WHAT IS BLACK? (Or, Searching for Racial Identity in This Crazy World, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Became Black)

cartoonMany years ago, I had the opportunity to interview football legend/actor Jim Brown. Before he would answer any of my questions, he asked me a question: “What is black?” I struggled to come up with an answer, and my first two or three responses were met with Jim shaking his head, and saying in that calm, matter-of-fact voice of his, “No. What is black?” Eventually, I came up with an answer that satisfied him (or maybe he simply got tired of listening to me ramble), and he gave me the interview. Honestly, I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember that Jim Brown’s question threw me for a loop, and that as I struggled to answer it, a realization crashed down on me like a tsunami—I really had no idea what it was to be black. That was nearly seventeen years ago—the summer of 1996 to be exact—and I am still wrestling with that question now, more than ever.

As far back as I can remember, people have questioned my racial background. My mother is white, my father is black, and I have a relatively light complexion. To make matters worse, I “talk just like a white person.” I have never fully understood what that means, though I know that it means I articulate myself in a way that is associated with white people, which is simultaneously some type of indication of a lack of blackness. The fact of the matter is that I talk like the vast majority of my family, who came from Virginia, and relocated in the New England area in the 1930s and 40s. I grew up surrounded by black people, most of whom talked like me, and many of whom were as light as me, and within the security of my own family, my blackness never came into question.

My racial identity first became an issue when I was in kindergarten, where I was one of only two black kids. It was clear that Ricky Evans was black—he looked like a black person. But my complexion was much lighter, my hair not as nappy, and in the morning it was a black woman who dropped me off (my grandmother), and a white woman who picked me up (my mother). It all made sense to me, but not to anyone else. And it was the confusion of others that began to confuse me. It was the desire of others to find a label that fit me—a box or a shelf that I could be comfortably placed so that my existence made sense to them—that left me lost without an identity. And nearly forty years later, I still struggle with knowing who I am because of the confusion of other people.


Ricky Evans is the black kid on the far left, back row. I’m the racially ambiguous kid on the far right, back row.

Back when I was a kid, there was no bi-racial or multi-racial. You were either black, or you were white. Or, you were like me—a zebra, an Oreo, a white nigger, a black honky. You name it, I was called it. Many a fight started on the school playground over the long list of pejoratives thrown my way—all of them racial. In the end, I became black. Not because I wanted to, or because it felt right, but because that was what the world outside of my family decided I must be. Within my family, I was just me. My skin is light, but I look just like my father, who looks a lot like his father, who looks a lot like his father. If you lined us all up, you’d say, “Yeah, those are Walker men.”

generations 2

From left to right, my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and me, all of us pictured in our late teens to early 20s.

Outside my family was another story. I was a nigger. I know some people hate it when that word is used, but it needs to be used, because that is what I was called. Day in and day out. I have since learned that that word only has as much power as I choose to give it, and I took its power away a long time ago. But as a kid, it had a tremendous impact on me, and the negativity behind it whenever it was hurled at me, let me know that I was not considered a white person, nor was I welcome in that club. Ironically, outside of my family, most black people didn’t want me in their club either. My skin was too light, my hair wasn’t good enough, and again, as always, I talked just like a white person. But while white kids wouldn’t let me in their racial clubhouse, black kids at least let me hang around outside their clubhouse. I was welcome to come inside and look around, but if I wanted to hang out, I’d have to sit outside, leaning my back against the wall, listening to the party that was going on inside.

In some ways, the world has changed significantly since I was a kid. In other ways, things have tragically remained the same. There is more room and acceptance for bi-racial kids now than there was back then, and that is a beautiful thing. They now have their own clubhouse. But there is still so much importance placed on racial identification, and the need to define who we are as determined by largely artificial constructs, and as always, there is no real answer. Today, as we kick off Black History Month, I ask myself—as I do quite often—“What is black?”

For years, the answer to that question has eluded me. I have read many of the books that are associated with being black, I own most of the albums, and I have knowledge of the historical achievements and contributions of black people in America that surpasses what most people know. And yet there are still black folks who won’t accept me because of the way I dress, or the way I talk, or because along with my James Brown and Stevie Wonder albums I also have Judas Priest and Elvis Costello. Similarly, there are still white people who think I am a nigger. I am a middle-aged man who, as it was in my childhood, is too black for white people, and too white for black people.

Don’t get me wrong, because I don’t grapple with this nearly as much as I used to. In fact, some days, I just go on about my business, as if all I am is a human being. And therein lies that answer of who and what I truly am—I am a human being. That is simultaneously the least and the most any of us should ever be, or strive to be. Everything else—color of skin, choice of music, religion, politics—are distractions from the most basic and fundamental truth that stares each of us in the face when we look in the mirror as well as when we look at another person. We are all human beings. As for that other question, “What is black?”—as I sit here writing all of this out, it has dawned on me. I finally have the answer. Black is me.

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