We hear it all the time. Some of us are more aware of it than others. The United States is a melting pot of many different cultures and ethnicities. It makes sense that there would be some dispute and lack of understanding among the many sub-communities that exist.
Racism still exists.
Personally, I get questions leaning more towards how I identify. “What are you?” “What are you mixed with?” And my favorite: “Are you completely black?” These questions never bothered me much, except for the dreaded “Can I touch your hair?” This question brings up a scenario something eerily similar to a petting zoo in which I am the animal. But when I was younger, these encounters were the closest I came to the experience of knowing that I was in some way different.
My grandmother made sure that none of her grandchildren grew up without knowing history. I remember as a child, listening to her stories of hardship and of the integration process and about all of the barriers that were broken down as she grew up. I was raised knowing the history of “my people,” as my grandmother called them, but I was confused about what exactly it was that made them mine.
Recently, I’ve started a journey to find out more about the black experience here in America and why our race has been confined by controversy.
If you type “black people” into the Bing search engine, the first photographs to appear are of people eating chicken; impoverished men and women living in huts and covered in dust; and others plastered head-to-toe in tattoos, locked away in jail cells.
What made them my people? I am a vegetarian. I live in a two-story home. I have no tattoos, and I have never been to jail.
Their brown skin is what makes them my people. Even more so, the experiences that come with brown skin are what make them my people.
Being black in America can be a daunting task, particularly here in the South. The long and painful accounts of the slavery and the Jim Crow era arise from our past. We hear of the pain and suffering that our ancestors experienced, all the while encountering our own secondary hurts and difficulties.
We often hear of tales of “the black experience,” as if there were some adventure everyone who identifies as black goes on at some point in their life. The experience is life, and life is different for everyone. You cannot generalize an entire group, obviously, but there are some things that Black America has in common.
But what is it to be black?
On my own journey of accepting my skin and embracing my history, I have struggled with this question. Does it mean you have to act a certain way or speak a certain way? And if not, why are there so many notions of what it looks like and what it sounds like to be black. So, in hope of answering this question, I have asked some of my fellow Bucs about their answer to the question that is at the core of what this month has been about.
The image of black people that is portrayed in the media is harmful to younger members of the community. It says you are not going anywhere unless you’re a “thug,” a “gangster,” or are in some way entertaining; whether that be acting, singing or comedy; but we have decided to start defining ourselves.
Of course, others have taken issue with the some of the measures we have taken as we go about this process of definition. The bigger issue isn’t whether or not you believe that racism or white privilege still exist. The issue is that a distinct group of fellow human beings feel as though their voices do not matter and that their lives are valued as less than other members. I find it perplexing that in the year 2016 we still haven’t learned how to treat each other. If someone says “You’ve hurt me,” you don’t have the right to say “No, I haven’t”.
It is diverse, and it is one of uncertainty, but the black experience is one of hope. The black experience is being moved by both the inspirational words of Malcolm X and the deep pleas of Martin Luther King Jr. because you know that they both had your best interest in mind.
It is often times an experience of religion. Our ancestors enduring slavery has always been paralleled with the Israelites’ plight in Egypt. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of making it to the “Promised Land.” The black experience is growing up with gospel music whether or not you connect with it or accept it.
Of course it was not—and still is not—always fun and good. Racial stereotypes and even the realities of drugs and violence within our communities have been concerns of black Americans for decades. Being black is also being mindful of extra steps you’ll have to take to achieve what others have been given.
But black is more than just a color. Black is pain, black is culture, black is fight, black is history.
The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.