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.


Loretta said...

excellent article...nice to read something I can relate to 110%.

Penni Brown said...

I love reading your blog, it's always insightful and well written. You make this fellow Hampton alum proud.

PrettyBlack said...

Girl you are a fierce writer. My goodness...Everytime I read your articles it takes my breath away. You always hit the nail on the head. Props to you!