I was born in the early 1970s, and despite having two loving parents—including a stay at home mother—I often felt a sense of discomfort in my body in my early years. My younger self didn’t understand that the unease I felt were the growing tentacles of white supremacy constricting around me.
Growing up Black and female in the ‘70s and ‘80s was, at times, a solitary experience.
It wasn’t always easy to see yourself in the larger world, and all the guiding principles were primarily the ones designed and upheld by white supremacy—though no one at that time named it as such. It has only been in recent years that we now can name the “respectability” politics that many of us were raised with as a byproduct of racism. The fervent desire for many of us to prove ourselves to be as good as white people or being directed to play to the white gaze, and the draconian rules we place on ourselves and fellow Black people to do that. The systematic denial of our inherent blackness to achieve.
As a bookish child, few of the books that I adored had characters that looked like me. Judy Blume was an extraordinary writer who shaped my tween years and younger me fervently wanted to be Harriet the Spy, but what would it have been like to see characters that resembled me?
Film and television wasn’t much better. It wasn’t until my high school years, when series like The Cosby Show appeared on the air, that I saw much positive. Until then, most of the media representations of Black girls and women were greatly limited, and even with The Cosby Show, I didn’t necessarily see myself. After all, my parents were Black hippies. I would be well into my late 20s, when I would finally realize that families like my own had always existed.
Toggling between racially integrated schools that leaned more white and our tight Black private spaces caused me a lot of emotional whiplash. At school, it was the white girls with the long, silky, preferably blonde hair that could be feathered who were noticed. In our home life, it was the Black girls who could double-dutch and speak with a confident cadence (that I lacked) who held court.
I was neither of those things; in fact, family gatherings at times were painful, I was the white-sounding cousin and no one let me live it down. I didn’t fully understand the nuance of being able to code switch. It was a different time. Whereas my 16-year-old daughter toggles effortlessly between her Black friends on Facetime and the larger white world, back in 1980 or whatever, I had none of those skills.
It was my teen years that brought the greatest sense of not belonging, I literally didn’t fit in anywhere, but my theater classes allowed me to create a disaffected persona where I could hide my truths. I danced on the line of wanna-be punk, wanna-be trendy, and wanna-be stoner. I wasn’t very good at any of them but the inability to fully fit in anywhere specifically no doubt allowed me to learn to decently fit in everywhere. The only constant at that time in my life was feeling the weight of white supremacy heavy on my shoulders and not knowing what it was.
Not only was the weight of white supremacy heavy on my shoulders but figuring out my role in this larger world as a darker-skinned Black woman born at the crossroads of poor and working class.
For a long time, I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and my mother for all her many strengths and gifts wasn’t one to engage in conversations that would create the space for me to ponder these questions. The women in my family didn’t discuss such things. Instead, I received the indirect nod of approval to seek whiteness; to seek closeness to whiteness. No doubt that nod to seeking whiteness was at play in my decisions to partner with white men. For some Black women of my mother and grandmother’s generations, no doubt they believed that a white man would be a savior. I would like to believe that if my mother and grandmother were still here, they would have learned that their thinking had been shaped by white supremacist culture which seeks to strip of us of our sense of self and instead seeks to have us serve at the twin altars of whiteness and white supremacy culture.
It was over 25 years ago that I started my own process of deprogramming whiteness out of myself and accepting and leaning into the full richness of my blackness—realizing that there is no one way to be Black. The blood of enslaved Africans runs through my veins. I spent half of my childhood on the South Side of Chicago, and just as I can shake my hips to Depeche Mode and The Cure, I get in my feelings and jam even harder when listening to Frankie Beverly and Maze or Minnie Ripperton. I am a granddaughter of the South and those who were part of the first wave of the Great Migration. I eat my catfish fried with hot sauce, along with sides of spaghetti and white bread. No matter how I wear my hair or who I share my personal life with, I am fully Black and no longer need proximity to whiteness to feel secure in my being.
This reflection on my life was spurred by the passing of bell hooks. Having lost so many of my own family members early in my life, I am rarely moved by the passing of public figures or celebrities. But upon learning of bell hooks’ death, I found myself crying almost as hard as I did when my own Mama died.
I stumbled into a Black bookstore many years ago, when my eldest was a toddler, and came upon bell hooks’ work. It was her work that lit the match in me that led me on my own journey of finding myself as a Black woman—to give words to my feelings; to learn to create communities of care and love in my innermost spaces. To make the commitment to using my own writing as truth-telling for my own healing and perhaps yours.
There are few writers whose work have left the mark on me in the way that bell hooks did—as she did for so many of us. And in this moment, the best way to move through the collective grief is to bring my truth to this space.
Thank you bell hooks for mentoring so many, including those of us who never crossed physical or professional paths with you.
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Image by Alex Lozupone (Tduk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45637047