In the desire to be truthful, I must admit that I was not the only black child in my school, nor was I the only one in that classroom. There was a girl who, on that first day, had sat on the other side of the room. I saw her–she had dreads and glasses and I saw the vultures lifting them and watching them drop, marvelling at her locks like some kind of shiny object; they’d started pecking at her body too, but in my struggle to handle the discomfort of my own visibility, to breathe on the ground, I’d been too preoccupied with my own body to concern myself with solidarity, and so the feeling of loneliness manifested itself anyway. I never really made friends with her, but my failure to do so, however, largely contributed to the journey in blackness that I found myself beginning on the first day of 6th grade, for it was on this day that I learned of a strange, disconnected camaraderie that exists between black people and various nationalities of Latinos. Both groups, I find, are hyper-aware of their differences from one another, yet, in spite of both the difference and the awareness of it, they seem to have a vague, silent understanding of one another on a certain level. The two friends that I made during this time in my life, before I understood that me being black meant anything at all, were two Puerto Rican boys.
Both of them appeared to be white; one had skin that was somewhere between cream and milk, and blonde hair with flashes of brown, down to his shoulders. The other was paler, and he had icy blue eyes that even some of the white girls had never seen before. Both boys seemed intrinsically separate from everyone else to me, though; they dressed the same way that the men and boys back home dressed, with elaborate yet simple color patterns–their fitted caps matched the colors on their t-shirts, and their jeans stacked uniformly behind the tongues of their clean, loosely laced, often two or three-toned sneakers. They spoke in the same vernacular that I heard on the block, in the barbershop, and from the guys buying loose cigarettes in the corner store. I identified with these boys because they resembled something in character that I’d known, but despite the sameness in being black I shared with the girl being pecked at on the other side of the room, I shared with these boys, more specifically, a sameness in not being white, and I guess, when I was 12, that counted for more. This lack of knowledge that my being black meant something, and what that something was, is what ebbed any inclination I had to make friends with her. The boys’ outward physical similarities with the white students allowed them to mix easily with them, and by proxy, gave me a means to mix as well with, over time, less apprehension.
And this is essentially what I was after; to feel like less of an outsider, as opposed to more of an insider. But becoming more included in the white circles did not change how they saw me; I still got investigated; pecked at, from time to time, but I felt more a part of the student unit. My race simultaneously had everything and absolutely nothing to do with it.
The internal similarities I shared with those two boys and the external similarities they shared with everyone else, helped create a sense of comfort between myself and the white students, a way for me to get from here to there, and for them to get from there to here as well, I suppose, but at the same time, not go uncomfortably far from home. I remained different, just a little less alone in my difference and a little more close to those who I was different from.
I started skateboarding that year. I should note, that in 2007, black skateboarders weren’t as common as they are today. I learned quickly that skateboarding was “for white boys”, but in spite of my blackness, it seemed, I could like things that white boys liked, and this thing that was for them and not me had yet become a part of my black self, and it gave me something in common–a direct connection to people who I’d previously thought I was infinitely separate from. Like my connection to my friends, my love for skateboarding was something internal, like love for any other hobby. But although the things we love affect us internally, they still have some kind of outward appearance, and as quickly as I stopped thinking about what I looked like, those thoughts returned in a new form.
In the eyes of my peers, I became sort of a “dark white”; my blackness while still seen and paid attention to, became suppressed by my peers, because my having something like skateboarding in common with them meant that I wasn’t as different as I was supposed to be. I earned the nickname of Oreo (I hear this is a pretty common nickname among black people with a similar experience)–black on the outside and white on the inside.
And I embraced it, unfortunately.
The entire ordeal was one of the most fucked up instances of racism that I’ve ever experienced, reason being, that I was made to feel like the nickname was out of endearment, an indicator that my physical difference to those around me was of less importance than how I related to them, when in reality, I was being mocked for not being who I was supposed to be, and that no matter how much “whiteness” I could attain, I would always be a person second and black first. I wish I’d understood this when it happened, I wish I’d known back then that what was in my face was the most significant thing about me. If I did, I might be a different man, but ultimately, I was a stranger in a strange land, a dying thing on the ground, and as the vultures waited comfortably up in the trees, I’d failed to realize that they were simply allowing my body to decompose. For me, skateboarding meant that I was more similar to them, but for them, it just meant that I was less different, and the dichotomy between those two sentiments is one that haunts black folk.
And when I went back home to where the familiar blackness was, I still liked skateboarding, and skateboarding was for white boys there too. I stopped wanting to play basketball and football in the park, and I stopped wanting to wrestle and slapbox on the sidewalk–I’d wanted to scrape my knees some other way. My friends all told me that skateboarding was cool but it was for white boys, and that I wasn’t a white boy, and that I should leave my skateboard at home and pick up a ball instead. I became “like those white boys” because I went to a school too far for the black kids I grew up with to get to, and I wanted to do the things those white boys did and not the things a black boy like myself was supposed to want to do; like there was something wrong with me, and just as I had become “dark white” at school, I’d become “light black” at home. I found myself in a strange middle ground, between home and school, between black and white.
What I know now, though, is that the development of blackness is a quest for sameness in a place where we are perpetually told that we are different because we are black, despite that fact often being the only difference anyway. We only share, as black people, that experience of being; but our blackness is not all the same; what makes us black is more than what can be seen in the face, and that is different for every person–it is too broad, too diverse, and too dynamic. Blackness itself is of indescribable importance, but how it develops is as well. It’s prevented from thriving in such a way so that even children know how to suppress it, or even make us repress it ourselves, but it persists anyway because it must, and the very pride we have in our pigment having a story of its own is, I feel, much more significant.