“In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” – W.E.B. Du Bois.
This month CNN is chronicling when African American celebrities first realized they were black. This project appears to be aimed at opening the dialogue about race relations in America and is a good first step to helping us all understand the challenges of being labeled different.
Hearing those stories brought back memories from my own first encounter with realizing that what I saw in the mirror and what society saw were two different things.
Color Was Never An Issue
I’ve always known I was black. It wasn’t lost on me that I was sometimes the only brown girl in the room. Or that some of the things I’ve been able to experience in my life are not typical for a “black person”. My revelation about being black was more about how society viewed African Americans and my “blackness” — that was more shocking than anything.
It all started at lunch one day my sophomore year of college. The college I attended had some level of diversity, but was predominantly white. That year we were lucky enough to have a few more African American students admitted and that was the first day I’d seen them around.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together?
“I wonder why they all sit around together,” a friend pointed out. Confused, I asked what he meant. “Black people. Why do they always crowd together like that?” he asked. “Black people do not always crowd together. And what does crowd together mean anyways? We’re not hoodlums,” I said hoping to come across like someone who was deeply offended because I was. Sensing my tone — he replied, “Oh, I’m not talking about you. You’re not really –you know, black.” I sat there completely dumbfounded. And no — I had no idea what the hell he meant because the last time I checked I was definitely black.
Before I could say anything else, my friend had rushed off to another class and we never really talked about it again until years later. But I’ve thought about it a lot. Often times if we like something other than rap music and come from a middle class family with strong values, we’re not considered truly black. It’s almost as if there’s some sort of belief that we’re all missing our fathers and destined to end up snaggletooth giving an eyewitness account of a murder on the news. Don’t lie if you roll your eyes every time a news reporter chooses to interview Ray Ray from the hood who probably didn’t see anything.
After that day, I’ve come to realize two things: We not only have to fight misconceptions about who we are as a community, but we also may encounter times that we are not considered “black enough” because we don’t subscribe to those misconceptions. By putting a familiar face to a familiar story, CNN is sharing that African Americans have come a long way, but it has not been without it’s challenges. It’s the right conversation at the right time and the best way for us all to come together through our unique experiences.
When did you realize you were black?
Photos by CNN