I wrapped up a Washington, D.C. business trip with a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I wandered the floors alone for hours, soaking up every bit of the place. There are so many ways and places to be Black - but rest assured, you will be Black wherever you go in this country.
I spent years feeling conflicted about my own Blackness. My mother was born in the South. I've traced that side of the family to a plantation all the way down south in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana. Thinking about the horrific conditions my not-too-distant relatives endured, coupled with poor treatment during and after slavery, makes my heart hurt. Even my mother, who came to Minnesota in the late 80's, has stories about how cruel many Minnesotans were to her. Minnesota Nice is a beast.
My father immigrated from a comfortable life in Nigeria to pursue a career in the US. He also had his own racial and cultural encounters. I remember witnessing someone ridicule his accent - as though my father's manner of speaking erased all that he had to offer the scientific world. I think back on it today, furious.
As for me, I was born and raised in Minnesota - and while the racial and ethnic demographics have shifted in past years, it hasn't always been a welcoming environment for me, either. You may be thinking my experience is limited to the whole, "Midwestern White Minnesotans versus Incomers of Color" dynamic, right? That's part of it. But there were layers beyond that. Growing up, I grappled with questions like:
If you're Black but with a "funny", foreign Nigerian name, can you really take part in The Culture™?
If you're Nigerian but constantly screw up your jollof rice and lack even basic skills in your people's native language, are you really African?
If you're Black but don't even have to turn on the "White Voice" (because it is already your natural voice), can you really complain about being mocked by your cousins?
If you're the only person of color in your class or workplace, how appropriate is it to bristle when your well-meaning white teacher, classmate, coworker, or boss touches your hair without asking?
If you're wondering, I have since found answers to all of these questions. But at 14 (heck, even at 24), I was STRESSED.
My point is this: Take some time to visit the museum. It is beautifully curated and the work answers questions many of us wouldn't even know to ask. It is the essence of Blackness, brutally and authentically packed in one giant building.
My tenth grade English teacher is in front of the class, brandishing a cylinder of grits. She holds the container high above our heads. "This is a food commonly eaten by Southern BLACKS - I mean, African American people," she says, eyes wide with excitement. Like clockwork, every blonde, brunette, and red head turns in my direction to verify. "Is it true?"