Between Worlds in America

I grew up in the rarefied position of being a Black person, but not looking quite enough so to be identified as such…

“Mixed race” people didn’t just show up in America in the last generation or two. We have existed in this country ever since Europeans first set foot here and began setting roots in this land — ever since Europeans began interbreeding (largely by force) with Africans and Native peoples. And yet, many of us have struggled with the feeling that there was no clearly defined place for us here, and often, that our right to claim the cultures making up who we are is questioned. It’s certainly happened to me.

I was born in the Jim Crow South, labeled “Negro” on my birth certificate, and began my education in segregated schools. My parents attended segregated schools from kindergarten through obtaining advanced degrees. When they left the Jim Crow South — part of the Great Migration — they settled their young family in South Central Los Angeles. We always lived, even as we climbed the economic ladder, in communities that were comprised primarily of people of color. I had the dubious distinction of witnessing my younger brother stopped and dragged into a Beverly Hills police station as a young man, simply for driving through the neighborhood admiring the houses.

I grew up in the rarefied position of being a black person, but not looking quite enough so to be identified as such (and yes, I fully recognize the privilege of that), unless I was, say, with my first cousin and our best friend from school, as a child. Then I, too, heard that word hurled at me — not in the deep South mind you, but in Southern California. In spite of all of this, I have been asked -by white people - who am I to speak for the “Black community”.

I’ve been asked “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” since childhood and through nearly 7 decades of life in this country, as if I were the “other”, not quite belonging here. This, in spite of the fact that I, my parents, all of my grandparents and all but one of my great grandparents were born here.

My family and extended community called ourselves “Negro” and later “Black”, even though I doubt that many of us have the 70% sub-Saharan African ancestry it’s been claimed most African Americans do.

I still hear today, 4 centuries after Africans were first brought to this continent, figures like Kamala Harris and Barack Obama being criticized for not being truly “Black” or not being “Black” enough. Many of us recognize the similar taunts.

According to Dr. Sarah Gaither, Assistant Professor, at Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, and head of the university’s Identity and Diversity Lab : “Multi-racial people tend to face the highest levels of social exclusion compared to any other racial or ethnic group. They’re excluded twice as often.”

It’s taken the greater part of my lifetime to be completely comfortable with all of who I am — White, Black, Native and beyond. I ask, isn’t it time that we be fully accepted, that we be given the right and the space to define ourselves, to claim all of who we are and to claim our space in this society, to speak our truth — out of our experience, even though it may be different than some others? Isn’t it time that America hear our story, and recognize our Black experience in this country in all its varied and multi-hued glory?

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