ON NEW YEAR'S EVE, I attended two parties. The first
was given by two affluent white sisters for their friends who went to schools like Georgetown, Penn, Harvard and Oxford. The second was given by two affluent black sisters for their friends from Wellesley, Brown, Howard and Georgia Tech. At each, people talked about their lives at school and contemplated their lives ahead. The music at both was similar. I had an equally good time at both -- and I fit in.
I realized, that evening, that I have developed the ability to fit in just about anywhere. This is a useful skill in today's small world. Still, the person who can become almost anything faces the peril of becoming nothing. For a person like myself -- black and middle class -- the danger is double because even if I wanted to forget who I am, other people won't let me.
My sisters, brother and I are part of a vast network of Black American Princes and Princesses -- BAPs. BAPs from New York to Philadelphia to Washington to Atlanta and out to California seemed to know each other, usually through parents but often through social events. Our parents divided us into social groups such as "Jack and Jill" and "The Group," in which we were supposed to meet "the right kind of people." We in turn divided ourselves into subgroups based on which schools we attended, what our parents did for a living, where we lived -- even how our hair was styled.
Most of us went to private schools or elite (white) public schools, had parents who were successful professionals and planned to go to college so that we could continue living in the manner in which we had been raised. We got a different outfit for every party and always arrived fashionably late.
However, no matter how refined my speech, or how well educated or assimiliated I become, I fear I will always be an outsider. I'm almost like a naturalized alien -- in this place but not of it.
I don't think that my parents had any idea of the adventures that awaited me in "integration land." How could they? The world has changed enormously since I was born. Few of the old rules apply. My generation of black youth -- those born in the '60s -- has had to make up rules as we go along.
My parents are products of the old black middle class: conservative people who believed in the powers of God, hard work and education. Mom is part of a large family from North Carolina. Although originer -- homes, toys, food, clothing and education -- especially education.
To our parents, education was not a separate part of life -- it happened every hour of the day. After a year living in Puerto Rico, my sisters and I had forgotten what winter was like, so they took us to the airport to see people get off the planes wearing coats.
Like Mom, Dad tried to know our teachers and help us with our homework. He meant well, but sometimes he could get a little overzealous. When I asked for help with long division, he gave me a lesson in algebra. When I needed help in algebra, he tried to teach me calculus. Dad wanted us to understand his work and make us feel a part of it, since we moved so much because of it. So he would bring us out to the construction sites -- even before we could walk.
Unfortunately, my happy home life could not shield me from the complications of "integration land." Probably the most difficult part of growing up black and middle class is becoming comfortable in one's own skin and being proud to be associated with the entire spectrum of the black experience. The positive images I saw in my family were offset by the negative ones I saw in the media. The people who looked like me were mostly poor or criminals. The people who lived like me were mostly white. I was confused about this for years.
During my pompous period, I dealt with my insecurities by wearing a veil of superiority. Except around my family and neighbors, I played the role -- the un-black.
To whites, I tried to appear perfect -- I earned good grades and spoke impeccable English, was well- mannered and well-groomed. Poor whites, however, made me nervous. They seldom concealed their contept for blacks, especially "uppity" ones like myself. At the same time, I despised them because I felt that, as whites, they had no excuse for their lowly station in life.
To blacks, I was all of the above and extremely stuck up. I pretended not to see them on the street, spoke to them only when spoken to and cringed in the presence of blacks being loud in front of whites. The more integrated my Catholic grammar school became, the more uncomfortable I was there. I had heard white parents on TV, grumbling about blacks ruining their schools; I didn't want anyone to think that I, too, might bring down Sacred Heart Academy. So I behaved, hoping that no one would associated me with "them."
By my 13th birthday, I enjoyed the fruits of integration -- my life was a sepia-toned Norman Rockwell drawing. I was somewhat popular among the white girls at school and in ballet class. I got invitations to all the right parties and outings. I belonged to the Girl Scouts, cheerleaders and touch football team. The teachers liked me, the kids liked me -- but I did not really like myself. I felt like a fraud.
This might have continued indefinitely if three things had not occurred: puberty, curiosity and loss of popularity due to moving to another state. The more my body changed, the more fascinated I became with the idea of becoming a woman -- a black woman. Divorced from familiar surroundings and finding myself suddenly friendless, I began to reconsider my life. I wondered what I had been missing all of these years.
I began by reading the source -- Essence -- "the magazine for today's black woman." Then I moved on to poetry, fiction and biographies by black women. I began to listen to jazz, gospel and soul.
From what I read and what I saw on TV, I started to think that the real black experience was to be found in the "ghetto" -- anything else was a pale imitation. In high school, my boyfriend and I would attempt to hang out in Elizabethport, one of the roughest areas in North Jersey. I didn't understand until I was in college that I didn't have to be poor to be black.
Another factor that probably helped my self-discovery was that northern New Jersey's suburbs were full of black middle-class people with whom I could identify. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Union Catholic High School. At school, our friends tend to be people we sit next to everyday. As part of an informal tracking system, I was in almost all advanced classes while most of the other black students were in regular classes. So, while my friends outside of school were mostly black, in school I hung out with the young and mostly white intellectuals.
I was content with this schizophrenic life, perhaps because I didn't understand that it could not go on forever. Although black students may seem to be fully integrated into their peer groups, the reality is that they are expendable -- especially when the competition starts for those precious commodities, college admission and the opposite sex.
Our parents try to protect us from the devastation that they suspect is coming. They did not, however, grow up expecting that they would always be treated like their white friends.
In my case, the first jolt came when when my school friends began dating each other -- but not me. I learned the rules -- black guys could date white girls but white guys did not date black girls. I still don't quite understand why these were "the rules," but they were. In fact, I created a bit of a scandal when at 16, I fell for a very white Costa Rican exchange student and he reciprocated.
Otherwise, the boys at school treated me as if I were neuter -- not exactly one of the boys, but certainly not a girl. As long as we were all platonic friends, I was one of the gang. But when they started pairing off, I got left out of almost everything. When I realized my dwindling social life at school was more than a series of oversights, I cut myself off from them without a word. There was nothing to say -- I had learned the rules.
I refused to let my depression ruin my grades and my chance of getting into a good college. It had already ruined what was supposed to be the best year of my life. Sadly, I couldn't turn to the black kids in school. I had not developed the ability to participate in the black community, but rather to be accepted by whites. I was in limbo, the odd man out.
My solitude in school gave me time to examine some of the flaws of the black middle class. The thing that bothered me the most was the rampant materialism that I saw among us -- the designer mentality. One could not just wear jeans, one had to wear Calvin Kleins. One could not just go to college, it had to be Yale or Howard. Everything had to be a status symbol.
We also got caught up in a lot of things that were destroying the white middle class. Some of us used drugs and seriously believed that they would not hinder our lives. Some girls like myself developed bulemia and other eating disorders in our quest for perfection. Many of us saw college as the means to an end -- money -- rather than as a chance to learn more things from more people than we would ever again have a chance to do in so little time.
Some of us believed that we could "get over" by doing things halfway, not realizing that the rules are still the same as they were for our parents -- when you are black, you have to perform twice as well just to receive the same recognition. Late during my senior year, while we were comparing the colleges that we had been admitted to, I said that I had gotten into Princeton. A boy who I knew had applied also, said he had not been admitted but was not surprised that I had been: "After all, you're black and female."
When I balked, a girl who had known me since grammar school said, "Well, you have to admit that you had an advantage over him." I certainly did. I was qualified. I had been researching colleges since the first semester of my sophomore year. I found out what the admissions boards were looking for. I talked to alumni, I had participated in extracurricular activities since my freshman year, I was a leader in some of my clubs, I did community service, I got recommendations from people who knew me well, I gave my application a cohesive theme and I had good grades.
I started to go to Princeton out of revenge! But better motives prevailed.
When it came to college, the question for me and my sisters was not if but where -- my parents had begun saving for my education the year I was born. Mom and Dad never stated their preferences, except when it came to costs. In our family, one sister and I chose white schools -- Georgetown and the University of Virginia, respectively. Our youngest sister chose our father's alma mater. Our brother has not made up his mind.
This discussion of black colleges versus white has gone on in black families ever since schools were integrated. On one hand, white schools tend to get more respect from white employers. On the other, black schools tend to provide better support systems for black students, emotionally and socially.
I chose a predominantly white university because I felt that after spending my entire life in white schools, I would be more comfortable in that environment. I also thought I would be better served by the sometimes-cruel "real-world" treatment that I would get at a white school.
I chose the University of Virginia for its size, reputation, number of black students attending it and its location.
I was wrong about feeling comfortable living with whites. Going to class with them in high school was not the same as being under the same roof with them. Suddenly I knew what it was like to be immersed in a foreign culture -- I was living my Anthro 101 course.
Every day presented amazing new situations and people. They spoke a strange language (Southern). They dressed in strange ways (preppie -- the state of mind not the fad). They celebrated by getting drunk on beer and sometimes flopping on the floors of their frat houses -- Animal House 20 years later. The atmosphere was decadent, yet genteel. They spoke of Thomas Jefferson, the honor system and money in the same reverent tones. It was surreal.
I was right, however, about picking UVA for its location. Being born in the '60s, when I was looking for a university, I associated the South with one thing -- warmth. Sure, I vaguely associated racism and oppression with the states below the Mason-Dixon line -- but this was the "New South." I didn't think that I would find any more overt racism there than in the North. Discussions with friends at Northern schools revealed that I had guessed correctly.
I also found what I was looking for in picking a university with a substantial number of blacks. After 12 years of social isolation, I was determined that the next four would be as stimulating socially as intellectually. And while my social life at UVA didn't turn out to be anything to brag about, I did make some terrific friends. I met a pretty good range of people, too -- from guest lecturers to the people who lived and worked in the area -- "townies."
Most black students refused to have anything to do with the residents of Charlottesville. The black townspeople worked mostly in menial jobs around school. Perhaps we felt intimidated, as in "There but for the grace of God go I." Or maybe we didn't want to associate because we got hassled by the police almost as much as the townies, no matter how well-groomed we were.
I felt like this at first, until I befriended the housekeeper in my first-year dorm. Through her, I got to know more local blacks, mostly in the projects. Their lives were so different from any I'd ever known well. Most were single mothers for whom education was not a priority and unemployment almost normal.
We university blacks were in the middle. We wanted to be a part of university life, yet we wanted to be ourselves, too. It was almost as if there was an explicit choice to be made: be black or be successful in school.
I spent my first year in college trying to achieve a balance between black and white friends. I worried about what sorts of tastes and behaviors would be acceptable to each group. There were no rules. What was black enough? What was too outrageous? I wanted the best of both worlds.
I found some of the answers in the black-studies courses I took. Although my major was in architectual history, I would consider my education incomplete had I not taken these courses. I am fascinated with Africans in the diaspora for the same reason that European-Americans are interested in their own history -- because it gives me a connection to the larger world. It made me realize that anything that I achieve as a black person is not a pioneering effort; I am part of a long line of achievers.
Life is very complicated for those of us born in the '60s, growing up in "integration land." Nothing can ever be taken for granted, because it can all be taken away so easily. It's rather like spending my life sitting atop a fence. I can have the best of both worlds, but maintaining my position takes a lot of concentration and effort.
Ideally, blacks should be able to accept the trappings of white society and maintain their own traditions and identities, in the same way that Jews in this country have been able to. Economic survival in this society requires that one be able to adapt, like a chameleon.
The trick is that like the chameleon, you must know who you were in the first place. As poet and scholar Houston Baker wrote: "No matter where you be, you always be black."