February is Black History Month in the US and a few other countries, a time set aside for all to reflect on and celebrate the history of black Americans and, as time has passed, the achievements of black people more generally. Whenever Black History Month comes around I think about the month’s intended goals relative to its success in meeting them; for me, Black History Month doesn’t do enough to highlight the diversity of experience in the black community in people’s minds. Having one month dedicated to black history suggests to the world that there is a singular definition of what it means to be black. It appears as if all black people are celebrating the same history and the same achievements and culture, which is not the case.
A perfect example of this for me would be an experience I had this past spring. In my Self, Culture, and Society class, we touched upon African American/Black speech patterns, which brought about an interesting, if stilted, discussion. I myself had never heard the term AAVE (African American Vernacular English) before then; I had only heard it called Ebonics, a politically incorrect term. As the “token black girl” of the class, I felt called upon to give some sort of lesson on the subject, but I rarely ever speak this way; it’s not how I grew up speaking. It’s something I picked up in middle school just to fit in. In my house and my predominately white elementary and high schools, most people spoke “proper English.” Even my mother, who forever peppers her speech with her native Jamaican patois (far more familiar than AAVE, yet far more phony in my mouth, because I don’t have an accent), will chide me to follow the “correct” way of saying things. What some people don’t realize is that speech is cultural, so this style of speaking is actually unfamiliar to a lot of black people. It truly is a predominately black American way of speaking—and if you’re first generation, or you happen to go to school with people who don’t exactly look like you, you miss out on it.
None of this is to say I was insulted by the fact that they thought I could provide the “inside scoop.” I have found myself to be the token many times and believe it’s easier to respond with a quick summary or a polite, “I’m just as clueless as you are,” rather than with rage. The way I see it, at least they’re admitting their ignorance rather than pretending to be knowledgeable, right?
At times though, I’ll pretend to be clueless about something that I really can speak to. I was asked during this same conversation essentially what it felt like to be a token. I could have given an impassioned speech about it if I wanted to—not about injustices, because I’ve never really faced any, but about ignorance, and about moments exactly like that one where I was asked to speak for a group of people that I alone could not possibly represent due to its sheer size and diversity. But instead, I just said, “Well, golly, I’ve never really noticed, my race has never come up. I’m cool with everyone, and everyone’s cool with me.” It got me funny glances from my peers and an uncomfortable change of subject, but honestly, what else did they expect my story to provide? A moment of sympathy for the smart black girl who clearly grew up poor and must be suffering such a culture shock at this big white university? I don’t need it. That’s not my story.
I’m a first generation American born to Jamaican parents. I’ve gone to predominantly white schools. I hang out with black people, but neither exclusively nor even in the main. I’m not a part of any black organizations, though that may change. I’m all about being a “strong black woman.” I actively read about and willingly discuss racial issues and black culture, but only as it fits into my life as a whole, in which I strive to be multi-culturally informed. I don’t feel the need or desire to always be a spokesperson or poster child for black people to the world around me. I’m not ashamed of my blackness—I wear it proudly—but, at the same time, I unabashedly recognize that I have not led the same life as other black people.
Is my black experience consequently any less “authentic” than those who have grown up speaking AAVE, who choose to have a network of predominantly black friends, or who have faced the negativity this world can sometimes dole out? Is my experience too “good?” Must I tell you tales of growing up in the “hood” streets of Crown Heights with an absent father and putting juice in the Kix™ instead of milk for you to let me have my black card? Absolutely not! My skin says it all. My experience lies on a spectrum. It isn’t better, nor worse, but just different.
What I’m trying to say is, there is no common black experience. To really understand a people, you have to understand that no two are exactly alike, however similar their story. Black History Month began as a way to honor the common struggles of being black in America, a struggle that is still pertinent today for its success in earning rights for black Americans. This history should continue to be celebrated so that it is not forgotten, but I think that it is equally important to recognize that people of the African Diaspora have landed all over the world, and their experiences are equally important this month. Being black in America has incorrectly come to be seen as a singular identity. It is true that some social problems affect them in particular: Black people in America generally are still unjustly imprisoned, educationally underserved, and disproportionately impoverished. Yet, that doesn’t completely reflect my experience, and there are many others for whom that is also the case. As this month comes to a close, something we should strive to remember is that being black means having a multifaceted identity, not conforming to a stereotype.
Sherraine Ashley is a second-year in the College majoring in sociology.