Epiphanies of Blackness: An Unspoken Rite of Passage

by ChrisTiana ObeySumner

A seemingly consistent rite of passage across the lived experience of Black Americans is the moment where one realizes that: 1) they are Black, and; 2) being Black is a problem.

My first mini-rite of passage was in kindergarten. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and went to a predominantly White elementary school. I was twirling in my classroom with other girls during a play break, and noticed the other girls’ hair was whipping across the faces of the others. Of course, I did not think anything of the fact that my hair was doing the same.

However, one of the children complained to my teacher that my hair was hurting them. I was sidelined from recess, and my mom was called. The teacher explained I was exhibiting aggressive behavior because I was whipping other children’s faces with my hair. Even at five years old, I protested this accusation and expressed my confusion. Why were there no complaints about the White girls’ hair whipping across their faces? My questioning led to harsher consequences, and eventually being sent home from school.

When I got home, my mom explained the difference: my hair was heavier than the other children’s hair because it was micro-braided—a hairstyle typically given to young Black children for easier maintenance. It was then that we had “The (Black) Talk,” explaining the harsh reality that certain aspects of my phenotype (the combination of biology and socially ascribed identity) and appearance had to be considered at all times because some of those parts of me that are naturally occurring can limit my positive experiences and opportunities in life.

It wasn’t until middle school that I truly understood what it meant to consider my race at all times. Although I experienced micro-aggressions and micro-assaults throughout my adolescence, I experienced my true rite of passage in ninth grade.

By then, I had moved to a southern New Jersey suburb outside of Philadelphia and become immersed in South Jersey’s “mall rat” culture. I was a Black teen who proudly listened to Linkin Park, Korn, and Taking Back Sunday, privately obsessed over Hanson, wore Tripp pants and two pounds of black eyeliner, and patronized Hot Topic so often that I eventually was offered employment there when I was 16.

I was not yet explicitly aware of the delineation that exists between what is considered the “Black thing to do,” and how Black Americans are held to a standard of consuming and performing socially-agreed-upon stereotypical activities and cultural pursuits while, concurrently, being expected to acculturate and code-switch to accommodate dominant Eurocentric culture’s expectations in academic, social, and professional environments.

It was in the Hot Topic that I met a cute White boy, and we started dating the way South Jersey teens date: at the mall. One dark night, he appeared at my door for the first time, standing on my back porch while his parents sat in their car in my driveway. Their headlights were on and his dad pointed at us. The boy tearfully explained we were not allowed to continue dating because I was Black.

I was confused and numb. I remember trying to argue the fact that he and I had so much in common, while he became increasingly frustrated because he honestly had no choice. He tried to hug me, and his parents leaned on their horn, summoning his immediate return. I didn’t see him at the mall after that night. To this day, I sometimes wonder what I did to deserve it. Then I remember: I didn’t do anything, except be born with brown skin.

This began a period of my life where I struggled to accept my phenotype, and the powerful influence it had over my life despite my best efforts to be an intelligent, college-bound, cultured, and friendly young adult. The frustration of experiencing racism daily led to failed attempts to assimilate in any way possible: hair straightening, diction modification and code-switching, and experiments with skin-lightening treatments.

Eventually, the dissonance between my self-esteem and societal feedback regarding my worth and future as an emerging adult manifested into a significant mental illness that laid foundations for involuntary commitment in psychiatric treatment for more than seven years spanning my late teens and early twenties.

My Buddhist, Black Panther, OG, Womanist, Jamaican grandmother imbued me with integral lessons that have shaped me into the person I am today. First and foremost, she taught me to be proud of my melanin, and to fight continually to keep alive our heritage as freed, British slave-trade, Obeahs and indigenous Arawak folk, and to always remember: when I walk out of the door and into the dominant culture, I am Black.

In my family, as among people I have met who grew up in the cultures dispersed by the African diaspora, we are taught early that, from a social perspective, we are what we look like. However, nothing can prepare anyone for what that dynamic truly means, and how it will play a foundational role in how our lives are experienced in America.

Before continuing, it is important to understand the barriers in place for a person of color to research, teach, advocate, and organize others around the patterns of development or lived foundational reality of Black Americans. The factual dearth of research offering fair representation and insight into the experience of Black America needs no citation. One simply needs to look no further than their local library or research database.

It is also necessary to state here that this epiphany is not specific to Black Americans, but to People of Color throughout America. This is a phenomenon that could fill a book; but for the purposes of this article, I will write from a lens of my own intersectionality and those who share those experiences.

Compounded in this dynamic is the lack of research on Black Americans that do not follow a Eurocentric or Psudeo-Afri-centric psychosocial model. Psychologists and African Mental Health Experts Kobi Kambon and Terra Bowen-Reid defined these models as those that either promote or support negative-reactive constructs of the Black American psychosocial profile—e.g. self-hatred, behavioral immaturity or deviancy, natural addictive personality components, and maladaptive tendencies.

These models also often assume that racial identity development is always in response to oppression by dominant-culture, or foundationally supports aspects of “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” as the framework through which racial and ethnic minorities reach a greater understanding of their own being-in-the-world. But the theory fails to take into account environmental in-group cultural feedback, historical teachings and rituals, and warnings passed down via superstitions and colloquialisms spouted by every Black Auntie during a moment of distress across the country.

These natural aspects of social development through Black adolescence are compounded with hidden-in-plain-sight racial discrimination dismissed through a “post-racial society” myth and societal pressure to acculturate into dominant society from early childhood.

The concept of “the veil”, introduced by W.E.B. DuBois in his work The Souls of Black Folk, is defined as a psychological barrier that prevents dominant culture from seeing Black Americans as members of America’s sociological in-group, prompting a disregard for Black Americans’ experience of stigma and oppression in daily life while synchronously preventing Black Americans from clearly seeing their potential outside of a racist, Eurocentric, dominant cultural construct of what Blackness means in society. R.E., a local Black-American Seattleite, says she first knew she was different when she was 5-years-old. “I went to church with my grandma and this white lady said ‘aren’t you just the prettiest little black girl…’ That’s when I knew I was different.”

In a search for camaraderie, and confirmation of these experiences as shared across all facets of Black American culture, I sought narratives from others who also faced this dynamic in their lives. Friends, colleagues, and family members showered me with their memories of “the time I realized I was Black.” I found narratives in poems and writings by Maya Angelou, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zora Neale Hurston, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie exploring the lifetime effect of this experience on their development and self-concept. But one of the most striking narratives came from my own momma.

When she was 13, in a South New Jersey/Philadelphia suburb, she was walking with her White friend of Lithuanian heritage. Out of nowhere, a White man in his early twenties got right in her face and screamed, “MOVE!” before walking away laughing.

My mother explained the greater significance of this interaction. She was a Black American girl, wearing an ethnic hairstyle during the era of a concurrent movement in Philadelphia called MOVE. It was a communal group led by John Africa, a revolutionary who sought to create an all-Black empowered community.

Like the Black Panthers, MOVE members armed themselves and maintained a militia to protect their community from the surrounding, predominantly White, community which complained and demonstrated against the MOVE members, accusing them of crimes, of harboring felons, and cult-like oppression of women and children. My mother shared that the late 70’s and early 80’s were scary times for Black Americans across the region because the MOVE community became the central focus of ire, worsening relations between White and Black people.

In 1986, Philadelphia police surrounded the neighborhood MOVE occupied and claimed to be arresting felons and people in possession of illegal weapons. The police eventually dropped a literal bomb on this community, destroying over 60 homes, killing 11 people, (five of whom were children,) and leaving over 250 people homeless.

From this experience, my mother began living in fear of her Blackness and the impact of her phenotype: attacks, oppression, and even death. In fact, she experienced agoraphobia for over 10 years due to Race-based Traumatic Stress. She only began leaving the house on her own to get mail and take out trash in 2015.

The “veil” in these rites of passage is apparent. Not only are there blatant refusals to accept the Black individual as a peer, and consider them worthy of representation within the worldview; but there are emotional and psychological conflicts within Black individuals about what this experience means, and whether it can be fixed by further acculturating to the desires and constructs of dominant culture.

The issues of public and private regard for Black Americans as addressed by W.E.B. DuBois’ term “double consciousness,” defines the ubiquitous experience where Black Americans realize they will constantly need to straddle the realities of being a Black person, a minority, and a member of an American society which demands acculturation into dominant, White culture.

Within the developmental theory of Nigrescence proposed by William Cross Jr., this would occur during the Encounter and Immersion-Emersion phase, where the Black American begins transition towards pro-Black racial identity development and eventually moves to self-acceptance and social action towards diversity and multiculturalism. This theory suggests that the optimal Black personality would be one that has processed through their pro-Black/anti-White phase towards advocacy for acceptance of all people, regardless of race.

However, this does not allow for the possible development of Race-Based Traumatic Stress on one hand, or continued pro-Blackness framed positively as a way of giving back to, or empowering, one’s own community on the other. In my search for narratives, these responses are conspicuous and overt for the storytellers throughout the retelling of their experiences. This is why it is important to support, uplift, and empower People of Color using a restorative justice approach to collaborate in community healing from historical trauma as well as the systemic and blatant violence being committed against this community daily.

It is important to understand the barriers in place for a person of color to research, teach, advocate, and organize others around the patterns of development or lived foundational reality of Black Americans. The factual dearth of research offering fair representation and insight into the experience of Black America needs no citation. One simply needs to look no further than their local library or research database.

It is also necessary to state here that this epiphany is not specific to Black Americans, but to People of Color throughout America. This is a phenomenon that could fill a book; but for the purposes of this article, I will write from a lens of my own intersectionality and those who share those experiences.

Compounded in this dynamic is the lack of research on Black Americans that do not follow a Eurocentric or pseudo-Afrocentric psychosocial model. Psychologists and African Mental Health Experts Kobi Kambon and Terra Bowen-Reid defined these models as those that either promote or support negative-reactive constructs of the Black American psychosocial profile—e.g. self-hatred, behavioral immaturity or deviancy, natural addictive personality components, and maladaptive tendencies.

These models also often assume that racial identity development is always in response to oppression by dominant-culture, or foundationally supports aspects of “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” as the framework through which racial and ethnic minorities reach a greater understanding of their own being-in-the-world. But the theory fails to take into account environmental in-group cultural feedback, historical teachings and rituals, and warnings passed down via superstitions and colloquialisms spouted by every Black Auntie during a moment of distress across the country.

These natural aspects of social development through Black adolescence are compounded with hidden-in-plain-sight racial discrimination dismissed through a “post-racial society” myth and societal pressure to acculturate into dominant society from early childhood.

Exploring these rites of passage was fraught with anger, pain, and tears. In fact, it caused me to experience each of the five stages of grief because the process of researching the literature, collecting narratives, re-experiencing racial trauma, and realizing the extent of the work ahead of me in my career as a race and social justice scholar and activist, drained me daily of my psychic energy.

In fact, there were several times I questioned myself for pursuing this path because of a pervasive, nagging, pessimistic belief that this racial dynamic may never change. But there is camaraderie in this experience of being a Black American. I truly believe that, with community and advocacy, these structures and experiences could lay a foundational framework for true social change.


ChrisTiana ObeySumner is an academic and ferociously passionate advocate for what is equitable and just in our society. They are an Alaskan-Born, Philly-Raised transplant who loves WWE, MUSE, and karaoke.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Art Around

 

One thought on “Epiphanies of Blackness: An Unspoken Rite of Passage”

  1. Great article ChrisTiana. You brought up some great perspectives that I had not reflected on previously. I look forward to reading more.

    -Justin Phillippi

    Like

We'd Like to Hear Your Thoughts:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s