passing narratives ii

Josh sent me the CNN article. Lucas asked me how I felt about “this woman who changed her skin color and claimed to be black…” (With both Josh and Lucas – and come to think of it, pretty much everyone else I’m close to except a few [one clueless] friends -, I have a very open dialogue about race [and gender and class and education] in America.)

I read the initial article. At first, I didn’t make too much of the story; I’ve met a few (two or three) white people obsessed with Black/Other culture, with being ‘in’, with finding a comfortable place with ‘us’, or with shaping their personal narrative to include an Other history. I followed that first article with several more. This person seems to have taken obsession to the nth degree.

I read that she’d received her MFA from my beloved Howard University, and, that with her final thesis project, she had run somewhat afoul of my beloved Dr. Benjamin. I read that she’s been talking about her own experiences growing up and living Black in America, that she’s passed off adopted Black family members as her own children, and lied about who her father is…

So, Lucas and anyone else who’s curious, this is how I feel: simultaneously frustrated, incensed, and perplexed. Also, I think there’s a chance she’s mentally ill.

My time at Howard University taught me that, to be Black, to be me, I didn’t have to change a single thing about myself. I am of the African diaspora, I experience the world as a Black woman, and I respond to the world in ways that are informed by the values, traditions, and histories of my Black communities. My two notable ‘non-Black’ markers are my accent and my general taste in music. But at Howard, they didn’t matter at all. No one ever questioned my allegiance to my communities. They challenged they ways I aimed to serve my communities, but never my place in my communities. That was a powerful lesson for me, and it has served me well as an educator and as an artist.

There were white, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American students at Howard when I was there. Of course we all flirted with ways of being ourselves in the world, but I can’t say that any of those ‘Others’ were rejected by us Blacks for their ‘Otherness’. How and why this person came away from Howard with the idea that she has to be Black to be legitimate in the world is beyond me. (Although, I know exactly how and why Blacks and other Others can believe that, to be legitimate in the world, one has to get as close to white as possible.)

Anyone can design their appearance however they like. I often (always) comment on the aesthetics of various ‘looks’ and invariably hypothesize the media’s role in shaping people’s desires and choices. This person has drawn herself ‘Black’ appearances along very particular lines. But if I step back and think of all the white and light-complected Black women I know who tan (or ‘tanned’, very few of my white women friends still do), if I think about the ways in which women in general change their hair, then her appearance isn’t the biggest issue. It’s an issue (pictures of her in braids automatically conjure images of people outside of Latina communities appropriating ‘Chola’ makeup), but not the biggest issue.

She works for the NAACP and is a professor of Africana Studies. White people do both of those things all the time as white people. And, there’s powerful meaning when they do so as themselves, with their own true histories intact. In fact, her time at Howard, in the NAACP, and as a professor of Africana Studies should have reinforced in her the importance, the value of lived experience and personal testimony throughout African diasporic communities. How could it not?

So why would she fabricate a Black life she has not lived? When she misrepresents her experiences as those of a Black woman, she robs Black women of our own narratives and the space to testify to our own true experiences – whatever they are and however we look -, and she robs herself of the chance to reconcile her own feelings and thoughts with her own true experiences. It’s a weird entitlement, a selfishness, and, paradoxically, a self-abnegation (that makes me think she might be ill) that undercuts the good she might do as a professor and social justice activist. Because there is value in how our true stories/selves line up with the work we do. That is fertile, if, perhaps, uncomfortable, ground.