a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

What does it mean to be Black?

Posted on: March 6, 2012

Being black means your skin don’t crack.

I look at my skin color and I don’t wish the black away.  I don’t wish it were lighter or smoother or different than what it is.  I love the way it gets dark-chocolate brown in the middle of the summer after spending too many hours on the beach in the sun.  I love the way that the color changes with the light, with moisture, with time.  I love that every color of clothing looks good against my skin and that “black” means never comprehending the many shades of blackness. I love that no matter how much time I spend in the sun I’ll never be tan, but I’ll always be black.

Black means loving my hair.  Even when it doesn’t do what I want it to do, even when it takes hours to dry in the winter, even when the cost of products cause my head to spin and my eyes to bulge out of my face-I love my hair.  I love that it identifies me as a black woman in its twisting curls, its wavy locks, its winding knots, its soft zigzag pattern.  I love how after a few days it does what it wants.  I love how if I stretch it just enough it feels and looks like cotton candy waiting to be molded into a new shape.  I love that it’s the hair that I was born with and even though I was cruel to it for decades, it didn’t give up on me.

Black means history that I don’t always understand.  It means being grateful to those who came before me.  My grandmother who cleaned white folks houses in North Carolina to make sure my mom went to school.  It means being grateful to my mom who had to visit her mother at various jobs through the back door not the front.  It means my father being the only black in a sea of white face in his grade school.  It means being grateful that I’ve never heard the word nigger be used towards me, but knowing that I’m lucky.  It means knowing that it will probably happen one day before I die.

Black means responsibility to myself as a black woman but also to my children who will be black even if my partner gives birth to them because still in this world, in 2012 the one drop rule applies and you know what?  I don’t care because I want black children.

It means that when I walk down the street, apply for a job, shop at a store that the weight of blackness is on my back.  It’s knowing that because of my actions, my words, my demeanor I am unintentionally standing in for all black people at any given moment.

Black means frustration when one person’s idea of blackness differs from my idea of blackness and my idea has too much whiteness to be  black because of the way that I talk, the company I keep, the woman in my bed.  It means wondering why my existence in this skin is any less        meaningful, any less authentic then another’s.

It means being frustrated at black men on the street using their words as daggers in my ears as I pass by listening to their babies, and mas and lookin’ sexy and the sucking of their tongues against the back of their teeth.  Why would you speak to a black woman (any woman) that way?

It means praying that the kid that shot those kids in Ohio wasn’t black.  It means praying that the last shooting, the last robbery, the last whatever will be on the front page news wasn’t done by a black man.

It means wanting to make a difference and not knowing if it’s enough.

Black means I’m just like you. I have feelings like you, I have passion just like you.  It means being an individual, it means being unique.

Black means I’m not like you.

Black means something different to another black person and knowing that I don’t speak for them and would never want to.

Black means more than I know because I’ve only lived 32 years.  It means always learning, it means always evolving, it means I’ll always have to prove myself, sometimes to myself.

Black means never really understanding what “the black experience” is outside of my world, but trying to comprehend the many variations, the many situations, the many people, the many generations that make up that experience I’m a part of.

Black means that I’m still proud to be black even though there’s a white woman on my arm.

Black means being a lesbian, at least for me.

 

 

I’ve been thinking about what black means for a while, in the same way that I think about what white means.  They’re both umbrella terms for groups of people and they mean different things to an individual.  As much as there are similarities among blacks, and whites for that matter, no one person can speak for the whole group.

I never questioned who I was as a black person until the world started asking the questions.  I knew I was black, obviously, but I wasn’t aware of only one way of being black until I was informed that my way was the wrong way.  Which is funny, because I could never pass for anything than being black.  My Judaism doesn’t show, my sexual orientation doesn’t show but my blackness (and my womanhood) are on display for the world’s prying eyes.  I can’t hide either and wouldn’t want to hide them, which is always a bit mind boggling when you’re told you’re not black “enough”.

I’m black enough to know that if I walk into a store and I’m not dressed a certain way I could be followed.  I’m black enough to no longer find it   amusing an interviewer is surprised that the woman they talked to on the phone and the woman standing before them is the same., that she’s not white.  I’m black enough to know that when someone tells me I speak so well they really are saying I speak so well for a black person.  I’m black enough to know that raising children in this world, especially multi-racial Jewish children with two mothers, means that one day my child will come home from school crying because someone made fun of her-isn’t that black enough?

 

14 Responses to "What does it mean to be Black?"

It’s not so much a shame we see color first, but only when we define each other by it. We all have a cultural history that’s so interesting to share. So thanks for sharing 🙂

I spent a whole lot of time on nude beaches here in Florida and the one thing that truly impressed me is that we are all one color, just different shades. Looking out into a sea of naked people, it really hits you.

What a beautiful, powerful, lyrical, thought-provoking post this is. Thank you. So much.

I’m really glad our online paths have intersected. Thank you for being out there & for speaking your truths.

Happy Purim to you and yours!

It’s bad when one person is seen as representative of every other person who shares something similar, whether it’s colour or sexuality or gender or religion. But like you say, you can’t always tell what sexuality or religion someone is, unless they are wearing some kind of cultural marker to indicate it.

Thank you so much for writing this. There are so many ways to be Black, to filter Black identities and ethnicities. But, as you so eloquently point out, nothing about being multiracial eliminates the ways white domination seeks out and targets Blackness. Visibility, that inadvertent, totally uncontrollable act of being seen, means there really is no way tussling in some way, shape or form with the kinds of experiences you’ve described up above. Signed, another Black lady who also has the telephone shock experience with white people on the regular. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

I love this piece. Thank you!

@Madge-I definitely agree. I hate the term “color-blind” because I need you to see that I’m black, I just need you to see that it’s simply a part of who I am. While it does define me, and it makes me who I am, but limiting me based simply on skin color alone? You might as well not see me.
@Rabbi Rachel Barenblat-Thank YOU! I’m so excited to use your lovely haggadah for Pesach this year again-which is how I found my way to your online space.
@Yewtree-Right! I can’t represent all black people, all Jewish people, all Jews of Color, all women, all queer people because I’m just one person! I try to wear it all for the world to see, but people will often only see what they want to see.
@Darkdaughta-Thank you for your wonderfully beautiful words.
@Shim’on-Thanks 🙂

Beautiful piece! Happy Purim!

Thank you! Sorry for the late response!

That’s really beautifully written.
I remember when I was about 7 and had seen black people only in tv, I told my mom I wanted to have skin like that, because it was so beautiful, and I wanted to have black curly hair like a cloud around my face, and I wanted to have dark, dark eyes, not so boring blue…. I was a very pale kid and dark skin was only that: dark skin. I knew nothing about other things attached to it. When they showed Bill cosby in our tv it was just another american tv show to me, I had no idea there was something special about it. It’s much later that I started to learn about slavery, racism and issues of race in America… But what funny is, the first time I became “white”? was when I came to America. Before I was just like everyone else… It’s interesting that a friend of mine, who came to America from Kenya said the same thing – she became “black” when moved to America.
I am fascinated by the issues of race and hyper sensitive to it, because I never grew in it, never had a chance to internalize it. I always notice what race are kids in an ad, or what is the race ratio in tv shows, who has the leading roles and what are the statistics for crime or education (I also analyze it in terms of gender division and inclusion of gays)… and the same feeling you have about hoping the “bad guy” is not black, I have about Jews 🙂
Anyway – great post, thank you!

Thanks Yoannah-

Unfortunately race is a very hot topic issue here in the US-always has been, always will be unfortunately.

This was an amazing post. You have pretty much described me and my life. Thank you.

P.S. I always wonder what IS Black enough? Does that mean we all have to be gangsta rappers? Don’t worry- they said President Obama wasn’t Black enough either when he was running for president, so we are in good company! 🙂

Hi Jena-

Thanks for the reply-sorry it’s taken so long for me to respond.

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