I’ve been listening to the podcast, Seeing White. It is good to see that Americans are finally researching and talking about the origins and source of racism rather than studying the targeted recipients of its ire; as if “fixing” Black people might cure the country of white people’s racism. It’s been generally acknowledged that the concept of race is a social construct with no grounding in science.
I’ve been thinking about how this social and political construct has come to be such an integral part of my identity; not by choice, but by simple fact. Racial identity is so knitted into the fabric of our nation that it is difficult to detangle it from its other permeations.
It is an oppositional identity — white or not white. However, for Black people, it has also become a shared identity around culture and rejection, knitting together a range of Black ethnicities.
But it is also not that simple. Black people, including African Americans, are so much more complex. We have layered identities formed by place and time that are rich and multifaceted and seldom acknowledged.
I am Black — part of the diaspora of mother Africa. I am African American — descendent of the slaves that built this nation. I am also a daughter of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and a daughter of the Caribbean island of Antigua. This layered identity takes me beyond cultural expressions of diet, music, or dialect. It influences how I see myself and how and why I connect with others, often in ways I don’t even realize. Some of these influences are at odds with modern middle-income standards defined by the overarching white culture.
One example is the role of extended family. My maternal lineage hails from St. Hela Island, South Carolina (formerly Frogmore). The first migration took them to a nearby big southern city earlier on in the 20th century. The northern migration happened next, taking many to New York City; just as many from Mississippi and Alabama headed to Detroit and Chicago.
None of these moves were made without the assistance of extended family. Folks moved in with aunts, uncles, and cousins until they found jobs and got on their feet. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles left behind raised their children until parents could send for them later.
This is actually not much different from the story of 20th-century immigrants to the U.S. This family support system continues to be important, particularly for folks raising children and suffering hardships. And yet it has become even more difficult to maintain for those of us who are part of the subsequent migration in pursuit of educational and career opportunities. Those strong family ties have been stretched far.
The closeness of cousins is less prevalent in my family as children are no longer raised in the same cities. So it is difficult to build, let alone sustain, the relationships. Higher income may shield us from some of the financial challenges, but many are just a layoff or a serious illness away from being back to square one. And even if we are able to stave off those hardships, the struggle of dealing with mini- and macro-aggressions, finding folks with whom you connect, and raising whole and happy children in places not designed to reflect who you are is real, with the consoling arms of family far away.
Interestingly enough, those bonds formed from shared identity around culture and rejection help me to form chosen family miles away from my biological family and connect me inextricably to folks I have never met. Whether it’s the Black Student Union on campus, Black members of my church, or Black residents of Oak Park, I can find a group of people with whom I can build a support system where I am.
I was walking down Rush Street with a white college roommate and passed a Black gentleman who gave me the obligatory nod. She then mentioned noticing this happening on campus and asked me, in all seriousness, if I knew all Black people. I thought for a few seconds and answered “yes”. I don’t actually, but I relish the likelihood that I can be seen and acknowledged in places where I might be feeling unseen.
As much as I realize the destructiveness that has occurred from the creation of race as a social construct, I embrace the beauty that has been created from the ruins. It takes work, and I am grateful that there are folks who continue to do the work of carving out community in sometimes barren spaces and in a larger community that may not see its necessity.
I am grateful for the elders who have born the torch, my peers who have fanned the flames, and the Black youth ready to carry it forward. Thanks, fam. I love my Black people and I feel a kinship with the Black community that holds me and sustains me. Our shared struggle obligates us to one another.
Just think how wonderful it would be if I could say that about all of my fellow Americans.