Growing up as a young black girl in Potomac, Maryland was easy. I had a Rainbow Coalition of friends of all ethnicities and we would carelessly skip around our elementary school like the powerless version of Captain Planet's Planeteers. I never really had to put much thought into my race and neither did anybody else. I knew I was black. I knew there was a history that accompanied my skin color and my parents taught me to be proud of it. End of story.
That is, until my family moved back to L.A and placed me in a middle school where my blackness was constantly questioned -- and not even necessarily in the traditional sense, i.e. "You talk white, Oreo girl" or "You can't dance, White girl." Those claims were arguable, for the most part.
My biggest frustration in the challenge to prove my "blackness" usually stemmed from two very annoying, very repetitive situations:
SITUATION #1: "I'm not even black, and I'm blacker than you."
It's one thing when other African-Americans try to threaten my race card, but when people outside of my ethnicity have the audacity to question how "down" I am because of the bleak, stereotypical picture pop culture has painted for me, as a Black woman? Unacceptable. I can recall a time I was having a heated discussion with a White, male classmate of mine. Our 8th grade class was en route to a museum field trip as the bus driver blasted Puff Daddy's "Been Around the World" to drown us out.
It began as a passive competition of lyrics, as we each silently listened for who would mess up first. By the second verse, our lazy rap-whispers escalated to an aggressive volume, accompanied with rigorous side-eyes by the time we got to, "Playa please, I'm the macaroni with the cheese" and I felt threatened. Is this fool seriously trying to outrap me? And why do I care? After the song ended, he offered his opinion, "Puff Daddy is wack, yo."
How dare he? Not only was I pissed, but I felt as if he had insulted my own father. When did I become Puff Daughter?
"Puff Daddy is tight," I rebuffed. He rolled his eyes, "Have you heard of [insert Unknown Underground rapper], now he's dope." I hadn't heard of him, but I couldn't let this White boy defeat me in rap music knowledge, especially as others started to listen. "Yeah I know him. He's not dope," I lied, for the sake of saving face. Perhaps he saw through me or maybe he actually felt strongly about this particular artist, but he asked me to name which songs I thought were "not dope." Panic set in as I found myself caught up, then -- "You don't even know him, huh? Have you even heard of [insert Other Underground rapper]."
As he continued to rattle off the names of make-believe-sounding MCs, delighted that he had one-upped me, he managed to make me feel as though my credibility as a Black person relied on my knowledge of hip-hop culture. My identity had been reduced to the Bad Boy clique as this boy seemingly absorbed my Black card.
Of course, as I grew older and Ma$e found his calling as a Reverend, I realized there was more to being black than a knowledge of rap music, and that I didn't have to live up to this pop cultural archetype. I began to take pride in the fact that I wasn't a stereotype and that I didn't have to be. Of course, this leads me to my next situation.
SITUATION #2: "Black Folk Don't ..."
As I was browsing different web series, I came across a trailer for one titled, "Black Folk Don't." Is this an illiterately incomplete warning, I wondered? Like a busty lead in a scary movie, I decided to ignore all caution and check out the teaser:
Produced by Angela Tucker with BlackPublicMedia.org, Black Folk Don't is a self-proclaimed, irreverent docu-web series, which explores the stereotype that Black people don't do certain things, i.e, tip, go to therapy, snitch, etc. The teaser and subject matter struck a chord with me because, much like the pop cultural idea of blackness viewed by the outside world, these are [mostly negative] stereotypes that Black people seem to believe about one another.
As a teenager, my blackness was also questioned by some of the life choices I made that weren't considered to be "black" choices. For example, joining the swim team when it is a known fact that "Black Folk Don't swim;" or choosing to become a vegetarian when Blacks clearly love chicken. These choices and the various positive and negative responses to them helped to broaden my own perspective of blackness and, eventually, caused me to spurn these self-imposed limitations of "blackness."
While both of these types of situations have played a role in shaping a more comfortably Black me, in the end, I have to ask: who is to say what we do and don't do? What we can and can't do? The very definition of "blackness" is as broad as that of "whiteness," yet we're seemingly always trying to find a specific, limited definition. As CNN produces news specials about us and a white female rapper feels culturally dignified to use the N-word, our collective grasp of "blackness" is becoming more and more out of touch. To quote the gentleman at the end of the trailer, "Black folk don't necessarily agree with each other about what being black is." And, that's not a bad thing.
Black Folk Don't premieres August 2nd BlackPublicMedia.org