Thursday, June 14, 2007

Redefining the Rainbow:
How it Feels to be Colored Me

“But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it … No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
– Zora Neale Hurston
“How it Feels to be Colored Me”

I love being a woman of color.

That might not be such a P.C. thing to proclaim in today’s color-blind utopia, race-is-a-social-construct society, but I love blackness in all its permutations.

There, I said it.

Recently, a very dear friend observed that I am hyperaware of pigmentation, particularly the dark variety. In other words, I'm color-obsessed. Guilty as charged. What can I say? I’m a writer dedicated to exploring the richness and complexity of African-American culture, particularly as it impacts black women. I notice race. I argue about race. I'm a racy chick.

The first op-ed piece that I published in the Baltimore Sun at age 22 was titled "The Multicultural Whirl of Racial Identity." This is the first line from that article: "The other night, an MCI operator called from New Mexico. In the course of haranguing me about the value of switching long-distance calling plans, the topic turned to race, as it frequently does in my conversations ..."

As a black woman living in the multicultural mosaic that is Los Angeles, sometimes my otherness stands out like a knock-off purse in the Prada store. But to crib from Zora Neale Hurston, I am not "tragically colored." I love being a card-carrying member of the sistagirl club, an identity that I am reluctant to exchange for simply being "human” or "American.”

But I didn’t always have a love affair with my melanin. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in southeastern Pennsylvania, I wanted to swap skins with my playmates Christie and Joey. I thought I was white, or at least Asian. A grade school teacher assumed I was part Chinese and I promptly went home and asked my mother. I felt proud that someone else knew I wasn’t an ordinary black girl with thick lips and woolly pigtails.

The quasi-exotic illusion that I operated under was shattered at 10 when my family moved to a predominantly black part of town. I tried to fit in, but I found no kinship in my new community. I didn’t have any ethnic signifiers. I couldn’t dance, jump double dutch or speak slang as a second language. The kids I rode the bus with were always loud and menacing, bullying me for speaking “like a white girl." Blackness was as ugly and second-rate as my hand-me-down clothes.

I wouldn’t morph into a baby nationalist until my freshman year at a historically black college. But well before I started rocking “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand!” T-shirts at Hampton University, a Jewish English teacher tossed me a lifeline. She perceived that I was struggling with identity issues, and recommended that I pick up some books by Zora Neale Hurston. As I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I heard the dialect of my grandfather, my great-grandmother. Initially, I thought Zora’s works were a caricature of the black idiom, but later realized that she saw a lyrical beauty in the black vernacular, in black culture. She was unabashedly colored.

Zora’s contemporaries didn't view her so highly. Richard Wright of Native Son fame, wrote a scathing critique of Their Eyes, saying, "Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks' laugh."

Black feminist writers, among them Alice Walker – who resurrected Zora’s works from obscurity – regarded her as a foremother. Walker believed that Zora’s male critics viewed a black woman’s self-determination in the 1930s as insignificant and unworthy of a platform. Yet, Walker saw a sense of “racial health” in Zora’s writing. She once wrote of Their Eyes, "There is enough self-love in that one book — love of community, culture, traditions — to restore a world."

Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in America, Zora was surrounded by folks who celebrated blackness. Proud and self-governed (Zora’s father, John, was once elected mayor), they didn’t think themselves inferior to the white people who occasionally drove through their dusty back roads.

I largely credit Zora (and The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, bell hooks and Malcolm X) with helping to ground me in this identity. My love affair with black culture doesn’t mean that I run around with a fist-shaped Afro pick and green-black-and-red medallion, shouting “Fight the Power” in my best Chuck D. impression. It means that I don’t back down from discussions of race in polite company. It means that I’m not afraid to confront racism for fear of offending (or scaring off) my non-black friends. For the longest time, I only believed I was a worthy writer if a white person said I was good. Not that I don’t respect the opinions of my non-black homies and mentors, but a white stamp of approval held more weight than a black one, or even my own.

As we move toward a more homogeneous society, the concept of race seems romanticized and antiquated. I support multiculturalism – I probably have more non-black friends in L.A. than black friends – and yet I wholeheartedly maintain my own identity. When I wrote my first book, California Schemin’: The Black Woman’s Guide to Surviving in L.A., a well-meaning friend suggested that I omit the word “black” from the title. It was more important to him that my book appeal to a wider fan base (read: white folks) than it was for me to articulate the unique struggle against invisibility and marginality that many black women face in La La Land. A tiny coda occurred a few years later when another friend called to say that a gay white couple was reading my book at the table next to her in California Pizza Kitchen.

Some may think I'm more Elle than Essence, more Valley Girl than around-the-way girl, but I am indelibly marked. Interestingly enough, this sense of racial pride was informed by my mother, a woman wholly liberated from racial labels. There is a bit of Zora in Lola, who doesn’t eschew her blackness, but finds humor in it, an inside joke she shares with her sistafriends. I see this in the way she nicknames them: Big girl. Chicken. Puddin’. Colored girl. Using identifiably ethnic monikers, she doesn’t transcend the culture, but revels in it. I, too, share this naming with my own sistagirls, and it symbolizes our collective journey, ascribes us to a healthy, vibrant, colorful history. We are Sojourner. Harriet Tubman. Miss Celie. Colored girl.

There’s a colored girl in every community, but as Zora would say, we are not weeping at the world. We are redefining the rainbow.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Loving across Color Lines

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1998, KKBT The Beat was heavily promoting its “No Color Lines” campaign. At the time, I thought the movement's mantra was clich├ęd and overly simplistic.

That is until I heard Theo, the leader of the revolution.

Theo was a honey-throated DJ who figured prominently in my fantasies — and this was on the strength of his voice alone. Sexy, thuggish and effortlessly popular with the ladies and the homies, he was the golden boy of the city's hip-hop radio station. If the brother was promoting tolerance, I was all over it! So it was a major shock to come face-to-face with him at a club and discover that, for all of his 'hood markers, my future baby daddy was Asian. I quickly recovered from that bombshell, however, and decided that Theo Mizuhara was too alluring to exclude from my daydreams.

Fantasies fade, but even those interracial imaginings of mine wouldn't have been possible without landmark legislation that took place 40 years ago today. In the Loving v. Virginia ruling, the Supreme Court overturned a Virginia statute that prohibited whites from marrying nonwhites. At the heart of the case was a black woman, Mildred Jeter, who smacked down segregated society to marry Richard Loving, a white man.

June 12 marks a day of remembrance, a mixed-race lovefest. Although I appreciate the Lovings' struggle to desegregate relationships four decades ago, I'm still trying to emanicpate my inner interracial-dater hater. I don't suffer from Angry Black Woman Syndrome, yet I still feel a tad apprehensive when I spy mixed-raced couplings, particularly of the black male/white female variety.

Ironically, this nation's path to color-blind love was paved in part by a sister. Yet, according to the 2002 Census, black women are less likely to marry outside their race than black men. In 2002, there were 279,000 white female-black male marriages compared with 116,000 black female-white male marriages. Black men stroll down the aisle with non-black women at a greater rate — nearly 10 percent — than any other racial or gender group except Asian women.

A Korean writer reached out to me recently for my thoughts on interracial relationships. He read my article "Black Men, White Women, Mixed Emotions," and could relate to my ambivalence: a belief that love conquers all, and yet feeling that many, many brothers are jumping ship in search of it. Because I live in Los Angeles, the "Jungle Fever" capitol of the West Coast, one is hard pressed to find Heidi/Hakeem-free zones. I explained to this writer that even in the midst of my dating dilemmas, I didn't want to become that hostile chick who sucks her teeth and gives the side eye to Kobe, Tiger, Seal, Taye and other brothers (and yes, I include Tiger in that category) for loving non-black women. That stems from a belief that my relationship options are limited, that white women have the dating game on lockdown, or that I have a lease on the love life of black men. None of the above are true.

The swirl of racial politics surrounding dating and marriage is often hard to unravel. I joke about black women starting a "Something New" movement, but I realize I'm being reactionary ... and hypocritical. There are several blogs and Web sites that wholeheartedly encourage sisters to expand their dating options, particularly with white men. With statistics showing that 43.4 percent of black women between the ages of 30 to 34 have never experienced matrimonial bliss, "Looking for Mr. White" looks more and more like a viable option.

Misgivings aside, there is a part of me that wants to embrace the "No Color Lines" credo. Even though I haven't realized it fully, I am indebted to the Lovings for their sacrifice, and for reminding us that love is, and should be, colorblind. On this Remembrance Day, I pledge to keep my apprehension in check should I see Bilal cruising down the 101 freeway with Becky. I will not avert my eyes and act like these couples don't exist. Although I probably won't hug them and sell them a "Remembrance Day '07" tee shirt, I am going to remind myself that, ultimately, people have the right to love who they want to love. Theo would be proud of me.