, I swelled with pride. My college classrooms had little black representation, and this prospect, though daunting, propelled and motivated me. I was eager to prove that I was more than just an athlete. I was NOT satisfying some arbitrary racial quota. I belonged. My black studies classes always had a soothing effect on me. Just imagine classrooms full of blacks, all shades and colors, from various economic backgrounds, and different social experiences. We had a black curriculum that was taught to us by a black professor. The only household names that I knew prior to college were Jesse Jackson, Dr. J, the Jacksons, Richard Pryor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and RUN-DMC. Now I immersed myself in the lifeworks and historical significance of men and women such as: Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Dubois, Pigfoot Mary, Eli Whitney, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Dorothy Dandridge, Harriet Tubman, Haile Selassie, Thurgood Marshall, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and countless others. WEB Du Bois! Ya'll know that's a sweet name. College was an experience unique from any other. Not only was I forced to mature, but I became acutely aware of not only my standing, but how I, as a black man, I was viewed. Intellectual discussions sometimes turned into emotional diatribes in which stereotypical views and prevailing attitudes of prejudice came to light. It seemed that whites, for the most part, viewed me as a creature of lesser intelligence, high strung emotionally and threatening. I viewed them with a general indifference. The difference in the two cultures suddenly became pronounced and glaring. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had no desire to change, alter or transform my appearance or submerge my culture. Being black, more so now than ever, was not an option. "Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud."
I was finally out of school and ready to conquer the world. College had lulled me into a false sense of security. For several years now I had been isolated from institutionalized racism, cynical smirks, and numerous looks of indignation. I recognized this now as I am told that I do not have “the qualifications necessary to land the job” I had been seeking, sure that I was the most qualified. My childlike perception of equality for all had been peeled away. I had always been taught to speak out, to voice my opinions and to wear my emotions on my sleeve. Utopia, I guess. Everything went out the window the first time my car was pulled over by a black officer and a higher-ranking white officer pulled up, full body searches me and my friend, while continually asking us about nonexistent drugs. Here we sat handcuffed, sitting on the sidewalk in Emeryville. Welcome to my world.
Feelings of just “fitting in” further slipped away as I drove through what once was the neighborhood where I played ball coming up. The cozy feelings I used to hold about the hood all but dissipated, as the area was now highly concentrated with liquor stores, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. I realized that there was virtually no police presence in areas such as these. I guess the easiest way to rid oneself of a “problematic” group of people is to give them all the tools for genocide. Gut the neighborhoods by killing the soul in the community. Gentrification comes later.
Life is real. Racism is real. Death is real. Happiness can be attained. Love is a possibility. We cannot cheat life. We cannot cheat death. Heck, we can’t even cheat our taxes. While we are living, God, our impending death, our culture, are the only constants we have. Our only certainties. Enjoy your life, accept your death. Find a higher power to believe in. And lastly, but not of least importance, learn to respect and love your culture. Melanin fills our skin. Afrocentricity beats our heart with a hip-hop cadence. Culture is in our mind, our music, our dress, and in our actions. All the Ambi, hair weaves, contact lenses and proper English in the world will not hide your race. So you see, you have no choice, or say in the matter. "No matter how much you want to switch, here's what they think about you." Being black is not an option. Think about it.
I do, every day of my life