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Learning to Love My Blackness: Part 5

Part V

The setting was Youngstown State University. The first time I saw him perform spoken word, I could feel my body freezing up because I was in such shock of his boldness. The way his black body commanded the stage. The way he fit so many words in such tight spaces. His cadence was contagious. His ability to use every inch of the English vocabulary, twist it, and make it his own. His unapologetically black self. How he moved through the world not being defined by others’ expectations of blackness, but by his own. For Wilson, he created his own measuring stick -- not the white measuring stick I described in Part I, but his own personally crafted measuring stick to measure himself by, not others. He was guided by his own inches and feet -- his own dimensions.

The setting was the Oxford Community Arts Center. In a dimly-lit room with seats in a U-shape, she effortlessly and unapologetically described her black queer self, her family’s stories, and how she navigated the world in her black queer body. As she changed outfits, she pushed back against so-called professionalism. This was truly a One Woman Show, in which Dominique used poetry, dance, and spoken word to illustrate the complexities and possibilities of moving through the world in her skin. Dominique abolishes the measuring stick. In Dominique’s world, a measuring stick is simply a standard never created by her, so why even use it?

The setting was Columbia University Medical School. When one of his colleagues asked him where he was from, and my dad replied, “Ghana,” his colleague said: “Oh, I hear they live in treehouses there.” And my dad, without skipping a beat, said, “Yeah, and mine was next to the president’s.” He carved out his particular kind of blackness, a Ghanaian, retro style, in the mostly white spaces he occupied. His response to his colleague was his own act of resistance -- using humor to point out the absurdity of such a comment.

The setting was Instagram, and the post caught my eye immediately. In a Black and Bold t-shirt stood a fierce, entrepreneurial Black woman portraying her craft -- starting a business that articulated the boldness of black people. Kiaya charted her own path; I could hear her asking herself, “Why wait until I have my master’s degree to pursue my passion? Let’s do it now!” Through these shirts, Kiaya hoped to speak her own truth to power in demonstrating the power of black art and black people. We are a diverse group, and we wear our blackness boldly.

The setting was the Shade Family Room in the Armstrong Student Center on Miami University’s Campus. In this particular space, adorned on the walls are images of mostly white people. Several black students stood up on stage and vocalized in poetry and spoken word what makes them angry. Queer black voices, femme black voices, masculine black voices, intersectional black voices -- all of them -- declared their space on a stage where their bodies are nonexistent.

The setting was any place where Chris was with his two children. His ability to respond to their different needs while setting firm, clear boundaries was masterful. He showed empathy but was also unwavering in his parenting style. And I could tell his kids adored and respected him. One minute, he was busily preparing a meal in the kitchen, and the next, running around in the backyard kicking a soccer ball. All the while, he appropriately praised his kids’ good choices and established a sense of wonderment for them as they navigated the world.

The setting was center stage at the ACPA Conference in Indianapolis. In maroon skinny jeans, a green v-neck sweater, the usual bowtie, with a khaki blazer to accentuate the attire this time, stood me, a small, five-foot-seven-inches black man sharing perfect to enough, my thoughts about moving through perfection to settling for good enough -- trying to illustrate being a recovering perfectionist. Be the best version of yourself, practice vulnerability, and create home for students where they can be their full selves are the three takeaways from this talk -- three ideas that unbeknownst to me at the time, formed the basis for my particular kind of blackness.

In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois penned an essay titled, “The Talented Tenth,” in which he pointed out that the black race would be saved by a talented ten percent of men. His best-of-the-race mindset focuses on exceptional black men. In the process of this philosophy, DuBois left out 90% of black men, not to mention 100% of black women, as well as those not identifying as either men or women. DuBois’s notion of a talented tenth is in some ways emblematic of a concept of black excellence, captured well in a song by Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Murder to Excellence,” where Jay-Z raps, “Black excellence, opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president,” and Kanye ends with, “Black excellence, truly yours.” Jay-Z and Kanye arguably represent the pinnacle of black-excellence rap artists with several Grammy’s, platinum albums, and millions of dollars to boot. The way they rap in this song underscores, however, that black excellence is not reserved for all black people, just a talented few, who have made it in white America.

The stories above in some way demonstrate black excellence -- black people showing up in their black bodies and doing what I perceive to be excellent things -- sharing profound truths in spoken word, using one’s artistic body as a vessel, thriving in a new culture, starting an empowering business, using anger as a vehicle for change, parenting from a place of empathy and courage, and practicing authenticity and vulnerability publicly. What I see in the stories, however, is what I call #EverydayBlackness (Use that hashtag to tweet everyday acts of blackness that you want to celebrate.). Many black folks have a knack for celebrating black excellence -- stories of black people doing exceptional things despite the racism that they navigate on a daily basis. And that is okay -- we should celebrate black excellence. And I also want us to celebrate #EverydayBlackness -- these are the often unnoticed ways in which black people get up, show up, and move through the world in their blackness.

#EverydayBlackness exists when black student activists argue that they have no choice but to be activists. #EverydayBlackness is when black people start their cars every morning and drive to work despite feeling fear that a white police officer might take away their life that day. When a black kid colors people in their pictures using a brown crayon, they are demonstrating #EverydayBlackness. In many ways, the stories above represent everyday acts of people doing their craft, their art in their black skin. This is not to minimize the significance of these acts, but instead, it is to acknowledge and celebrate #EverydayBlackness for how exceptional, mundane, and unexceptional #EverydayBlackness is.

From Wilson, I learned to define my blackness in my own way and use my own measuring stick. #EverydayBlackness. Dominique taught me to not treat blackness monolithically and to allow room for the full spectrum of blackness to exist in my world. #EverydayBlackness. I learned about resilience from my dad and not giving a damn what people think (still a work in progress). #EverydayBlackness. Kiaya showed me that students, if given the space, can be creative and versatile in powerful ways. #EverydayBlackness. The students performing at the open mic night taught me what courage looks like -- to proudly stake your claim in a space not designed for you and to transform it into your space. #EverydayBlackness. Learning how to parent from a place of confidence is what Chris taught me, even when you might be unsure. #EverydayBlackness. And from me, I learned to embrace my sensitive soul as my strength, not my weakness. #EverydayBlackness

The #EverydayBlackness acts of these people pushed me to be bolder in my own black skin, likely without even realizing it. When Chris and Wilson, in particular, would compliment me on something I’d written, I would jokingly express to them that I’m just trying to live up to them to deflect attention away from me. More recently, I started to wonder why I often made myself smaller than I felt in my five-foot-seven frame. And yet, they are merely celebrating my #EverydayBlackness as well.

It’s funny how you often don’t see yourself as others see you.

When I show up as my full self -- my vulnerable, confused self that is doing my best to live authentically in my black skin, I give others permission to do the same. There is such beauty in this act. And love. And it’s this love that propels me to write, gives me the courage to show up, allows me to practice self-care, and enables me to learn to love my blackness. And this, my readers, is a revolutionary, albeit everyday, act.

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