Right now, I’m enjoying Baratunde Thurston’s book, How to Be Black. Every afternoon, when I can carve out time to actually read instead of write, I’m somewhere in full public view, steady laughing out loud—or, at the very least, smirking to myself—about his snarky commentary and funny recounts of stories from his childhood. His mother, a woman with a definitive love for her Washington, DC community and her people in general, reminds me a whole lot of myself, who forbade my elementary-school aged daughter from watching Disney movies because I didn’t want the mainstream image of beauty to infiltrate her mind before she was equipped to fight it off.
I was also pressed for her to understand the real Africa, not the Africa we see represented on TV. It may be a while before we can actually set foot on motherland soil; prices for those trips are no joke for one, let alone two people, unless we poke some air holes in one of my suitcases and take the Samsonite travel discount. (Just kidding, department of family services folks!) But if I had anything to say about it, Girl Child was not going to grow up thinking that all they do on the continent is starve, swat flies and forge war.
So when I think about how Black my Black is, I think about my own mother because that’s where this whole love of self and culture came from. Wasn’t no ho-ho-hoing Christmas decoration or no craft fair trinket that didn’t get penciled in brown, if it didn’t come that way in the first place. She wasn’t militant; she just believed in celebrating the beauty of us. I think we all start piecing together our first rudimentary bits of self-identity based on what we learn from our families.
Still, for all of our joy of being in the skin we’re in there existed, among my immediate and extended relatives, an unpublished law book of things Black people did and didn’t do that were just unspoken rules of the culture. My mama swore Black people didn’t waste food. My uncle claimed Black people didn’t drive anything but American-made cars (yes, he really said that, and I think he was only half-joking). My cousin insisted Black people didn’t dig rock music or pierce weird parts of their bodies. It took a little work to dislodge Blackness from the corner it had been jammed into and listen to my Alanis Morrisette with unapologetic pride and laugh off some of the broad-stroked cultural conventions that are supposed to fall neatly into “Black” and “Unblack” categories.