For all the greatness and liberty proclaimed, the United States of America remains fractured in its identity.
My reckoning with race started when I was almost nine years old. I grew up in Chicago and Baltimore, Maryland, for the most part. What I cherish most about my upbringing are the memories I shared with my family. I only ever remember knowing the love, affection, and acceptance of my parents, family and loved ones. But an intrusion to the safety and sense of belonging I felt occurred one morning among a crowd of elementary school kids waiting for the entry bell to ring. A kid my age asked, “Are you Black or White?”
This question triggered an awareness about myself and my place in society that was previously nonexistent.
Unknown to me was that the city of Chicago was already divided, not by counties or districts, but by race. As a child I knew I was bright-skinned like my mother but not White like her because I was like my father who is brown-skin Black.
Of course, I’m parroting the terminology Black and White as if categorizing human beings by the color of their skin is valid. It’s taken me my whole life to learn that race is a social construct.
Back in 1992, I answered the boy’s childish question, “Both.” And to that he said, “You can’t be both.” I was confused, flustered, and speechless. I know my experience is not rare. Mine eventually led to an awakening of consciousness, but it’s hard being woke.
In my America, recognizing that the color or your skin matters is Woke 101. People weaponize race against themselves as much, if not more than, against others. When I was told I couldn’t be both of something, I felt less than myself, less than human, another something altogether, marginalized.
I was instantly sickened at the boy’s question. I needed a hug and words of affirmation. Because I had yet to develop the emotional intelligence to approach my parents, I found myself isolated
Grade school through the 10th grade was more of a missed education than the absorption of academics. I was more preoccupied with not measuring up to others, distracted by physical traits no human being is in control of.
Shortly after that kid introduced me to race, I turned that same meanness on him when we squared off for a game of King of the Hill. He might have thought he was trying to win. I didn’t feel that way. For me, it was combat. I wasn’t interested in winning a game, I was trying to take back the innocence and naïveté race stole from me.
I shoved him in his face, his neck, his chest. I became savage. I remember not allowing the kid to even stand on his feet without me pushing him back down to the ground. My dominance made me hysterical with laughter and in my euphoria, I lost my step and fell, slamming my face. The human response would have recognized my own injury and acted accordingly. Nope. Now, with blood streaming from my forehead, I invited the kid I’d been bullying who I now hated to try me again. A teacher spotted me bleeding and escorted me to the nurse. I can still smell the playground wood chips.
I would have rather bled all over the place — to death even — than give up my reign of power.
When I wasn’t fighting someone hurling racially charged epithets at me, I drew on those experiences as fuel to instigate confrontations at school, in my neighborhood, or commit crimes against those I perceived of a higher class or above my caste.
I also jumped to conclusions based on race ideology when something didn’t go my way. I had become a racist, living uncomfortably in my own skin.
My piecemeal education was an escape that eventually led me to the award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi. His writings, like those of Isabel Wilkerson and the late James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, articulated clearly what my conscious soul intimately knew to be true but, what my mind could not unravel.
In his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi wrote, “The word race first appeared in Frenchman Jacques de Breze’s 1481 poem ‘The Hunt,’ where it referred to hunting dogs. As the term expanded to include humans over the next century, it was used primarily to identify and differentiate and animalize African people.”
He went on to explain how “race” did not appear in the dictionary until 1606, when French diplomat Jean Nicot defined race as descending from a “good or bad race.” Thirteen years after Nicot’s dictionary entry, the first Africans arrived in the wilderness of Virginia colony.
Grammy Award-winning artist Lecrae raps a song called “Broke” in which he said, “Being Broke Made Me Rich.”
Well, for me, being woke made me rich. Education and intimate knowledge are indispensable to being industrious, to govern self, to handle relationships responsibly and to answer spirituality on a personal level. Education has allowed me the space to study, listen, and acquire a framework to intellectually process information.
Over time, education has afforded me new ways to engage with information and think critically rather than lazily accepting the labels and devices of bondage as my own. In a society rife with accusations of racial discrimination, I needed to confront my biracial self in America.
Growing up, I used to think I could dodge conversations about my race and whether I was White or Black by claiming both or mixed. But I couldn’t escape my skin. Others considered me Black under the “one drop rule,” which asserts that even one drop of Black blood makes a person Black. Even in claiming my mixed identity, I was only choosing a lesser of two evils in my identity crisis.
I felt ignorant and embarrassed because I couldn’t see myself fitting in and connecting socially. I was suspicious of White non-family members. I felt more comfortable and accepted in Black circles. That is, until someone would treat me like I wasn’t Black enough.
In such cases, I would prove myself with my fists or some other demonstration of Afro·centric swagger. When I was in that kind of head space, I recall feeling like the character Queen from Alex Haley’s classic saga “Roots.” Queen, being a child of an African enslaved mother and her plantation owning White father, finds herself pleading her Negroness so that the churchfolk would embrace her as their own.
During my teenage years, there were days when I was hesitant to look at myself in the mirror and suffer in silence.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my brother. I was older than him by a year. We lived in the same America, but experienced life very differently. My mom told me that whenever someone asked him whether he was Black or White she would overhear him say, “Human.”
Racism no longer serves a purpose in how I see myself because like my brother, I love myself. Race is not a measure I assign value because I cannot know someone intimately just by looking at the color of their skin.
If we do not treat ourselves with love and practice, generations of Americans will suffer intellectual violence and impoverishment. Such experiences will lead the human race away from one another and away from human advancement and discovery where working together to solve problems always yields the greatest rewards for all.
My hope is that education takes us out of our negative experiences, suspicions, and superficial ideas and that we un-color the wonderment of being human.
For you are not a lie, you’re you; marvelously, curiously you, a living history and necessary canon in the story of us. You are real, and real is us.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.