How do you know if you are Black? Is there a checklist of superficial qualities or racist experiences that one must possess before being considered Black? Or do we just go off of one’s skin tone and deem all of those unable to “pass” as Black?
America has chosen to define Blackness in its own way throughout history. For example, the “one-drop rule” placed any person with even one traceable Black ancestor into the category of Negro, and therefore forced them into the segregated lowest tier of society. Different neighborhoods, towns, groups, schools, and individuals all have their own interpretations of “who is Black,” yet there is collective understanding once any one person declares you as such: no matter how kind, smart, law-abiding, or proper you may be, you will always be reduced to simply being Black. Not light-skinned, not dark-skinned, not brown-skinned… Black, just Black.
Racial colorblindness doesn’t exist; it is a myth. We are all categorized by a number of factors, and skin tone is one of the major ones that decides just how life is going to play out for you. Because of this tendency toward categorization, the Black experience is both a shared and individual journey.
Being Black on the Bus
“Is your last name Black ‘cause you’re Black?” I heard a voice ask from above me as I sat on the moving school bus. I looked up and saw a dark-haired white kid curiously peering down at me. Turned completely around in his seat and leaning over the back (you remember, exactly how the bus driver told us not to do), he was so interested and very innocent in his question, noticing the contrast from my light coffee-colored complexion and his pasty freckled whiteness. I didn’t really know what to say. “No, it’s just my last name,” I said, looking around to tally up the number of spectators. I was both embarrassed and discouraged. This certainly was not the first time I had been singled out; I had been here in this predominantly white environment for a couple of years. But this somehow felt like my awakening as to the fact that I am different and yes, people notice. My answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity as he turned back around and sat in his seat.
I was not one of them.
I was 10.
You see, my mother is white. Not just white, but WHITE. Like you can see the blood pumping through her veins and her face changing colors with her mood. My biological father — wherever he was this whole time — is Black. He and my mother had a short fling and after her pregnancy was announced he was nowhere to be found. From a single photo and through descriptions from family members throughout the years I have gathered that he is a large, mean looking man with rough features that paint him as tough and unapproachable. So here I am with light brown skin, brown eyes, and curly hair.
A person of color
But really… I AM BLACK.
America told me so.
Being Black on the Weekends
I struggled with how to define myself in this Black or white society, as I grew up with family and friends both in Black and white America. I lived with my mother, and a man that played the role of father for the first 12 years or so of my life, for the early part of my childhood prior to moving in with my aunt. He was an alcoholic and physically abusive man — like many of her partners, I would grow to find out — yet he stayed involved in my life for a number of years after their breakup, and I still refer to him as dad. I visited him on the weekends and holidays in one of the projects where his mother lived. I would hang out with the neighborhood kids and play basketball, eat free lunches, watch people get in fights, and my uncles would playfully beat me up (though the punches felt very real). Cars would drive around with music loudly blaring the latest ‘90s hip-hop, people would holler friendly greetings at each other from car windows and front porches. It was all love. This was the “Black” side of my family.
As a child, I was certainly aware of neighborhood violence, but not directly involved, and even less so given that I was merely a weekend visitor. On one occasion, as my granny and I sat on the couch watching television, one of my uncles came bursting through the front door, bleeding from his head. He had been shot; the bullet grazed his head through his New York Yankees cap and he was woozy and angry. My granny and other uncle tried to get a hold of him to go to the hospital. He refused and pulled a handgun from his waistband, said, “I’ma kill that n—–,” and was out of the door into the night. My granny was beside herself. I don’t know what happened after that, but the next time I saw him, his head was bandaged and he acted like nothing happened, telling me to be good and stay out of trouble while simultaneously scratching his stomach, revealing his gun in his waistband from his slightly raised tank top.
The violence and hurt felt in this environment was indeed vivid. However, it was direct and to the point, and therefore fairly avoidable. There was never a question of intent with fists or knives. Yet back in the white community, fists and knives would evolve into angry glances and racial slurs.
Given the limited exposure I had to the negative aspects of the area where my Black family lived, I genuinely enjoyed the times spent there. When the summer heat would tire me out, I would retreat inside my granny’s apartment and sit on the plastic covered couch, gaze at the African-inspired wall décor, breathe in the smell of incense, and settle in and watch a movie on VHS. “House Party” was a favorite of mine. We were isolated from whiteness, and except for the occasional “you’re out there with all those white people” or “you talk white,” I was generally accepted into the community. I looked like them. I was one of them.
Make America Great Again
I was on my way to baseball practice, whining to my aunt about the fact that I didn’t want to run a bunch as she attempted to calm my despair. I mean, I love baseball — it is America’s pastime, of course, and all of my friends played and we had a great time. But really it was the location that I was concerned with. I was always anxious, nervous, terrified even, of this park.
Those from the area knew it simply as “The Grove,” but Cottage Grove was a neighborhood with a park that hosted everything from baseball games to small community fairs at the school. It was certainly not full of the glamorous large homes on the lake with nice boats docked just outside your back door that some outsiders pictured when they thought of the Portage Lakes. There were many of those, of course, but make no mistake, “The Grove” was not that. If Portage Lakes was the United States of America, then “The Grove” was the Deep South, and everyone in and out of it understood it as such. Even today, the Trump signs, confederate flags and MAGA attire are proudly on display along streets with seemingly innocent names such as Daisy and Buttercup.
The dirt on the field this day was a bit soft from a light rain that had fallen the night before but had dried well enough to be playable. I dropped my glove and water and began the routine of jogging around the bases with my teammates. Just as we were rounding second base, I noticed large words carved into the dirt near the pitcher’s mound…
N—–s get out
My fears were coming to fruition. People indeed did notice me and wanted me to know I was not welcome. Upon realizing what all of the standing around was about, the coaches rushed to rake the dirt and instructed us to use our cleats and scratch out the words as best we could. My friends and I stood there, kicking, scratching, digging, trying to rid the field of this hate. I was the only Black kid on that team. As far as I remember, I was the only Black kid in my school at the time, and I felt like I was completely alone.
My white friends helped me erase hate that day; I often wonder if any of them were the ones who would later state they don’t remember any of the “racism” I experienced and are saddened to hear about it now. You cannot simply grab a rake and erase hate, though I appreciated the effort of those coaches, friends, and teammates. The message had been clearly sent again to remind me of my place. I was not one of them.
When Racism Loves You
“Well you’re not really Black, I mean you speak well and don’t act like them.”
“I don’t usually like Blacks, but you’re different.”
“My father wouldn’t approve.”
“I just called HIM a n—–, you’re not one, you’re my boy.”
These were only a few of the ridiculous comments I and many people like myself were subject to growing up Black in a white community. I lived with my aunt, uncle, and two older cousins in a community whose population was 97% white at the time. My mother was in and out due to addiction so she gave guardianship to my aunt. My “white” family was from Pennsylvania and when we would visit old relatives, it was apparent: I did not fit in and I was not one of them. Ironically my surname, Black, was inherited from my white, racist relatives back home in Perryopolis, Penn. We would visit my grandfather, a hard-working and charismatic man, yet deeply flawed and stubborn to a fault. He would go on these long animated diatribes about the war and n—–s, then the next moment hug me and hand me money; it was fascinating, to say the least. Not once did my family call him out.
At home, my uncle was 20 years older than my aunt. He was a gentle, polite, calm and witty old man. He was also a racist. I learned this growing up, hearing the stories of how he wouldn’t allow certain Black boyfriends of my mother or cousin to come into his home and they were only allowed in the driveway. I loved him very much and was too young to grasp any concept of the complete hypocrisy he was demonstrating by having me, a young Black kid with a troubled early childhood, live in his home.
I slept on a little pad on the floor in the living room for the first few years due to limited room in the house and would often fall asleep to the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry playing on the floor model television in front of me. This, of course, would explain my appreciation for country music, a trait many find astonishing, given my skin color. It was a beautiful brick home located at the end of a dead-end street, complete with a fully fenced-in backyard, screened in patio, fireplace, and a single long hallway where my cousins and I would often play catch with small footballs. It was awesome.
My aunt often kept me busy with yard work and delivering Avon books throughout the neighborhood. I always feared one of the white neighbors would call the cops on me or attack me, thinking I was some sort of intruder or criminal. “Hang it on their front door,” my aunt would say, as I cautiously approached each home and delivered the books. There were two types of houses I avoided: Those with big scary dogs and those with confederate flags. Even then, at a young age in my own neighborhood, I was keenly aware that I should be careful as to not startle the white community. I was not one of them.
My family treated me well, I admit. But in adopting a Black child into a white household with nearly zero racial intellect and who were at best indifferent to race relations, they were not prepared to teach me what I needed to know. How could they know what I needed or what to say to me when someone called me a racial slur when they themselves used this language to identify Black individuals? I wasn’t allowed to braid my hair in cornrows because it was a “hoodlum” thing. What message does that send? Black style, and therefore Black identity, were not acceptable or admired in white culture. They loved me, I knew that. But being white and feeling like you can love your way into empathizing with the Black experience is not only inaccurate, it is ignorant. “I don’t care what color you are, there’s white n—–s and black n—–s” and “I don’t see you as Black, I see you as Michael. Race doesn’t matter.” These things were said to calm and settle me while reconciling any discomfort or tension that may have come about from a given situation.
But I needed them to see me for what I was. I needed them to see me for what society saw me as, because I was hated for it and so desperately wanted to know why. A Black child, a Black teen, and now a Black man. You cannot simply wipe away our tears and love us while simultaneously dismissing the hate or judgment you have ignored on our behalf, and sometimes even contributed to. You cannot help our cause if you refuse to acknowledge what makes us different. White America needs to acknowledge what those that look like me already understand:
We are not like them. We are Black, and I am Black.
The school bus taught me that, the baseball field taught me that, my white family taught me that.
America made them. America made me.
Photos: Used with permission from Michael Black.
Michael Black is a local writer who has worked with TDS previously while singing downtown at our “Live at Lock 4” series. His writing remains largely focused on race and racism in America. He will be finishing his Business Management degree this fall.