Honestly, I’m tired of talking about these things. I’ve been dealing with race and racism my entire life, and now that I’m closer to 50 than I am to 40, I’m really tired of explaining myself and issues surround race and racial ideology to others. Hell, I’ve written a book on the subject, just so I don’t have to talk about it anymore. And yet the conversation still comes up, and keep engaging, because it must be done. But recently I had an encounter with someone that struck a raw nerve, an encounter in which—if I’m to understand the implication—called into question my blackness.
The news has been filled with horrific stories of unarmed black people being killed by police. You could write a book about the terrible cases that occurred in 2014 alone. It was this current state of affairs that led to a recent conversation about being black, and being profiled, and being harassed by the police. For the record, I have been profiled. I have been harassed by the police (though I’ve never suffered any sort of physical brutality). That said, I have not been bothered by the police in any way, shape, or form, in nearly twenty years. The last time I got pulled over by the cops was 1999, and I had a busted headlight. I had a pleasant exchange with the officer, who did not give me a ticket. In 2011, I intervened when a crazy man attacked an employee at the post office. I helped subdue the crazy man, wrestling him to the floor, and when the cops finally showed up, I was thankfully not shot by mistake. That was my last encounter with the police. Two encounters in fifteen years. I don’t know why it has been so few, I’m just thankful that it has been.
As I was talking about this, the person I was talking to—a black woman—began to question what it was that I was doing that kept me from being harassed. I was at a loss for an explanation. Maybe it’s because I drive a Prius, and cops ignore black men driving hybrids. Maybe it is because I’m driving through neighborhoods that aren’t as heavily patrolled. Maybe it’s because of my light complexion, or because I don’t go out much to clubs anymore. I honestly don’t know. Her theory was that maybe I wasn’t black enough. Maybe I had assimilated (sold-out) because I drove a Prius. “Maybe you’re this.” “Maybe you’re that.”
And maybe you’re full of shit.
I grew up in a predominatly white community, surrounding by black people (most of them my family). My complexion is very light (as is the complexion of much of my family). I have been accused of “sounding like a white person” when I talk. At the same time, I’ve been called “nigger” more times than I can count. I’ve been in fights. I’ve been messed with by the cops. And, perhaps quite significantly, I spent a long time trying to prove I was black. Hi-yella Negroes often find themselves in similar positions.
For me, I spent more than ten years of my life really trying to prove my blackness. I read many of the books you’re supposed to read, studied history, embraced much of the culture that defines blackness in America. I also grew my hair out. For me, with my light skin, and my “articulate” way of speak, my hair was the quickest and easiest way to send a message to the world—“I am Black, with a capital B!”
I had dreadlocks for ten years (from 1987 to 1997), and it was during this time that my blackness was questioned the least. On the left is what I looked like in 1996, about a year before I cut my hair. People looked at me, and the message of what I am was made fairly clear (though people still commented on the way I talk). It was also the time that I was harassed most by the cops. I am not going to say that there was a direct correlation. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t—I don’t know for sure. I just know that after I cut off my dreads, I was only pulled over by the cops because of valid reasons (once for running a red light, and the other for that busted headlight I mentioned). I have walked past cops in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and multiple other cities, and not been given a second look. Most of time when I drive home, I drive past a police station, so I see the 5-0 all the time, and nothing happens.
This is me in 1997, just after I cut off all my hair. Maybe I am a sell out who has assimilated because I drive a hybrid. Maybe I’m not black enough. Maybe I’m no longer a threat, and therefore can longer consider myself a Black man with a capital B. The woman I’d been talking to, who alluded to all of this, may be completely right about me. She asked my why I cut off my dreads. I told here it was because at that point in my life, I no longer felt the need to use my hair as a tool to identify myself. I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes, as if to say, “No, you just didn’t want people knowing what you are.”
The reality is that each of us defines who we are by a volatile mix of environment, genetics, socio-political ideologies, and this intangible thing that exists in each of us (I call it my soul). But until we get in touch with that intangible thing, and make peace with it, we will forever be stuck in a trap of being identified by outside forces, and by adopting mannerism and appearances that help to answer the question, “What are you?”
The two important things to remember are that those outside forces will seldom change in their attempt to define and identify you; and that true peace of mind and identity can only come from a place inside, in which you no longer need to explain yourself. That’s not to say that you can’t explain or identify yourself if you so chose, just that you don’t have to if that’s not what you want to do. I reached a place, just before I turned 30, where I no longer felt the need to shout to the world, “Look at me, I’m Black with a Capital B!” At the same time, I don’t shy away from my blackness. And I find it sad and troubling that there are still people out there, whose measure of blackness continues to be things mired in the negative—how many times you get harassed by the cops, how much time you’ve done in the joint, how many of your friends have been killed in a drive-by shootings.
If these are the measures of what it takes to be Black with a capital B, then perhaps I am not deserving of laying claim to the rich culture that I have embraced my entire life, the history that I have studied tirelessly, and the humanity that I have sought to reclaim for myself and so many others. Maybe the sad truth is that I am not black until I am harassed by the cops, or killed, or sent to prison. And if that is true, well, I guess I need to be cool with not being black enough.