cultural identity crisis?

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece in which I unabashedly laid bare some of my most pervasive and damaging insecurities, most of which centered around my physical appearance (mainly, my hair). Every so often I go back and read what I wrote, and I see all the ‘likes’ and comments from people who have read it, some from my closest family and friends, some from people I would probably never even think about if it weren’t for social media, and I cringe. In reality, I am one of the most quiet and withdrawn people I know when I am around people I am not completely comfortable around, and that is not a large group of people. But, as is the case with most writers, I suppose, who stray to introversion, it is such an incredible relief to use the medium of writing to express what I cannot out loud.

I will probably look back on this at some point and cringe, maybe five minutes after posting it, but what good is writing if it doesn’t expose something? Maybe someone will catch a glimpse of themselves in what I said. That, more than an exhibitionist urge, is why I write.

I was raised in a very Caribbean home. Or West Indian – is that more accurate? My father was born in Guyana; my mother in Jamaica. They lived in the United States for many years before I came along, but their enduring passion and sense of belonging to their original homes was strong enough to never make me hesitate in considering myself a member of the ‘first-generation’ club. I had other friends whose families were West Indian; we commiserated over our shared ‘struggles’ that we were actually secretly proud of: the indescribable panic that filtered through the house when someone discovered we were out of rice; the abrupt switch to patois that was the unerring harbinger of a truly painful punishment; curry, curry, and more curry when seriously, can we never just have fried chicken like regular black people? 

You read that right. Is that offensive? Probably. Sorry. But this is genuinely how I viewed myself and other Caribbean-American families. There was a clear difference between my family’s Sunday dinner and my friend Rashida’s. When I went to a family reunion at Kerryn’s house, they did not drink mauby or sorrel, and her grandmother certainly was not wining to “Murder She Wrote”. From an early age, I was acutely aware of the cultural variations that existed between me and some of my closest friends, despite our nearly identical skin tones; our similar hairstyles and way of dress. Most of the time, they made me laugh. But the older I got, the more it began to…rankle.

I think it was college where I really began to grasp how much of what I saw as ‘black culture’ I had missed out on. When I saw large groups of black girls on campus, my first instinct was to hide, or make myself less visible, as if I was somehow afraid they’d call me out on my anti-social and uncool behavior, the opposite of how they were presenting themselves. They seemed so vibrant and intimidating and I felt completely separate from them; somehow familiar yet totally incomprehensible. I tried to integrate: I auditioned for a hip hop dance group, experienced some of the worst stage fright of my life, and got cut – one of the most humiliating experiences of my college career (a black girl who can’t dance?) I also joined the Liberation Gospel Choir for a couple of months (weeks?) out of a fit of nostalgia and loneliness. I was always in choirs throughout elementary, middle, and high school; even in my church, where I had become accustomed to feeling out of place, I felt accepted in the Children’s/VOP/Teen Choir. In LGC, I quickly assumed my typical M.O.: quietly watching other’s antics from the sidelines, laughing at the jokes and speaking when spoken to. I eventually stopped going when I felt my act was too difficult to maintain. It just wasn’t me.

What the hell is blackness? Buried beneath my many other, more demanding insecurities, this one lingered for years, festering. Every time I went abroad, it became easier to ignore. Do you know how often you worry about seeming ‘black enough’ when you’re hanging out in a bar in southwest England with people from all over the world, who speak seventeen other languages and who all look and dress and think differently? NEVER. I was just another foreigner in a sea of foreigners, except I also had a (pretty unfair) leg up, because they all also spoke English. I had no one to compare myself to because no one else looked like me. I could finally breathe without worrying about if I was breathing the right way.

(People told me how transformative my study abroad experience(s) would be, but every time I write, I continue to understand just how right they were. Perhaps even more in retrospect.)

I’ve been back for years and the question remains: what is blackness? What does it mean for me? For most of my life, American blackness has been like a club I can’t quite afford membership to. There’s an exhaustive list of things I’m missing: the lyrics to yet another classic oldie that my peers’ parents were blasting while mine were crooning along with “Three Little Birds”, having seen some iconic Spike Lee movie or old black sitcom, an appreciation for an actor whose name I can’t really remember. I didn’t go to an HBCU, much less apply to one. I have no memory of watching the “Thriller” video for the first time (this is a thing, right?). I’ve learned to stop making exclamations when I hear the original songs that modern hip hop artists have sampled from, for fear of getting the “are you kidding me????” look that is rarely served alongside genuine contempt, but feels no less crappy. Now that I’m 25 and am consistently surrounded by probably more black people than I have ever been in my life, I feel like I’m desperate race to catch up, before…what? Before people truly realize how ‘not black’ I am? Before I have kids, and I fail to expose them to essential black culture out of woeful ignorance? Whatever it is, there is a definite sense of urgency, quickly followed by a sense of hopelessness. How sad is that?

Please don’t take this as some sort of indictment against my parents, who happily and freely shared their cultures with me, to the point where I identify with their legacy as truly mine. If I am frank, I still see black American culture as one that I have adopted – from a very early age, yes, but it still isn’t…biological. There are days when I feel my membership is stronger than others; when no one could look at me and tell that I didn’t belong. And there others that…well. Those are bad days.

This might all be in my head. Black culture is what it is because of the vast blend of African and Caribbean cultures that contribute to it; the true ‘melting pot’ that the white founders of this country loved to boast about. One black person is no more or less ‘black’ because they don’t subscribe to the exact brand of blackness that another has known from birth – using the same slang, singing the same songs, dancing the same way. Right?

Then why do I still sometimes feel like such a fraud?

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