This is part II of a series. You can start with Part I here.
I am in my last year of college to get my degree in English Literature when I decide to take a detour and get my credentials so that I can teach. A year before this I decide to get a minor degree in Afro-American studies because, after seeing the first of many It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand t-shirts I am intrigued.
I want to understand. I am trying to understand. I have precious little background information sufficient enough to sustain any sort of intellectual discussion on race in America. I sincerely hope my ambiguous ethnicity doesn't become an issue.
The minor degree requires that I take an Afro-American history class, an Afro-American music course, an Afro-American dance class, etc... I am reading poetry by Nikki Giovanni and the writings of Audre Lorde. I am just meeting James Baldwin for the first time. I am reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am hearing the words of Ntozake Shange and smarting from the truth of it.
I am still uncomfortable calling myself a Black Woman, capital B capital W.
I am not quite a woman, I think. I have so much more to learn. But I am figuring it out.
When I finish my educational credential courses I am assigned a teacher at the local high school of the town where my college is. My cooperating teacher is top notch. I learn that she lives across the street from my townhouse and we become good friends.
I want to teach a coming-of-age novel by Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain because I've just finished it along with Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison but that's too much for high school sophomores.
She tells me, "This is an advanced English class, but you'll be surprised by how much they don't know". I learn that they're mostly the children of the professors from the college and they'll work hard for me, but that's when I discover what schema is and how important, in Kantian philosophy, it is that I help them build it.
I fail miserably at teaching Baldwin and my cooperating teacher says, "Try again."
I do, but I'm not satisfied. I realize that I didn't know the degree of my own Blackness and I choke on the word "we" when discussing Black culture.
I work on this for the better part of my 20s.
I am in my 20s and teaching full time. I learn a new word. Miscegenation. I learn new phrases from white people who seem genuinely surprised that I don't know their words. Porch monkey. I think this must be country racist white folk stuff because it's new to me and I don't live in a progressive city anymore.
Photo credit to Sara Ashley, former student
I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the copies of the books I have are marked up and every time Mark Twain had written nigger it was blacked out. Whoever taught from this set of books before me must have done this. 7th graders are smarter than we give them credit, though, and it starts a discussion in my classroom. This makes some other teachers nervous. They call the principal on me and then the parents begin making complaints that I'm "teaching the students the word 'nigger'" which is the most laughable thing that comes out of her mouth when she's called me in to speak. I'm not teaching them this word. I'm deconstructing it historically. That's what scares them.
So, Mark Twain writes the word, the white teacher before me has the students cross it out, and when I discuss it with students due to their genuine curiosity, I am the one who is reprimanded. Everything is backwards.
I make the jump from classroom teacher to building administrator. It comes with a lot of new responsibilities that I learn to roll with even when I question how or why we do things. For instance, I am tasked with taking a student home who is being disciplined. We get in my car and I follow the directions, just a 3-block drive. She is a white girl, around 16. She's been skipping school and I am an administrator now so it's part of the discipline for me to contact her family but her mother can't come get her and asks if I can drive to her. I get permission before doing this.
When we get to her house her mother comes outside to yell at her and then tells me her daughter is a no-good, rotten girl. As I'm learning to speak a new administrative language I gently try to share that it's not helpful to shame her. Her mother tells me that if she would "stop sneaking out with those nigger boys" at night and ruining her window screen from sneaking back in, she wouldn't be so mad.
I am wide-eyed. I am speechless. I am trying to be professional.
"I ain't got nothin' against them, you see. God just didn't mean for the races to mix. We stay with our own."
I close my eyes, breathe deeply in and out a few times to ensure oxygen gets to my brain, and turn around and get in my car. She's still talking to the back of my head but I honestly don't know what to say to her.
I wonder if I am in the right job.
I am fluctuating between the terms African-American and Black when I describe myself at 29. I remember this because it's something I wanted to make a decision about at 30.
I am fluctuating between having the argument about who gets to say nigger and who doesn't.
I am 30 and married to a white man who jokingly calls his white friends snicker ("what up, my snicker?") and they laugh and laugh. I do not.
I am 34 and new phone technology makes it possible for us to use voice command to make phone calls. My husband nudges his white friend in the ribs and says, "Watch this." and I think there's going to be a very funny joke but I don't realize it's going to be at my expense and he commands his phone using awful and hurtful words.
"Get my hoe!" he tells his phone.
A moment later, my phone rings.
I am 35 and I leave him.
I am 36 and at the beginning of divorce proceedings when I learn that, in the state of Illinois, all legal documentation describe me as Negroid. I balk at the term. It is clinical and scientific and anthropologically racist and outmoded as a term. I don't see this until I'm looking at papers about agreements. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the states don't care about your marriage when it's dissolving. They have a financial interest.
I am asking my lawyer what it is that he wants and she is asking me what I'm willing to concede. I am astounded that he is asking for so much (the house, all the contents, full custody of our teenage sons, palimony to the tune of $700 a month, child support) and I ask my attorney what I can do about it.
"The problem is that you can fight this since you make more money than he does, but there's no case on the books of a white husband suing his Black wife in Illinois. This would become a test case. This can become about race, but there's something from Arizona that we might be able to use to fight this."
I am not interested in becoming a test case. This man is not disabled and sitting around doing nothing. This man has a full-time job and is capable of working. This is my own fault. I didn't know who I married. But I know who I'm divorcing.
I am much smarter now.
I am dating another white man. Everyone at his job calls him Cuban because he tans so dark in the summer that one time I went to visit him and went right past him. I didn't recognize him he'd gotten so dark. I laugh at this because he tells me he's just a garden-variety white dude and I tell him he needs his DNA done because somebody in yo family been messin'.
Photo credit to Pinxit Photography by Raquita Henderson
I am adamant we have some understanding about cultural competency.
I rent him "Good Hair" by Chris Rock.
It's starts a conversation. He tells me he completely understands my need to have a metric ton of hair product in the bathroom cabinet and my need to visit my hairdresser on a regular basis.
He's going to work out just fine.
I talk about race, racism, racism in America, being Black, loving Black and everything Black with him. He doesn't balk. He doesn't need to be taught. He will never call me a hoe. He doesn't disrespect me. This is mutual, grown-up love. It's messy but full of forgiveness. It's two people bringing baggage and laying it bare on the table and saying, This is what I bring. I am flawed. You wanna take this mess on?
I am 44 and I marry him.