This is one of the pieces featured in my published anthology,
“Product of the Storm.“
Note: I use this short story—based off an actual experience I had in High School—to portray a young man’s internal conflict of keeping true to his race versus keeping true to himself.
Am I Black Enough?
To any African American that should come across this, I pose you a question that’s probably never been asked of you. It’s a question in which no one is ever given a clear answer for, and yet somehow, you’re supposed to conduct yourself correctly in accordance with the proposed “black people” guidelines. And if you ever should formulate an answer to that, then pose yourself the very question: “Am I myself, indeed, black enough?”
Is there some universal chart of guidelines that we’re supposed to follow, and if so, where they heck are they hiding this thing? As a matter of fact, why is it being hidden in the first place? ‘Cause at one point in time, I sure as heck was searching for it! It was a seemingly impossible question for me to answer back then. I mean, how does one even gauge that, and who in the world made up the rules for it?
But as tough as the concept was to grasp, not answering it was not an option for me. It was an ongoing internal struggle I had all throughout my grade school years—something I think a lot of black kids or kids of any race, for that matter, may’ve been going through. In my adolescent days, the definition of “being black” was taking on a whole new meaning from what it was back in the civil rights/pro black activist days.
As opposed to diligently taking a stand against social injustices, striving to improve and strengthen your community, sporting afros, and empowering your people, “being black” then translated to imitating some simple “hip hop culture” stereotype. You had to rock waves in your hair, have some type of flossed out jewelry, have the latest and fresh kicks, use the “n” word five times in every sentence, have either football or basketball as your primary sport, and talk incredibly loud, incoherently or boisterous, etc.
I can recall a specific instance in a 9th grade English class where this was made clearly evident. It was during my teacher’s lesson about the usage of commas in a sentence. I simply asked a routine question to her and had no idea it would somehow relate to racial context. I was just a young boy genuinely wanting to learn how to speak properly. “Mrs. Carlson, is it formally acceptable to use as many commas in a sentence as you want, or are there any regulated limitations on its usage?” She answered sufficiently and went back to her normal instruction. That’s when a fellow black student across the way boldly blurted out, “Boy, you talk white as hell–like for real though dawg.”
The idiotic statement stunned me briefly; I met his eyes with a puzzled stare—mainly because I was shocked as to how anyone could say something so dumb. “Say what,” I muttered, even though I’d heard him clearly. He let off a devilish smirk and a snicker and continued. “Man you heard me. You’re on some straight up “Oreo” shit man.”
“Man, I don’t know what in Sam Hill you’re talking about,” I countered.
Mockingly, he replied in a nerdy voice, “Man, I don’t know what in Sam Hill you’re talking about.”
“Haha…you see what I mean?” In the seat next to him, a Hispanic boy chuckled—as if he actually knew something himself about being black. I began to struggle to find the words to respond to such idiocy, and the awkward silence began to flood me with embarrassment. If I were a white, you definitely would’ve seen me red as a cherry tomato in that moment.
I finally ante-upped and countered with, “Just ‘cause I don’t talk ignorant and hooded out doesn’t mean that I talk “white”, man.
“It just means that….” Before I could even finish the rest of my sentence, a fellow black female interjected with her own smart-alecky nonsense. The uncool, “I wanna be down” girl, no doubt, probably saw it as an opportunity to get cool points with the “in crowd” at school by backing up one of its members in an argument.
“It’s ‘ignorantly,’ she corrected me snobbishly. “It’s not, ‘I don’t talk ignorant.’ “It’s an adverb in that sentence, bro.” “I talk properly too, but that doesn’t mean I talk like I’m white. You want to be white down inside; just face it.”
By then, my ears were really burning red. I’m thinking, this snooty broad had gone and taken my only decent point to debate with, in a conversation that wasn’t even any of her stinking business. “Yeah Keith, he always has his shirt buttoned up to the tippy-top, too.”
Keith obnoxiously started back in. “His name is white, he talks white, he dresses white. Face it, you wanna be white, mann.”
The humiliation was unbearable. The only thing I could muster was, “Man y’all are trippin,” as little giggles started to spread among the chattering class. I knew they were directed at me as more people began to take notice.
“Ol’ Billy Bob Buster lookin’ ass boy—where’d you grow up?” There was nothing I did not want to do more than answer that question. My hostility was beginning to grow at this point. But truthfully speaking, this guy was a varsity defensive end in the 9th grade. The high school across down, that hosted the seniors in our district, had the football program come recruit this guy specifically. If a scuffle had gone down between me and him, I’d be hell on the guy for like the first 30 seconds, but I didn’t need additional social embarrassment by getting’ clobbered in 2nd period English. So, threatening the guy or telling him to shut up was out of the question. “Huh…where are you from boy…oh, he acts like he don’t hear me now.” If didn’t answer, the jerk wasn’t going to let it go.
So, I took the low road—the one that you aren’t supposed to take in this type of situation; I begin to fabricate to the fullest extent. “I’m from South Dallas, bro.”
Keith erupted in laughter. “Seriously—how stupid do you think I am?” I felt incredibly compelled to answer the question based what I was thinking just in that moment. “Billy Bob Buster is from South Dallas? What street did you live on? Oh, I gotta hear this.” What I remember thinking was how in the world the teacher hadn’t taken notice of the situation yet.
I get that the guy was speaking in a low tone and all, but you’d think she’d have caught on to some of it by now. I’ll never know if the teacher heard the whole ordeal and just didn’t comprehend the gravity of it, or if she was so engrossed in her cookie cutter lecture that she’d failed to take notice.
For whatever reason, she continued on with her monotone oration while I was left to fend for myself. Of course, I couldn’t be the “snitch” of the situation and tell her. So, I continued. “I stayed on…Tenery Lane foo’, I said, making sure to drop that “l” off the sentence to give it a more “ghetto” effect.
“Man where in the hell is that?” I intensely thought back to the limited instances I’d been through that part of town, on my way to church.
“It was the off Lancaster Avenue.” That was one of the longest streets running through that area. I figured there was no way he knew every street along that road. In all actuality, the streets that I began naming next were just ones in my current neighborhood.
“Okay, what’s it by then?” “What’s a store that’s close to it mann?” “Man I know this foo’ is lying like mug.” The clamminess began to spread through my palms. Was there any appeasing this ignorant boy?
“A.P., this nigga is talking about he’s from South Dino.” She smirked deviously and chuckled along with him. Apparently she was from that area—literally and not imaginarily like I was.
“Over there next to that…to that…to the Autozone,” was all I could conjure. Those auto parts stores locations were littered everywhere—whether in the heart of the hood or the burbs. “Yeah, you know the one over there by the dart rail tracks.” Those rail lines also ran all throughout Dallas.
He fed me an untrusting stare liked he’d punch me if he were sitting closer. “Man, who do you know out there?” Searching for answers, I caught sight of the Mexican guy that snickered earlier. In seeing him, all I could think about was the actual Mexican boys on my block. Judging by who ran with who at school, it was safe bet that he wouldn’t know any.
“Do you know any Mexican people over there man?”, I asked. “It’s mainly Mexicans out my way. “I chill with Salvador, D-Lo, Dillio, and Isreal.” I spoke of them as if they were “hood legends” or something.
He sucked his teeth. “Man, I’ve been there my whole life and have not seen you once over there.” He was beginning to catch on to me, and I really really wanted this to end. So, I got really creative.
“I really don’t associate with a lot of katz out there, since I moved from New York and all.” It’s hard to trust a lot of people, if you know what I mean.”
I won’t lie. I felt a tad bit ashamed for making up parts of my life that never existed, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I just took the testimony of why I was black enough to a whole new level. I couldn’t tell if they bought it or not. A.P. turned to me and inquired, “I didn’t know you were from New York. Why didn’t you ever say anything about it?” What made you move to Texas?”
I deepened my voice to a more “I’ve been through some tough times” tone the same way a cowboy does in the old westerns, before he confesses the number of bodies that’ve fallen to his gun.
“Well, you know, after my pops passed, I started I started hanging with the wrong katz up there, getting into dealing and slanging and what not. “And, Moms felt like living down here was like the Hamptons compared to the neighborhood up there?” So, she moved down here close to her kinfolk.” It was then that I noticed something peculiar happening. The whole mood was starting to change in the room then. It was shifting from sheer persecution to utter curiosity.
That dopey dingbat un-scrunched his untrusting face, sort of emotionlessly looked at his desk, and gave a simple nod of acceptance. “Oh, okay,” he muttered. The totally “un-hooded” suburban kid just “out-hooded” the one from the hood, at his own game, with a totally bogus story. He couldn’t argue with me about anything on New York—a place he’d never been or probably never would go. They were totally buying it.
I needed something snappy and witty to close it all out though—some savvy and current urban lingo to sign me off properly. One time I heard on a Mystikal CD that my sister had let me borrow, about how someone dared to try and question his street cred in the club one night. In an altercation, the guy apparently mentioned that Mystikal wasn’t being sincere about his life experiences in the projects.
In the song, Mystikal then goes on his intense rhyme scheme about how his street cred was, indeed, intact on all levels. And, the “smart-alecky” comment he used to finish his debate was, “I put that on my momma I’m about my business. Then the rest of the lyrics were about how he blew his brains out. Didn’t quite get why saying that made people think your statement was more legit but, “I put that on my momma I’m about my business; I’m from South Dal…I mean Dino.”
“But, I grew up in the Bronx for a while. I gradually increased the pronunciation of my newly formed North Eastern accent. Those Texas kids didn’t know anything about the east coast. So, I took it and ran with it. “That’s probably while y’all think I talk different. We use bigger words up there son.” Doesn’t mean I’m a softy, fam.” If I’d laid it on any thicker, they’d have literally drowned in fabrication. A.P. went from trying to help her little ghetto friend rip my self-esteem in half to thinking I was a “triple O.G.” from one of the five borrows—for crying out loud.
All I did was simply blather on about east coast things I’d picked up from rappers I’d listened to from the region—a genre not a lot of people in my school were into unless it was Jay-Z, Ja Rule or something. And sure as Shirely, it worked, and they let me be. And not only that, but later on in the school, they started to respect me more for it. More people in the class wanted to strike up a convo and interact with me after that incident.
Coming from a respectable family that lived in a safe and peaceful neighborhood wasn’t respected—no. The definition of blackness was translated to this: Going through extremely tough times and hardships and fulfilling an image that we saw and heard from the most current hip hop meatheads. The fact I grew up with both my mother and father in the household and we weren’t on food stamps or any kind of government aid wasn’t respectable on any level. The more hardships, life threatening experiences, and illegal things you did made you “blacker.”
Also, add in talking incredibly loud, shoving jewelry in your mouth, eating like crap, wearing oversized clothes, and badmouthing someone every chance you got. So, that’s what I committed to—so pathetically desperate to get approval from my peers and myself that I was “black enough.” For the rest of my grade school career and all the way up into college, I kept that silly and uneducated ideology lodged in my brain—the notion of always trying to prove the “blackness.” It’s amazing how that one second period altercation, years back, resonated with me into my very adulthood.
And not just to myself or my own race either—even my white peers would express how odd they thought it was that I actually wore pants that fit, that I was into poetry and meteorology, and how I had no interest in baring my undergarments preference to the world. So, I bought the oversized jeans and baggy khakis, to make me look “blacker”—a total pain. You’d have to purposefully try on jeans that didn’t fit you—yet that had to not fit you, just right, so that they’d sag and not fit you. But, they couldn’t sag too much or you’d have the clown pants look going for you—so many ridiculous customs to follow as they somehow exalted the very name of my heritage.
And, no one could’ve blamed me either. It made the blacks, Latinos, and even the whites respect me. It thrilled the ladies—even the Latino and white women. And, it was always more than just a fad to me. It’s tied into the fiber of my very being. Even in the adult world, I ask the question persistently when I’m in the work place, when I’m chatting at the bar, when I’m choosing who to date, when I interact with my family, or even when I’m picking which church to go to.
Well if you’re an African American and have come across this, you can feel better if you didn’t know the answer to that question I posed at the beginning, At this point in my life, I feel I can confidently and effectively answer the question much better now than I could before. I’d go on to grow out of the illogical ideology.
And, I often think how I’d answer that question to myself if I could go back and ask the younger me or any kid of any other race with that same identity turmoil raging in their life. I’d even ask that same chump who came at me sideways that day. In all actuality, he was probably just as confused as I was—desperately trying to locate his “black” identity. And that being said—my answer goes something this.
It’s a trip how our African American forefathers fought and died just so that their offspring could dwell in the luxury of relative equality. And, I think it would make sense that the equality they were fighting for was rooted in our American values—the values of freedom to be yourself, and to express individuality as long as you don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. It’s the notion that “people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.
I believe that the whole point of my/our forefathers fighting so hard, when you really get down to it, wasn’t just for freedom in the sense of civil equality—but rather a freedom in a broader sense. I’d like to think they envisioned an environment where an individual, like myself, could be free to think uniquely and imaginatively and could have a suitable platform within with to reach his or hers full potential.
And no matter whether that freedom is threatened by external racism or prejudice towards one’s self, they sought to vanquish it. What a dishonor it’d be to their sacrifice if we didn’t accept the distinctive way God made us and intended for us to be. They fought so I could be actually respected for wanting to talk properly and intellectually, for dressing in a presentable and honorable manner, for wanting my community to flourish and thrive, and for wanting to enlighten and teach my fellow man. I think that’s just about most black, Latino, Asian, or Anglo thing that a person should ever want to do.