The Struggle To Think Outside The 'Black' Box

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By Donna Britt
Friday, August 12, 2005

Admittedly, a hotel lobby packed with people attending last week's National Association of Black Journalists conference in Atlanta is an odd place for two African American writers to discover a surprising, shared secret:

They aren't really black.

So what if one has waist-length dreadlocks, and the other a Michael Jordan-like shaved head? Their honey-brown skin and hundreds of columns analyzing, questioning and celebrating the black experience? Meaningless.

Chatting at NABJ, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson and I admitted the unadmittable: We aren't "really" black-- or, as Jackson later explained, "really black in the eyes of some people."

Or sometimes, in our own eyes. My possible inauthenticity as a black person dawned in elementary school, when I suspected that most of my classmates hadn't read "Little Women" 10 times or plopped before the TV, notebook paper in hand, to record lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein's annual "Cinderella" telecast.

Jackson -- a 2001 Pulitzer finalist whose searing columns have won four NABJ commentary awards -- figured things out early, too. "I can't play basketball," he begins. "I've been told I don't talk right and can't swear right. . . . I couldn't even say 'Right on' right, no matter how many 'Free Angela Davis' buttons I wore. Friends tried to give me dance lessons in college. . . .

"They said, 'Derrick, I'm sorry -- I don't think you're going to make it.' "

We laugh about it, but questions about racial identity feel serious, especially to the young. Questions of identity, period, are tricky. Who hasn't at some time felt, "I don't really belong"-- in their family, gender, social status, age group or even century? In this brutal, baffling world?

No wonder, Jackson says, "every one of those 'you're not black' moments sticks in your memory."

Legions of African Americans should know. That would include my friends who were virgins until marriage -- because all black women are supposedly natural-born sexpots. And my uber-punctual buddy Barb, who never grasped "C.P. Time" -- meaning colored people's, or never-on-time, time. And my non-dancing mom, for whom steps to the electric slide are as complicated as those in "Swan Lake."

There's the black acquaintance who is so lumberjack-shirt scruffy that the "Queer Eye" quintet actually considered rehabbing him and then said, "No, thanks." And my friend Lisa Ann, whose beaus have included a Turkish carpet repairman, a German rocker, a Jewish-Italian nanny -- and a former NABJ president.

The more people you consider whose character, skills and choices defy unspoken black rules, the more you wonder: Who is "really" black? Can those rejecting of blackfolk whose style, speech, hobbies, politics or mates challenge African American norms really know black history -- or support diversity?

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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