College was a great learning experience in many ways. Being around people from various cultures and walks of life was wonderfully eye-opening to say the least, but there were times when misunderstandings and misconceptions could get in the way. This became obvious within the Black student body due to a number reasons. For instance, at my school many of the Black students were second-generation [fill in the blank] with some immediate family throughout the Caribbean/West Indies, Africa, South America, etc. And for the first time in my life, saying “I’m Black” was not descriptive enough.
Once, while making acquaintance with a student whose parents were from Barbados, he inquired about my background. I stated I was from Philly and figured his next question would either be about cheese steaks or Will Smith, but to my surprise he wanted more details on my ethnicity. “By background I mean like what kind of Black are you?” he inquired. I threw out African-American (a term I don’t tend to use) hoping it would answer his question. “Oh, so you’re just like regular Black?” he replied, sounding somewhat disappointed. Thus, I was introduced to a new term
It seemed as though everyone at school had some other country or Island to rep. It was the norm. It was cool. So cool that some students came back after semester breaks with newly “discovered” (fake) cultural identities; plastering Caribbean flags in their apartment and/or randomly breaking into bad attempts to speak Patois. Although I’ve always been proud of who I am, I must admit there were even times where I felt compelled to throw out the fact that my sister’s father is from Ghana, which would make me kind of culturally in the know, right? There was also that great-grandparent I never met from St. Thomas, but I had no connection with any family there, so it was no use in fronting. Plain and simple, my mother is from Philadelphia and my father is from Newark. Grandparents are from Georgia and North Carolina–unfortunately that’s as far back as I know. I had no second-language to break into, homeland to boast or super unique cultural traditions outside of my Muslim upbringing. Alas, I had accepted the fact that, in the context of my campus, I was indeed ‘regular ole’ Black.’
And so it began. Those seemingly few and far between Black students with no known family anywhere outside of the U.S., had been pegged “just regular Black” and many of us had adopted the term as well. It became our motto; the ongoing joke; and the reason we weren’t swinging any flags at the Caribbean Student Association parties. Plus African-American didn’t have the same zing to it.
But as much as it was laughed about or brushed off, the use of this term also brought cultural tensions to the forefront at times. Some African-American students felt that Black students who only repped their nationality rather than their race were overtly trying to distinguish or distance themselves from being referred to as Black–sort of like the “I have Indian” in my family line. So saying “I’m regular Black” became a statement of one’s Black pride and satisfaction with being referred to as such. However, some students’ cultural ties to another country were truly a big part of their identity. And so shouting out “J-A-M-A-I-C-A–Jamaica!” was equivalent to New Yorkers screaming “Brooooklyn!” at any given moment. To them, it was simply a display of cultural pride.
So what exactly is “Regular Black”?
Looking back I find the title kind of silly, but I understand how many of us came to use it. The fact that many African-Americans can only trace our roots back but so far may make us feel somewhat disconnected to our past and our ancestors. And because of this, at times we were made to feel left out of the cultural potluck commencing on campus. However, whether we trace our family tree to the Caribbean or to the South, we are all diverse pieces of a puzzle created by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and African Diaspora. So technically, the majority of us don’t truly know where we are from and where our storied lineage places us on the map.
Overall, this question of “What kind of Black are you?” and subsequent categorization is a reflection of how often we focus on our differences as a people. Black is universal. There is no “type” of Black more exotic or plain than another. We come from all different walks of life and parts of the world, so therefore we must learn to accept and appreciate each other for who we are, the things that make us unique from one another, while also acknowledging our commonality–our Blackness.