Today is the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Normally, I do not pay much attention to the holiday because it just feels like an easy way to say “I support equality for all” or “Look how great we are for giving everyone the opportunity to succeed.” Caustic way to view the holiday but those feelings are not applied to the man himself or his beliefs.
For me, MLK Jr has a special place in history for me. When I was in second grade, we went to the Civil Rights Museum to learn about him and the civil rights movement. At the time, I had no clue what the lesson was supposed to be but I was seven and I enjoyed a good field trip. We walked in, saw pictures and videos from that era, and listened to our tour guide give snippets of information. I do not remember much of the trip but three things stood out the most. A statue of Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus. A model jail cell based on the one King spent time in. The balcony which I would later fully understand.
This was my first real introduction to what it means to be a black American. Brave. Smart. Peace seeking. I liked the idea. I could not understand why black people were the targets of violence but as far as I knew then, black people had achieved the goal of equality.
The next year, that identity began to be challenged. What does it mean to be black? Until then, I had not given it much thought. I just assumed that was the color of my skin (even though the crayon box disagreed) and nothing more. The problem was that I did not act “black”. In fact it is still a phrase I hear.
Growing up, I could not grasp the concept of being “black”. I was different from most of my classmates to be sure. I did not speak like everyone else. I was curious and inquisitive. And I carried myself differently. I did not enjoy dancing, football, or rap music. In fact, I did not now what kind of music I even liked!
By seventh grade, my brain formed to the point where I could start to tackle the “black” identity. I was still a strange young man who felt out of place that is puberty for you. I observed my black classmates. Articulate. Confident. Helpful. Seems good so far. Then I noticed my black schoolmates. Almost the opposite with the exception of confidence. So what was “black”?
As years passed, I realized that we have two dominant meanings for being “black”. The first one is the one I believe MLK Jr and other civil rights activists envisioned. The intelligent, proud men and women who were just as capable as anyone else. Men and women who want to improve themselves and offer something substantial to the future generations while working to bridge gaps between themselves and others. Willing to work hard to accomplish their goals. That is the version of “black” I grew up with and honestly it reflects the same values found worldwide.
The second one includes some of the first’s qualities but adds superficiality. Being “black” means that you support black people almost no matter what. It means having a certain hairstyle, clothes, and jewelry. As a “black” person, it obviously means that you watch black shows, BET, Tyler Perry, or Spike Lee. It means that you sound black which can mean inarticulate. It means that you listen to black music like rap, hip-hop, and R&B. It means that being proud of who you are and never let anything change you. It means being a God-fearing, church-going Christian. Essentially, it means get in line with what most in the black community are doing.
I always hated the second notion of being “black”. Even until now, I have to fight the idea that I am not really black because I do not fit the mold. No, I do not wear brand name clothing or have gold plates on my teeth. I cannot stand BET or Tyler Perry’s works but I love the Boondocks. I am articulate and proud of it. I listen to rock, j-rock, rap, trip-pop, and who knows what else. I am agnostic and I am do not have so much pride that I am blind to my own short-comings. Finally, I will not just get in line because that is what black people are doing.
Oddly enough, the people who apply the “black” stereotypes on me the most are black people. It is very rare a person who is not black to ask me whether or not I have seen the new Spike Lee movie. Last week though, a black man did offer me a chance to buy Lee’s new movie while I was washing my hands in the men’s room. Initially, I thought that was a completely random thing to do in the restroom. Later, I realized that he automatically assumed that I knew about the movie and that I wanted to see it because of my skin color. Of course, I declined his offer.
Another reason why I do not like the second notion of being “black” is that it indirectly promotes segregation. It feels that in order to fit in to the black community, you must portray qualities that are uniquely black. In my experience, this means not acting “white”. Referring back to the first notion of being black, whatever qualities you have should transcend race and ethnicity. You should not have to listen to gangsta rap to be considered black and the enjoyment of gangsta rap should be constricted to black ears only. All ears who that to listen to gangsta rap should be able to do so regardless of its color. The same is applied to the love of studying, drugs, sports, alcohol, and choice in spouse. Choices should not be limited based on your race.The second idea of “black” does limit choices and tries to impose its beliefs on everyone.
“Black people don’t do this.”
“You’re black so you must do this.”
“You don’t sound black. Where are you from?”
“That is our (black) music and hair.”
“This is a black man’s game.”
“Why isn’t you girlfriend black?”
“Who is your favorite black actor/rapper/singer?”
As a black American, I feel pressure from the black community and mass media to fit into a stereotypical mold that I simply cannot squeeze into. I do not even want want to try anymore. I see my identity of being a black American along the same lines of MLK Jr. I am an American who wants to accomplish his dreams without being disqualified from opportunities based on racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or sexual orientation. My skin color is just a way to identify me and it does not dictate who I am. It does not tell me which religion to believe in, who to marry, or where I should live. It does not tell me what food to eat or what I should like. Most important, it will never tell me who I should associate with. I am a black American. I am just like anyone else in America…except for some eccentricities.