Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud!
These lyrics, sung by the extraordinary James Brown in 1968, have become an anthem of celebration for Black people across the United States and beyond the borders. Being proud of one’s blackness is seeks as a combative against the systemic racism that exists in all societies. During the second half o the 20th century and into the 21st, Black people have made it a priority to connect to their African roots. From wearing traditional African clothing like dashikis to taking DNA tests to reveal what was once hidden, Black people are no longer letting others use the color of their skins as a source of shame and sadness.
Thank God, Black Pride is here to stay.
But what if you’re someone who struggles with your Blackness? What if, for most of your life, you felt resentment for the melanin in your skin and the texture of your hair? You may have had more white friends than black friends, but still felt isolated from both groups. How do you feel pride when throughout school all they taught was the enslavement of your ancestors and the segregation and humiliation of those fighting for Civil Rights?
How do you find your personal black pride?
When I was born, I was completely unaware of what the color of my skin was. It was not until I was five years old that I realized that my skin tone was different from many of those around me. Outside of being with my family, all other social spaces that I encountered were filled with those who did not look like me. But at that age, I didn’t seem to mind. I grew up having selective mutism, so my social skills were already nonexistent, and I didn’t talk to anyone, regardless of their race and color. Everyone was just a person to me, even though there were many different shades to choose from. But I still wanted to have friends and be a “normal” kid. So I reached out as best as I could to anyone I thought would be friendly.
Going into elementary school, my fellow classmates began to point at my skin and snicker, never hiding their mocking actions from me. Whenever our teachers taught us about the horrors of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement (albeit a more “age-appropriate” approach), all of my classmates’ faces would turn to me, their eyes looking at me as though I was an alien. They made it a point to let me know that I was different from them. I didn’t show it on the surface too much, but inside I began to feel ashamed of the color of my skin. My Blackness only served as a reminder that I was the “other” in my group of peers. What a horrible thing to feel as a child.
As I progressed in my school years, there started to be a little more diversity in my life. I was no longer the lone Black girl, and it felt great. I now thought that I could start to feel some pride in something I used to feel ashamed about myself. Except, that didn’t happen at all. With the introduction of more Black students, it was no longer an issue of me being “too Black”. Now, I was not Black enough. And I began to feel even worse than before.
All I wanted was to fit in with my peers, yet the powers at be seemed to not want that to happen at all. The fellow Black kids in my school all seemed to have an attitude of confidence that I desperately wanted for myself. They knew who they were and how their Blackness factored into their identity. They were into the “right” stuff: music, movies, fashion, and other facets of Black culture. And I didn’t seem to fit into any of it. I was once again an outsider.
My struggle with being Black continued well into my years of high school. Only this time, I seemed to be doing better at not letting it get to me as much as I once had. I went to a predominately white school (of course), and there never seemed to be that much awareness and sensitivity to any of the Black students. Most of the Black kids knew and hung out with one another, sticking to a group where they felt understood and validated. I only knew a couple of them personally, but for the most part, had limited interactions with the group at large. Like my past experiences, I didn’t seem to be Black enough to fit in with them. It was almost like they could sense my lacking without even knowing the real me.
Even though I had a few close friends from school who were all white, I was quickly reminded by other not so open-minded students that I truly wasn’t welcomed in my high school. Racially charged comments, both explicit and not, were the norm, and teachers always seemed to become temporarily deaf when one was said. Black history only seemed to exist in the context of slavery and civil rights (just like elementary school all over again). It made me sick to my stomach to be there. But where else could I go to escape? This is America, after all.
An unexpected refuge emerged for me and my inner struggles during this time. And it came in the form of my church. During high school, I was heavily involved in church activities. From taking on leadership roles within the group, going on mission trips, and even interning there for my last two years of high school, the church became a huge part of my life. And since I went to a predominately Black baptist church that was formed in the early 1900s, there was no lack of Black history and culture to be exposed to. Even though quite a number of the teens in my youth group reminded me of some of the Black students I went to school with, there were a few who expressed their Black identities in ways that I did not expect.
They were themselves through and through, and even though they did not always fit into the same group think as others, they did not deny their Blackness or compromise it. A few of the people I met even had some of the same interests as me. I loved not feeling like a pariah among people of the same race.
As I progressed through high school and into college, I found more people who were into cultivating their own unique Black identity. And while that was invigorating and helpful in my quest to form my own identity, I also discovered something new.
From the Black students who I saw at school who thrived in a core group, to those who took a more individualistic route: they all taught me that there is no one way to be Black. Our history is so much more than just slavery and Civil Rights. The people who came before us survived in a world where everyone saw them as less than, and yet they did not give in. Their resilience lives on in all Black people today as we continue to fight the good fight for the generation of Black people to come.
Life as a Black girl (and now woman) in America has not been a fairytale. In fact, the farthest thing from it. But I would not trade it for anything. If there was a magic spell that could give me white skin and straight hair, I would tell whichever wizard who came up with it to get the hell away from me. I may not have always felt this way during my life, but in 2020 I can finally join in with James Brown and all of the countless others who have said it loud:
I’m Black and I’m proud!