Home > Communication, Family, Personal, Reflections > Pride in blackness

Pride in blackness

My husband is a black man. We’ve engaged in ongoing conversation about issues pertaining to race in the United States since our very first conversation on the subject. What you see below is a highly condensed version of one part of an ongoing, complicated discussion.

rings

“Hon, can I ask you a question that will probably sound all kinds of ignorant? But that I really want to understand and I’d probably get crucified for asking anywhere else?”

“Sure,” my husband answered while continuing to tap away at his laptop keyboard.

“So … ” I fumbled for the words. “You remember … no, that’s not the right way to say this. OK, so I’m following a few young black leaders on social media. My feed right now is like a terrible accounting of wrongs against black people–people of color–in this country, not only two hundred years ago but today.”

“Uh-huh?” he asked, fingers suddenly still over his keyboard as he stared at me with laser focus.

“That’s the context. There’s one statement that’s come up a bunch of times in this context that stands out because … ” Again I fumbled. How could I even articulate my question?

I tried again. “OK, so you remember that one time when I said I was glad our kids have lighter skin so they’ll possibly avoid some of the terrible potential consequences of being immediately identified as black? And you got really sad and asked me to read Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man? And I saw your sadness and said I wasn’t trying to conceal part of who they are and would never hope to do that versus help change the world so people of all colors of skin are equally safe? I realized then there were some things I didn’t understand but I couldn’t even figure out how how to get around to understanding them, though I’m slowly reading the book as part of trying.”

Nod.

“A couple of the folks I follow keep saying they’re proud of their blackness. They love their blackness. It almost sounds like … loving pain. Loving suffering. You know? I mean, I do not buy in to colorblindness for so many reasons, but even asking this question I feel like … the byproduct of a state that was very intentionally constructed very white and now has whole choruses of people ignoring entire groups of people’s experiences by singing about their own colorblindness, as if their decision not to see makes the whole world colorblind. I’m like, ‘Color doesn’t matter!’ but I know it does. I know I get to say it doesn’t matter because I’m white and my skin color hasn’t been a definitive–OK, overtly definitive because it was there even when I didn’t see it–part of my experience. But … since blackness in America means more pain, more violence, more people being ignorant or unkind or combative*, why pride? Why isn’t it just a fact of existence?”

I ask my husband these questions not because I expect him to act as representative for an entire segment of the population. That’s a weight no one needs.

I ask because he understands I ask to diminish my own ignorance, knowing I can see more–thanks to his candor, his personal experiences and American Studies background–through his eyes than I can see through my own.

He removed his hands from his lap. He paused for a moment before speaking.

“You’re proud of being an Oregonian, right?”

“Um? No? I think the landscape is pretty and I feel connected to that, but it’s not really a pride thing.” I considered his possible intentions. “I am proud of being a Duck, though.”

“Right. Because it’s part of who you are. You wouldn’t be you if you hadn’t had your experiences as a Duck.”

“Uh-huh?”

Hearing the question mark in my response, he thought for a few moments before finding a different way to set up his explanation.

“Okay, so … you know how sometimes when I hang out with you and your family, I can’t really keep up? I kinda tune out?”

I nodded.

“It’s because you guys have a shorthand. You have all these common experiences and stories and ways of seeing things that’s just you. You guys are Bryans–or, you know–”

I waved him on. “No, it’s fine. I get you. We are Bryans, even if I hated that name growing up because it meant generations of abuse and hardship and cruelty. When I went to change it, I could finally see the fact we were Bryans meant the name, the history even, wasn’t all bad. It was almost like … strength in the face of hardship.”

He continued. “You’re Bryans. You get each other. You speak the exact same language–more than just the same words, but the same history, the same expressions, the same understandings. You can pick up where each other leave off because you share so much of it. You’re part of who you are because of them, because of your shared experiences and understandings. I’m part of who I am because I’m black. It’s more than just skin color. I could go anywhere in the United States, any town, and have shared so many similar experiences with black people there, no matter where in the country that is. We have that shared history, even though–something like family–all our experiences aren’t exactly the same and we don’t relate to who we are exactly the same. We can still find pride in who we are. We have shared many hardships. We’ve shared the joy of this country’s growing and the hope for better to come. We have been intrinsic to its foundation, and that’s more than a skin color. It connects us. It’s a language that’s more experience than words.”

I considered this. This made sense to me, but there was no way I could assimilate his body of experiences in a single midnight sit-down. Still, I reached for a poor analogy to try anchoring my shaky understanding.

“OK, so maybe it’s something like being my mom’s daughter?” He didn’t interrupt or mock me, but I explained myself anyway.

“I know, I know, bad analogy, but it’s as close as I can get. It’s like … people sometimes hear me talk about Mom and think I had a much more idyllic childhood than I did. They take my love as a sign things must have been easy, but they weren’t. Mom abused us physically. Then, when she made good on her promise not to abuse us physically, her abuse became more emotional and manipulative. I think that was the beginning of her really serious mental illness, which was so hard. Years of hard. Challenging. But those challenges … they brought me here. They’re part of my love. Part of my understanding. Part of my wanting to understand. I’d never, ever want to live through some of those individual moments again, but from here I am so glad I had them.”

“And you’re proud of yourself for persevering, right?”

I’d never considered this before, but the answer was easy.

“Yes.” It’s not that I just crawled over obstacles to get here and then left the obstacles behind. I overcame them and then carried them on my shoulders, feeling their weight as a reminder they were how I become stronger. Wiser. More hopeful. How I got to be here today.

He smiled at me. “As you should be.”

We talked more, but this was the core of our conversation on that starting question: Why pride? Why isn’t it just a fact of existence?

This was where I began to understand a blackness that is more than melanin, instead rooted in history, hardship and hope.

“Do you mind if I write about this?” I asked before long.

“Don’t you always?” he asked, smiling.

I laughed. “Thanks for talking.”

Seconds or minutes later, I noticed his head drooping toward his keyboard.

I rubbed his knee, suggesting, “Maybe now’s the time to go to bed?”

He shut his laptop lid and gave me a kiss atop my head en route to bed.

He stopped midway and said, “I’m glad you’re trying to find answers and not just assume things.”

I went right back to typing, because listening gets me much closer to understanding … but I’m still apt to forget. Writing down understandings, no matter how fragile, helps me anchor them so they can eventually grow into something more substantial.

I don’t believe any amount of listening or writing will lead me to fully understand anyone else’s experience, but I want to understand as much of his as possible. I want to understand as much as humanly possible about the world as it exists today, not as I wish it were. It’s no one else’s job to teach me or to diminish my ignorance, no matter how well intentioned an ignorance it is.

It’s not even my husband’s job. Understanding this, if little else, I’m grateful for his willingness to answer the questions I’m embarrassed asking but which Google can’t quite answer.

I’m also grateful that our different histories and different experiences somehow, inexplicably, lead us all the same toward a vast shared love.

* I am not arguing this here as I am here to discuss subjective experience, not argue established facts. Yes, fact. Virtually every single objective indicator that’s been measured to date shows this emphatically. If in doubt, please spend 30 minutes or more googling “racial inequality in the U.S.” (or similar) and witness this for yourself.

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  1. Samantha Clarke
    December 11, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Wow. This was incredibly poignant and well-written. Thank you for sharing this conversation! As an Armenian I can corroborate the pride of having persevered and made it through hardships as a race, and the immediate connection to others of the same race even if you’ve never met them. So well-worded and beautiful!

    Also–I’m a native Oregonian too, and it’s funny to me living in the South now how different the state-pride attitude is there than here.

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:16 am

      Thank you for reading and commenting! Posting this made me a little uneasy, so I breathed a little sigh of relief reading your comment.

      I grew up feeling isolated from anything and everything outside my mom’s house, so it’s interesting to revisit those bygone times and realize there really, really was a group I felt I belonged to and by which “membership” I was invigorated.

      I’m so grateful for my husband’s ability to take what seem like unanswerable questions and make them feel a little more comprehensible. I’m grateful he doesn’t just wave me off, which would be easy after many consecutive long days of work. I won’t get it all, but I’ll get a little more thanks to him … and thoughtful comments!

  2. NotAPunkRocker
    December 11, 2014 at 7:34 am

    I am glad you are able to ask, and he understands and is willing to answer those questions. I have a friend of a different ethnicity that I go to for her perspective when I cant’ quite get what “her” group is saying. It isn’t a ignorance thing, it’s asking for her experience so I can relate what a group of thousands is saying to someone I care about. And she does the same with me too.

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:20 am

      It’s so good to read this comment. I read and read and read and read, but there are still some questions not readily answered by everything I’m reading. In those moments where I really can’t find an answer by my own searching, I’m glad to have someone with whom I can have a conversation. Someone who knows I’m not trying to be obtuse or pick a fight, and who’s willing to have the conversation with me … even if/when it makes him a little tired. (I’m trying to be selective about what I bring to him thanks to that, but it’s an endeavor that’s taking me some time.)

  3. December 11, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Reblogged this on MrMilitantNegro™.

  4. December 11, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Thank you for this post!

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Thank you for reading and commenting … I was feeling a little nervous, which nervousness was eased by your comment. ♥

  5. December 11, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Such an important conversation to have. Thanks for posting about it. (Loved your husband’s response when you asked him if you could write about it!)

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:23 am

      I love how quick he is to read when I’ve entered my Must-Write Zone! Often he identifies it before me. “It’s fine, Deb. Go write! I’ll be here when you get back.” Hee.

  6. December 11, 2014 at 8:41 am

    This is a wonderfully interesting post. Your, and Anthony’s, analogies really help to give me a deeper understanding of pride in one’s group. It’s funny, I’ve spent my life trying to be colorblind without the understanding that ignoring someone’s race discounts their experiences.
    Another thing I’ve noticed about myself is that adulthood has made me less comfortable with discussing and noticing color. When I was a young teen (13 or 14, I remember having a sleepover with one of my black friends. We styled each other’s hair and did our makeup, just as many teen girls do during sleepovers. We both quite comfortably marveled at the differences in our hair texture and the differences in our skin tones. We even put on one another’s makeup foundation to see what we’d look like in each other’s color. It was just pure innocence and truthful wondering. As a teacher, I would notice that my young students would often describe one another by color quite comfortably and without malice. Ex “Jason is the black boy in the yellow coat, standing by the swing-set.” Yet as an adult, it seems that we do all we can to not notice race for fear that someone will be offended.
    Thank you for sharing an alternate perspective! ❤

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:37 am

      I was dead set against discussing skin color for most of my life. In fact, it was only because Anthony had already had the “racism still exists” conversation with me that I answered one of his questions in a way that felt risky/terrible to me.

      He’d asked me about one of my neighbors who’d been loudly abusing his dog and had gotten aggressive with me when I asked him to please, please stop. Anthony wanted to know what the neighbor looked like in case they ever had their own encounter. I described everything else about my neighbor and then nervously added something like, “Also, his skin is a very pretty light brown …”

      Anthony was so thrilled I’d said that, we had a whole eye-opening conversation I wish I could remember more of. I was still so startled he responded positively to my mentioning the unmentionable that I missed some of the content to my startlement.

      Then my godmother started talking about it with me, with Anthony there, and how I felt about my old colorblindness changed somewhat dramatically. I decided I wanted to be color impervious instead of colorblind, a position I’ve held (in varying forms) since.

      It’s been interesting following some of what I have been recently. At first I wanted to be affirmed by the folks I was following. Then I realized that want is a distraction. I want all people everywhere to be safe. I don’t need affirmation from the people I follow for insight to achieve that objective. I hope I might maybe reach a person or two who might be a little wiser than me, and able to see clearly without the first hand experience I needed first hand experience to come anywhere close to understanding.

      And more nuanced understanding for me? That will come with time. That’s OK, as long as I keep seeking it. 🙂

      • December 11, 2014 at 5:21 pm

        ” I want all people everywhere to be safe.” I so agree 🙂 ❤

  7. December 11, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I’m glad your husband is willing to not only talk about it, but let you talk about it. I like to understand things, too, and I have no one around me who can answer questions like this.

    • December 11, 2014 at 11:42 am

      I wish you had someone.

      I know I already said I’m grateful, but it’s impossible for me to express how grateful I am for Anthony’s openness to these discussions. I’ve wanted to reach out and ask, but witnessed a couple of pretty extreme (feeling) smackdowns of people asking well intentioned questions that weren’t well received.

      I’m surprised I haven’t yet received a comment to this post saying, “You didn’t understand this from the get-go?!” It’s pretty common for at least one person to reply to any revelation post saying they always understood some wisdom I had to obtain through struggle. I’m not perfect, so I often need to learn by starting from a place of less than perfect understanding.

      (Beside, a lot of posts stating “I always knew everything” doesn’t really make for great blogging.)

  8. December 11, 2014 at 8:51 am

    It’s always nice to have someone that you can talk to – and bring up what could become uncomfortable subjects in an effort to understand them more!

    • December 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

      I am so grateful for this! I am trying to practice patient responding so more people know they can ask me tough questions–even on heated subjects–and know I will have the conversation instead of getting prickly. I wish it were as easily done as typed! At least I have some great models. 🙂

  9. December 11, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Great, great post, Deb. It’s an understatement to say there is a lot I will take away from it and ponder on over time.

    • December 18, 2014 at 10:26 am

      I am still mulling over this conversation and taking away new understanding!

      Sometimes when I get grumpy with A, I think, “What was I thinking relenting on the whole marriage thing?!” Just as quickly I realize the ludicrousness of that. The fact we can have conversations like this and trust each other’s good intentions even in awkward places … it’s a beautiful thing that helps both understanding and love grow. L

      Speaking of love? Love you, my friend.

  10. December 11, 2014 at 9:57 am

    A beautiful post.
    If more of us were willing/able to say not only ‘I don’t know’, but also ‘I want to learn’ and approached that learning with your open eyes, heart and mind I am sure that we would all be better off.
    And I love that you acknowledge the dark times and the difficult times in your own life are a part of who you are, and contributing to making you who you are.
    Thank you.

    • December 18, 2014 at 10:39 am

      It was difficult learning to say I didn’t know, but in retrospect … it was more difficult, just in different ways, to pretend I knew things I didn’t. That pretending made it much harder to learn, too. It is so much more pleasant taking lack of knowledge now as an opportunity to learn more instead of a personal fault!

      Thinking how long it took me to adopt this approach also makes it easier for me to be patient with Li’l D in his “I know everything” phase. (If his is anything like mine, I have another 20+ years until he grows out of it!)

  11. December 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Thank you

  12. December 11, 2014 at 10:36 am

    As a white female, this helped me a lot – thanks for writing!

    • December 18, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Thank you for saying so! This was one of those rare hard-to-publish pieces, so each encouraging word was one more weight of worry off my shoulders.

  13. She
    December 11, 2014 at 11:18 am

    “Writing down understandings, no matter how fragile, helps me anchor them so they can eventually grow into something more substantial.”

    This is so good on so many levels. Thank you for inviting us into the conversation. It translates for me to so much more about acceptance in general of EVERYONE and their story, even if we can never understand. Every single one is relevant.

  14. December 11, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Deb, first of all I just have to say that I LOVE your hubby and think he is the best guy! Second, I really appreciate the way he explained things to you….I relate to it as a woman of recovery from alcoholism, as well as a single mom. These are two very strong “groups” that I pride myself in being a member of-both groups as a whole endure hardship and strife, judgment, and the need to overcome and educate those who’d be judging. When talking with others from these groups there is an immediate bond. Just visit an AA meeting when in a different state or even a different country and there is a language and fellowship that you only get from having “been there”. Single moms-same thing. If you aren’t one it’s truly hard to relate at a deeper level even if you were raised by a single mom, etc. I could go on and on, as I really love this post and enjoy experiencing from the outside the healthy relationship you two have-it’s awesome!! XOXO-Kasey

  15. December 11, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    You know, I think that our inability to ask the questions is what often leads to the barriers. It’s true in everything, but no more so than in relations between groups. It is only through asking that we can get answers. Well, that and reading a well-thought out/well written blog post!

  16. December 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    As a black woman I would like to give you a pat on the back for actually being open enough to try to understand the black struggle. My answer to the question that you asked your husband is: Blackness is a rich culture (even though slavery in the Americas and colonization in Africa rid us of a lot of our culture). When you look at black people all around the world there are still similarities and that means that despite all the attempts to kill us, we’re still here. When I think of black people I think of innovative, intelligent, resourceful, beautiful, unique, strong, and resilient people. I refuse to hate myself because someone else told me to. People put down what they don’t understand, people eradicate what they’re afraid of, and people diminish others so they can build themselves up. I will never let someone make me feel less so they can feel more. I’m black for a reason and I’m alive for a reason. If I begin to hate my blackness then that means racism has won and I’ve never known the black race to be defeated that easily.

  17. December 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    “It’s a language that’s more experience than words.” Beautiful. This is sort of how I feel about my Indian-ness. There are things I love and hate about my birth country. But the shared history creates an unbreakable link. I mostly practice universal values, am not particularly “Inidan” whatever that means, but there is a part of India that only I and my fellow Indians will get and others can never wrap their heads around.
    I suppose we all carry this historical ‘burden’ or ‘pride’ , whichever way you want to look at it.

  18. December 11, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    I am so grateful that you share these conversation. They always enhance my own understanding. I have good black friends I can talk to, but none in America, and the African experience is completely different. I think one thing I have learned from living here is that I probably don’t understand what it means to be black in South Africa as well as I thought I did. I wish I’d spent more time asking and listening, and not simply bumbled along assuming.
    All that said, reading what you wrote … don’t you think that identifying with little tribes, communities, groups, whatever sets us apart from the whole group, is part of the way humans function? We’re bloggers. I’m proud of my blog, even though it’s still very much a work in progress. I belong to the blogger community. And within this community are many sub-communities. I’ve also been intensely involved in dog rescue. The rescue community is a whole subculture, with values and language and politics that the “outside world” knows nothing about. I’m proud of what I’ve done there, and it’s part of who I am. I’m an African living in North America. I’m proud of that in the sense that I’m conscious of everything it’s meant to me, to grow up where and when I did. I was a single mom who raised my child from birth to adulthood alone. She’s in her 30s now, but that experience is still part of what shaped me. I could go on and on – as could anyone.
    My point is, this habit of forming clusters around shared experiences is part of being human. When it becomes troubling, in my experience, is when identification with the group separates us from the greater community. (I’m not saying this well, and I’m trying not to write a whole blog post here…) When being black, or gay, or feminist, or whatever it is becomes more important to you than being human. I would so love us all to learn to be human first. It’s what I strive for, and I also strive to encounter and experience others in the same way.
    So no, I can’t pretend to be colorblind. I can’t pretend race doesn’t “matter” because everything about a person matters – it is all part of the whole; it’s what defines them. But I can quite honestly say that it’s rarely the first thing I see.

  19. December 11, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Such a beautiful relationship you have. Thank you for sharing this understanding. Although I never questioned that black people would have pride in being black, it seems normal to me, I did very much enjoy your analogies as similar concepts applied to other aspects of life. I have often felt ashamed of being white, ashamed of the ignorance and brutality that white people have so blatantly inflicted on others. But I understand the heart of identity pride as well, as I am part of a religious minority that has been heavily persecuted in the past due to both religious and racial intolerance. Regardless of the pain I’ve experienced, I’m proud of my beliefs and that I persevered and forgave hatred and violence toward myself and others. This post really touched my heart due to those experiences.

  20. December 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Brilliant Deb…I cannot relate much coz am not a part of it…but your willingness to understand the issue and his to understand your question without getting angry..am glad for it..

  21. nicciattfield
    December 12, 2014 at 12:33 am

    Such a lovely relationship. I remember asking that question too, during a group discussion. And the answer was that ‘whiteness’ had trampled all over the culture, knowledge, beliefs and values of ‘black’ people in the name of colonialism or oppression. And the people who were speaking of ‘black pride’ were trying to search for a way of working against the shame, and rejecting the idea that west/’whiteness’ was best.

    It was about restoring values into a culture which (in South Africa) sees humanity differently. Ubuntu argues that we learn our humanity from each other, or we learn how to be in the world from the other who goes before us. Everything that is within us was once between us. And it’s a very beautiful way of looking at life. Culture, heritage and story telling give wider and deeper values of what it means to be a person in the world. And yet so much knowledge, and so much of what we have been taught emphasizes western/’white’ values.

    Restoring knowledge, culture, the value of identity sometimes means shaking off the oppression enforced shame.

    And yet, at the same time, it is an easier world, the lower levels of melanin a child is born with/given. I think awareness of that helps to understand how people really feel in the world, and the struggles people face. And the true challenge is to re-shape ‘whiteness’ and superiority.

    I read a lot of criticism about ‘The Help’ but what I loved most was the growing awareness of what ‘whiteness’ was doing to ‘black’ women, and the need to challenge that.

    This is such a helpful and important conversation. Thank you.

  22. December 12, 2014 at 3:49 am

    I am glad you can have this, these discussions are helpful and hopeful. They will not only anchor your understanding but build a safe haven for your sons. Someday, maybe for all the sons and daughters of their generation.

    We are not all so fortunate, to have these touchstones willing to talk and listen. Perhaps were we, the abyss of rage could be reached across.

    I love you.

  23. December 12, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Great discussion. This is not only about the questions at hand, the understanding you seek, it’s about a transparent relationship you have with your husband. It seems you can talk about anything. What a gift and I’m sure you wouldn’t have accepted anything less in a partner than to always have that freedom.

  24. December 13, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Outstanding question and discussion. This line in your conclusion got me … “listening gets me much closer to understanding” …. excellent … but to go along with that, much thought and reflection got you to that point. Meanwhile, I’m with you … that is, why does the amount of melanin matter … so this post also helped me a little.

  25. December 16, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Thank you for writing this, Deb.

  26. December 16, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Interesting. Thank you.

  27. December 22, 2014 at 11:00 am

    I read this last week and didn’t have a chance to comment. Thank you for sharing the consolidation of your intimate conversations.

    When I read this: “You speak the exact same language–more than just the same words, but the same history, the same expressions, the same understandings. You can pick up where each other leave off because you share so much of it. You’re part of who you are because of them, because of your shared experiences and understandings.”

    This describes so well how I feel about being Jewish, the interconnectedness of it all, the ease of interacting with someone who “gets it.” We can’t really ever get someone else’s language, but thank you for helping us get a little closer to understanding. xo

  1. December 21, 2014 at 10:24 pm
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