Friday, March 16, 2018

"America Is Coping with Black Excellence" by Madison Spence-Moore

Approximately twelve percent of the people living in the United States of America are black, but as a child growing up in the tiny hamlet of Boyertown, Pennsylvania, I could have sworn my family was the only black family in the world. Then, of course, I got a little older; my world got a little bigger. I found out that there is much more to the color spectrum than just black and white. I realized just how different I truly was, and I was unwilling to accept it. It was difficult for such a shy girl to stand apart from everybody in such a way that I could not hide. It took my entire childhood to grow into my identity. My personal sense of self was constantly being challenged as I was surrounded by people who just did not look like me; this helped me to build endurance when faced with racism and injustice. My identity grew once I stopped holding certain elements of the color spectrum to such a high standard.

It was nearly impossible for me not to notice that my dreadlocks and tanned complexion were so different from the blond strands and pale skin that surrounded me. It had been this way from kindergarten through second grade. I was sick of it. I did not like all of the random kids touching my hair without asking, or the adults in the mall asking me how I washed it. All of this attention simply did not appeal to me, which led to a very little Madison marching up to Mom and proudly stating, “I want straight hair,” which led to my very confused mom replying, “What?” However, she could not refuse me for she had been straightening her hair all of my life. So the next day we bought a box of relaxer, chopped off my dreads, and straightened out my hair.

At the time the change was fantastic. I could brush and style my own hair, I felt like I was more like my peers than ever before. Little did I know what I was really doing to my true identity. As stated by Rosheen Awais, a brilliant Hijab-wearing Muslim,“We are victims of our own conscience. We work for this audience, we earn for this audience and often we do what we hate to do in order to reach the infinite expectations of this audience. However, we should not fall victim to these expectations and the expectorants, who hide us from our true self” (Awais).  I was never trying to be more like me; I was trying to be more like them. I was putting on a mask; I was performing to fit a mold that simply was not meant for me. It was not until the end of junior high school that I was able to let the curls grow and cut the broken ends.

Now I had entered high school with brown skin made darker by the sun and curly hair that I did not know how to style. This is one of the troubles with being a brown girl attending a dominantly white school. I had no one to turn to for help within my school and no one who could give me any advice on how to take care of it. No one within my school shared the same struggles. The loneliness stung. As Muslim writer Arbaaz Khan, who was born and raised on Long Island, wrote: “This oppression is something that I dealt with throughout my high school years, which aided in masking my true self” (Khan). What questions would they ask? What racist remarks would be made? My overwhelming fear of judgement and ridicule caused me to keep my curls out of sight. I usually kept it braided, twisted, in a bun or in a ponytail. I could deal with the fact that I could not hide my skin, but I kept trying my hardest to hide my hair. I was holding on to fitting in for a little bit longer.  

There comes a time when it all becomes too much. Pretending to be somebody you are not just to please everybody else is actually quite exhausting. Dr. King expresses it best in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” stating, “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work” (King). King’s words truly helped to deal with criticisms in a smarter way. For my whole life I had only been doing what was expected of me based on the critical eyes of the white people who surrounded me. I never took the time to focus on myself and understand who I really was or what I actually wanted. I was offering less time for my own self work. I had to understand that my true identity is more important than the identity expected of me by others. For my situation, the only way that I would be able to focus on my own identity was by first blocking out any and all hateful and ignorant comments. I had to stop seeing white people as white people, and just see them as people.

I thought all of the white people around me were the same, and I was the only different one. However, I realized that I was only categorizing white people the way they had been categorizing me. We are not all only black or white. We try to divide ourselves, attempting to fit into these different boxes labeled by shape, color and size. I needed to understand that each individual person is different and should not be characterized based on things like race and gender. I had to look into one of the most well known Martin Luther King quotes for help: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” (King). In a way, I was creating barriers around myself as my peers had been creating barriers around me. I was believing that I was the only one who was different, but in reality we all are. At face value I was seen as different in my small town, but I came to appreciate that the ignorant people who stared at me in the hall or made racist remarks are just as different to each other as to me.

This realization led to my curls coming out of the cave and into the light. At first it was difficult wearing my hair in an Afro style surrounded by such flat strands. However, by the end of the day, it truly felt right. I was more confident than ever. I focused on the love and support of my close friends, and the hateful ignorant comments slowly started to fade away. It was only after I stepped into this part of my identity that I became able to inspire my mom to go natural and for my sisters to stay natural. It took a little while, but once I was secure with myself, I could, like Raymond Chappan, a Syrian Jew growing up in Brooklyn, focus on leading others (Chappan). My mom cut her relaxed hair a few months after me, so we actually embarked on our curly hair journeys together. My younger sisters did not really have much of an opinion on the state of their hair. I was happy to know that they had our curls to look at and be inspired by.

Watching my sisters grow up in that same neighborhood I did, I realized just how much black community culture I missed out on as a child, especially music and dancing and food. An interesting question arose in my writing class: “Do you think you’ll be able to experience the culture that you missed out on now? Will the experiences have the same impact as they would have when you were younger?” Yes and yes. I did miss out on a lot culturally growing up, but that does not mean that I cannot grow to become a part of the culture. “...My sense of freedom came from going to college. I left my 'bubble' cave and went on to learn things on my own. It took me some time to adjust to the light, but now that I see clearly, I am learning a lot about the world and can finally begin to morph into my own” (Chappan).

I repeated the words of Malcolm X in his speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet" to myself: “So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies” (X). At Hofstra University, I have been able to do just that. My number of black friends has grown tremendously from high school (zero) to now (eight), four of whom live in my building. I know it does not seem like much, but after growing up in an all white area, I will take what I can get and be grateful for what I have. My new black friends do not even realize how much they are helping me to grow my identity as a black woman. Ditto the many clubs and organizations centered around black culture, such as the NAACP and the Black Student Union.

I was shocked at how perfectly Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” mimicked my situation so well. As a child I was ridiculed for how my hair looked, so I changed it. I was being chained inside of the cave, and when the shadows told me to change it because that is not how it was supposed to be, I did. I then became more aware of just how unhealthy my habits were for my hair and my health overall. I had to break free of the chains and walk out into the sun. It took my eyes a long time to adjust to the brightness and beauty of the sunshine, but soon enough, I was able to proudly walk into the sun. After I made it out, it was all Brother Malcolm. I was now able to accept myself, even though some of the white people around me could not. I had pulled my chair up to the table, but I was still unable to eat. Does this mean that I should sit back, relax and watch as Caucasians eat at the table while I stare down to an empty plate? (X) Of course not. Only when I ignore the hateful comments and embrace the color of my skin will I break down my barriers. Only when my hair grows so high that it touches the sky will I truly be satisfied. Only when my sisters can grow up to fully embody their curls as I have will I have done my job. We are all different. However, more importantly, we are all people. Only when we embrace our perfections and imperfections can we come together as one and really be happy.

Unfortunately, America was only designed for the success and prosperity of white people. It is even worse because they know just how powerful black people are, but they refuse to give up any of the credit. They cope with my excellence by telling me that how I look is wrong, and how my appearance should be changed to something less intimidating. Many folks are going to have a rude awakening once they learn that they are just as different from me as I am different from them. However, it will be a good thing. Their world will grow to be a little bit bigger, and the color spectrum will not matter as much. The chip will fall right off of their shoulder. My brown skin and curly hair are a huge part of my personal identity, and I recognize that I am different, but I also understand that we are all members of one cohesive unit, and that “every individual is an expression of the realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe” (Watts).

Works Cited
Awais, Rosheen. “A Hijab-Wearing Muslim Reflects on Identity in the Age of Trump.” TakingGiant Steps. February 2017. Web.
Chappan, Raymond. “Bursting One’s Bubble to Discover One’s Identity.” Taking Giant Steps, March 2016. Web.
Khan, Arbaaz. “Internal Jihad: My Identity as a Muslim American.” Taking Giant Steps, December 2016. Web.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” August 1963.
Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.”
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” 1964.

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