Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
– “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
I grew up thinking blackness wasn’t beautiful, particularly my blackness as a darker-skinned woman. I thought little of my race until the fourth grade when my family moved to a predominately white suburb in northern Westchester, NY. I remember being late on the first day of class and running through the hollow halls and stopping at room 206. When I turned the knob, I felt this feeling I never felt before. As I opened the door, twenty-five white faces stared back at me in confusion and for the first time in my whole life, I knew I was the other.
As I matriculated into middle school and high school I became hyper aware of my blackness and the condemnation that was attached, as if undesirability was a byproduct of too much melanin. There wasn’t a black boy in my high school who dated black girls. When black girls did get attention, it was the light-skin black girls with light eyes and wavy hair. It was hard to not internalize a phenomenon like that. When the media already constructed a narrative in which darker-skinned black girls aren’t sex symbols and beautiful beings, I didn’t need those sentiments to be reinforced on an interpersonal level.
But when you’re the other, you have to make a choice. Whether it’s conscious or not, you are faced with the option of assimilation as a means of survival, I was quick to assimilate into white culture. The way I dressed, the way I talked, the television shows I watched, the music artists I liked, were all curated by what my white counterparts liked. I traded in my B2K and Baby Phat for Hollister and Panic at the Disco, replaced my “y’all” with “you all” and started saying “like” and “totally” far too much.
Most tragically, in assimilating into the cultural norms of my white peers, I othered myself from a large percentage of black students at my school. I fell into the Sunken Place and decided I wouldn’t be one of the “bad” black people. I wouldn’t be ghetto or ratchet, I wouldn’t be loud or confrontational, I wouldn’t use AAVE, I wouldn’t have cornrows or anything that would have made my peers think I wasn’t just like them. I’d be one of their tokenized, good negroes that they could like and respect. In a word, respectability politics became the norm.
And this was in spite of the fact that my mother tried very hard to instill a sense of black pride in my siblings and me. Although she and my sister are lighter-skinned, my mom always taught me to love my darker skintone. My house was also black as fuck. As soon as you walked into my house there was a souvenir sign my mom purchased at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore that said, “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.” Today, it’s a poignant reminder to me of my people’s unerasable history and pain, but when I was in the 8th grade, it was just a reminder that I wasn’t like my friends Stephanie and Siobhan.
I didn’t appreciate any of the cultural things my parents did to make me proud of my African American ancestry. I didn’t appreciate my siblings and my ethnic names, I didn’t appreciate Kwanzaa, I didn’t appreciate the various paintings of black people around my house or the African statues and vases, none of it. All it did was make me more conscious of the fact that I was black. And from the age of ten, I was very aware about the contentious nature of blackness.
And the thing about this contention is that I quickly noticed that it can be easily mitigated if your black has a sprinkle of whiteness in it. A little cream in your coffee. This happened for me in the form of my hair. After undoing my braids at a pool party in the 6th grade, I noticed my hair was nothing like my mom’s and my sister’s. My hair fell around my round little eleven-year-old face in loose curls and waves and looked just like some of the white girls’ hair when wet. With the help of pounds of gel and mousse, this wet and wavy look become my signature look until I got to college.
As I navigated beauty politics, as any adolescent does, my hair became a pillar of my identity and a source of my self love. It was what I was the most proud of and as I began to get it blown out at various Dominican hair salons, I noticed how my hair looked exactly like theirs too. Latinas in the salon and some of my Latina peers in school often mistook me as being Dominican, so much so that I actually began to think I was. Whenever someone would assume my hair was a weave, I’d correct them by saying I was Dominican. I was happy to be something exotic and beautiful since Latinas were seen in a much more beautiful light than African Americans.
But then something happened on February 12, 2012 that sparked a change in me. A change that made me realize Chief Powhatan from Pocahontas’ was right, these white men are dangerous. The murder of Trayvon Martin made me once again realize that white people and I are not the same. However, this time, a product of that realization wasn’t shame or embarrassment. For the first time it was anger. A sense of black pride started to hum and murmur my senior year of high school and I began to speak out against the microaggressions I faced from my non-black peers.
Ultimately, the fearless, unapologetically black woman I am today found her wings my freshman year at NYU. I entered through a summer program for minorities majoring in STEM. For the first time since the 3rd grade, I had instructors, classmates, and peer mentors who looked like me. I joined identity-based organizations on campus such as the Black Student Union, I took classes about blackness, read books about blackness and realized I was fucking magic. I was Hogwarts dipped in the finest dark chocolate. I fell head over heels in love with blackness, my blackness. I moved through space with an air of pride, for a knew everything about my being was beautiful, from my melanated toes to the twirl of my curls.
I started however, to lament on my life before college. I wish I had known about institutionalized racism, microaggressions, white privilege, mass incarceration and all the systematic plights of my people. I wish I knew that no amount of Hollister and respectability politics would have made my classmates not hold my blackness under scrutiny. I wish I knew how to spit facts like venom about affirmative action at Arjun Nandi and all the other asian and white students who “knew the real reason” why black and latinx student get into prestigious universities. I wish I could have told Mr. Dehay that calling on me to speak about the black experience as it pertains to slavery is unacceptable. I wish I had snatched my folder out of Ms. Himelstein’s hand when I asked her to write a recommendation letter for NYU and she asked “are you sure you would get in?” I wish I could have told Amanda from summer camp that no, she could not call me Rachel because Rahani was too hard to say.
But I can’t go back. All I can do now is love myself with an unwavering fierceness. I can abandon my faux-Dominican identity and release my afro from the shackles of crunchy gel. I can be me. A loud, tenacious and vivacious African American woman who is unapologetic about her black pride because she knows who she is and that her existence and success in academia and medicine is defiance. A woman who’s a black ocean, leaping and wide. A woman who can rise