I've been thinking about what it means to be black for what feels like a remarkably long time. This is something my (white adoptive) parents couldn't help much with -- they taught me extraordinary things about art, love, integrity and kindness, but I had to figure out for myself what it meant to be black in rural New Hampshire, and ultimately, in the world at large.
Not only are my parents white, the entire town I grew up in was (and is) pretty much all white. Early on, that was kind of awesome. Being the precocious brown child of big, talented fish in a small, New England pond was a very nice gig.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before my innocence was dashed -- right around the time my fifth grade teacher told me I was "pretty for a black girl." It seemed silly and then downright absurd that I not, at the very least, get a handle on how that might play out for me down the road. And it's been an interesting road indeed.
To wit, after an idyllic, if homogenized and blissfully ignorant, early childhood, being black very quickly started to suck quite a bit. All those time-honored, racial psyche-shaping events occurred -- being called a "nigger"; feeling ashamed by association with the very few, and mostly lower-income, black people I was exposed to; having my longtime friend's parent forbid him from taking me to the prom, lest later on in life he look back at having made such a terrible mistake ("is that really how you want to remember your prom -- taking a black girl?"); my hair was a constant source of anxiety; my teachers made quiet assumptions about my aptitude for learning; an employer fired me from my secretary job after I refused to clean the bathrooms, calling me just another "lazy black." By the time I graduated from high school, I'd very certainly subscribed to the theory that James Baldwin once posited: "The reason people think it's important to be white is that they think it's important not to be black."
And even as the 80s showed important, innovative and solid progress within the black community and in the mainstream -- Michael Jackson's Thriller, The Cosby Show, Oprah show debuts, Spike enters the scene, Alice Walker, August Wilson and Rita Dove win the Pulitzers, first national MLK Day is celebrated -- in the world I was living in, rural white New Hampshire, Michael Jackson was not black, he was a pop culture phenomenon, none of my friends watched Oprah, Cosby, read black authors or had ever heard of Spike Lee, and New Hampshire (along with Arizona) was one of the last two states to hold out on honoring MLK Day.
Ronald Reagan's veiled racial references and hostile policy prescriptions didn't help. His first major campaign speech was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, infamous as the place where three civil rights workers were murdered and buried in a dam. Reagan chose that time and place to assert his support for "states' rights" -- racial code words to let white segregationists know he was on their side. Right on, Reagan.
By the time I started college in the late 80s, it didn't just feel like being black was a drag -- it felt like I had to plod through it in solidarity. Try to enjoy being black (in a let's all get along with white folks kind of way) and you were immediately victim to the tribal-based wrath that labeled you a Tom or a sellout. There's no "I" in We Shall Overcome. There is, though, an "I" in creativity, individuality and unity.
One of the people who taught me that -- though he would never have put it in such rah-rah sports terms -- was a black English professor at the University of New Hampshire (where I briefly attended before transferring to the smaller, private Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts from which I graduated). He moved about the bucolic (almost eerily so) grounds of UNH with unusual grace and self-awareness. When I started the school's first black student union there since the early 60s, he served as an advisor and told our contingency of primarily male students on basketball scholarship to "be yourself," "think for yourself," and "be black in any way you know how."
Soon after college, I met a young black woman who would become one of my closest friends to this day. Our first few conversations revolved around blackness, black hair, who's black and how they go about their blackness, and how to move the conversation forward, particularly given our vastly different backgrounds -- she from urban West Philly (Pennsylvania, not Mississippi), me from rural New Hampshire. There is clarity of purpose and an ease of brownness about her that makes me feel right with the world, and real within my racial makeup.
As I look at the extraordinary editorial and blog lineup for our launch of HuffPost BlackVoices today -- Issa Rae, who is tearing up the media space with her brilliant and irreverent Awkward Black Girl web series, writes a spot-on piece about the whole "black enough" conversation, screenwriter and novelist Trey Ellis writes about his admiration, disappointment and hopes for our, um, black President, former CBS Early Show host Rene Syler talks with humor and eloquence about her journey to natural hair and inner self acceptance -- it has occurred to me that for the first time in my own history and the years I've thought about my racial identity, it's actually really cool to be black. And although the economic situation is pretty bleak for black Americans -- the economically vulnerable suffer the most when the economy tanks -- we are ushering in a time when black individual voices are paramount.
Nobody holds the premium on what it means to be black. Class, geography (New Hampshire, Philly, London, Lagos) and our own idiosyncratic psyches lead us black folks to experience our blackness differently. But it shapes us all. Welcome to HuffPost BlackVoices, where it's not only cool but really interesting to be black, however you want to rock it.