I grew up in Kenya, where no one ever called me black. Even references to my Africanness were few and far between because I identified as a Kenyan—and that was the last on a list of other identities that I embraced: sister, friend, student, etc. I’ve never been big on these kinds of labels.
Queue my move to the Western world, where I was immediately informed that I was black. I always want to say that I am not actually black. Some Sudanese people are black. In fact, they aren’t even black—their skin is so beautifully dark that it is practically midnight blue. So I don’t really know any black people if we’re talking skin color. And why this classification based on skin color anyway?
For years I have spurned the label black, even though I’ve been living in the US for almost half my life, where a whole group of people goes by that handle. I don’t even fully know what it means to be black. I only recently began exploring this idea of blackness.
My photographer friend, Kanyi Muraguri, ran a series of photographs on Instagram in 2015 titled “Advise to my future unborn son.” That series of photographs, along with several publicized police killings of black people, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, forced me to think about what it means to be black in the U.S.
Overwhelmingly, almost every story of a black life contains elements of a significant experience of discrimination. There is an ingrained distrust of black people in American society that defies belief. The default assumption seems to be that a black person is up to no good, that a group of black people together is dangerous. Who fed the public these flawed points of view?
A couple of years back, I was walking in an upscale neighborhood with my then romantic interest, who happened to be black. In that season, news of black men being gunned down was heating up the airwaves every few weeks. It was early evening, and we kept running into white people walking the same streets. As we approached each stranger, my man would interrupt our conversation to call out, with great politeness, “Good evening, Sir (or Ma’am)! How are you?” A first, I was thrown off by his behavior. Then I realized that he was proactively defending himself (and me), diffusing potential escalations before the fear of seeing a black man in a mostly white neighborhood caused strangers to act irrationally. It made me incredibly sad.
Although I have not been entirely oblivious to the fact that I’m sometimes treated differently (i.e. worse than others) due to my skin color, I often brush it off, unless it is a significant incident. Perhaps I have been able to let so much of it slide because I did not experience racism during the first half of my life.
Lately; however, I have been jolted by the reality that any children I have will likely grow up in the U.S. hearing that they are black, even if they are of mixed race. It has forced me to consider what their experiences of blackness may be. I think about how I can fortify them to withstand annoyances, hostilities, and life-threatening situations without losing their dignity or losing sight of their incredible core beauty as humans.
I’m still on the journey of discovering my blackness. More conversations will doubtless come out of this. Until then, celebrate the beauty of blackness with me. #BlackHistoryMonth