“An American, a Negro… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” W. E. B. Du Bois
It’s Black History Month I started thinking: I am painfully sometimes detached from my heritage as an African-American.
I grew up in a mostly white part of Texas. The few other black kids I remember growing up with were like me: mostly in white neighborhoods and were fairly “white” in speech and action. We watched cartoons, read comic books and even a few of us growing up were into anime and this was true for most of my childhood years and really up until middle school. We were all a pretty color-blind group of kids: a luxury of somewhat opulence and an upper-middle class upbringing.
The Barbies and dolls I owned were mostly white or Asian because I didn’t like the orange and yellow most of the African American dolls came in. I didn’t mind because I wasn’t looking for a simulation of me as a child I was looking for a totem; a more solid way to manipulate and express my vivid childhood imagination. My imagination had somewhat transcended skin tone as well and despite the skin tone of my dolls not matching mine, I could easily slip into their world. The same goes for the books I read and the games I played: the same can still be said up to now.
High school was the first time I realized that I wasn’t quite like most of the other black kids at my school. Many times I was told that I “talked so white” to which I realized that when people said that they meant properly. This distressed me greatly. I didn’t much relate or connect to popular aspects of black culture. Hip-hop and rap confused me and I didn’t much care for sagging. My hair stays flat, relaxed and short. My music stays indie or punk and my dress is conservative and preppy.
I wasn’t particularly close to all of my dad’s side of the family: mostly citizens of Crockett and Palestine and the drudgery of the trip out there to visit them fed my somewhat disconnection to my heritage. It was easy to distance myself and continue to focus on the French Revolution, Poe’s poetry and my Japanese calligraphy.
My mother’s side of the family is incredibly proud of their heritage. Many are movers and shakers in Tuskegee. I come from a long line of airmen and distinguished Tuskegee University alum. Many attended Historically Black Colleges and are fantastic examples of what it means to be African-American. I found their goals and aspirations to be nearly too lofty and therefore it was easier to distance myself and continue to focus on the French Revolution, Poe’s poetry and my Japanese calligraphy.
In college I found other mostly culturally abandoned folks. Most had renounced their family lines to essentially become Japanese: adopting bowing, suffixes and the language. I surrounded myself with other people like me and the friends that I had that were also of color were in a similar boat: culturally abandoned and “talked white”. I was content to speak French throughout college but couldn’t tell you too much about my family and how its lines were drawn.
Being a cosplayer and anime fan especially made me realize that I had distanced myself from the color of my skin. I was never one hunting for representation in comics, anime, manga or video games. I was okay with Superman being white; I would rather him be white than a gross caricature. I delighted when powerful black superheroes arose like Green Lantern John Stewart and in Pokemon Y when I could make an avatar that looked like me I was thrilled. But I always accepted that the characters I cosplayed as were on screen or page white and I can count the times on my hand where I felt like my race has held me back from attempting a costume. Anime especially made me aware that representation would be a rare and treasured find but it didn’t take away from my experience realizing that it would be difficult to write for someone like me.
Now, I’m not culturally ignorant. I’m aware that I’m African-American and aware of much of the collective history of my people. My mother’s side of the family came up from sharecroppers to the status they are now. But the talk of slavery, reconstruction and Civil Rights were all far afield for me living in the 90s and 2000s; it was relevant historically but not to me in my daily life. The pictures from history books of slaves being tortured were numbing and damning but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t happening in my lifetime. The struggles of racism were somewhat beyond me. I have personally not struggled much as a black woman so stories of systemic racism have always made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.
The event that came to change my opinion and really force me to look at how far removed I was from my heritage was a family reunion trip. I had seen Tuskegee U. I had heard all the legends but it was when we visited the memorial to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that I had to confront my family line. If you’ve never heard of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study…it’s a lot, to be conservative and to be liberal: it’s just a damn shame; so here’s some context. Back in the early days of unregulated medical testing a group of doctors used less than sound practices to test the effects of syphilis on the body. They used mostly poor black men and infected somewhat the diseases saying they were trying out new vitamin supplements. Many men died. Many more survived but with serious medical conditions after the study. When the truth of the study finally came out many of the men because they were mostly poor and black were not given the right to sue the doctors and it mostly went down as a negative footnote in American history. In the 90s, then president Clinton set up a memorial and memorial fund for those that gave up their lives and health under less than noble practices. To learn more about this terrible aspect of American history check out this link: it’s very informative.
The memorial was a pit stop for the family reunion and I learned something: I had family in the study. I can’t quite put into words what I felt. I suppose it was all the anger and rage I should have felt over the graphic images of slavery in my old history text books. I felt angry; Django Unchained angry. I felt sad. I felt awful.
I also in that moment felt strongly African-American and proud to know that despite the horrors of the study that my family survived and then went on to thrive. But feeling connected to my heritage didn’t change the fact that I hadn’t up until that moment felt connected to it. I didn’t opt to go to a historically black college. Japanese and French are still my main languages and not modern Ebonics and I still keep my hair very straight and very flat. My education and my upbringing are part of my life but my personality and likes influence how I deal with things. I’m proud of my family, my heritage and my legacy: but I’m still culturally abandoned as not just an African-American but as an American in general.
I’ll probably always struggle with the parts of that are abandoned from being an American as much as I’ll struggle with the parts of me that are abandoned from being African-American. I think a few otakus struggle with this: loving a culture that isn’t exactly known for it’s tolerance of gaijin or foreigners. The great irony of being an otaku is embracing a culture that likely would not embrace many of the individuals that call Nihon home in spirit. So while I’m culturally and mentally very much Japanese, I’m aware that there are cities in Japan that would see me as nothing more than a Westerner. And even when it comes to prejudice, when travelling overseas, I struggled more with being an American in Europe than an African-American in Europe. Many I spoke with were more fine with me being of British-origin and black than being black and from the US specifically Texas.
Just remember that the narrative of history is ongoing and though some are fortunate enough not to struggle there are others that are not as fortunate. I’m lucky to have the education that I do, the family that I do and the heritage that I do. The opening quote of this blog is about dual consciousness and it’s very true for most African-Americans: there’s a pride to us and side to us that many aren’t eager to show to others. A set of social cues and lines we just don’t break. The quote above was first mentioned to me while reading To Kill a Mockingbird when Calpurnia mentions to Scout that there were two ways black people talked: the way they did in front of white people and the way they did in private with other black people and that each one must be separated and kept away from each other: the two halves of the average African-American person should be separate but equal. There’s more than one spirit inside every person of color: it’s just a question of how many spirits that is.