I am Jade. As the lyrics from a very old song by Nina Simone and sung by Donny Hathaway that your parents and grandparents probably know, I am young, gifted and Black. Thing is, I didn't always really understand the second and third descriptor.
I can hear it now "How could you not know you were Black?" Although it may seem like a simple concept -- I mean it would be kind of hard to miss based on my mocha skin --this comes down to self- identity, culture and environment.
I was born in Washington D.C., but moved to Homewood, IL and subsequently Madison, WI for my preschool years. After about 2 years in Madison, we packed our bags and headed out to start our new lives in Edina, MN. Now up until this point, I'd lived in some fairly diverse areas; however, let me tell you a little about Edina. It’s a small, affluent town in Minnesota with a demographic makeup of about 89% Caucasian and 2% Black.
The time came for me to start my kindergarten experience at Highlands Elementary School. I was the only African American, and as I remember the only -- or perhaps one of two -- person of color at the school. Up until kindergarten, I never really had a conversation about racial differences. Nobody pointed them out to me and I was a happy, oblivious pre-schooler.
One day in kindergarten, I remember my mother being very upset. It was the beginning of the school year and our class was reading something about differences. A little girl in my class said that she didn't think Black people had feelings -- that her parents told her this. My wonderful teacher, who I cherish to this day, called my mother. Mrs. Stageberg understood that the lesson being taught would serve as the first introduction to most of the children about differences could bring up misconceptions and stereotypes. And that for the sole little Black girl sitting in the room who had yet to see race ... Hurt, confusion.
My mom called the parents of the student who made the remark and, well, was patient but firm. Then not so patient. I vaguely remember her saying something like "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" after hanging up the phone. What I didn't know is that my mom considered taking me out of the school and moving away to a more diverse neighborhood. That she cried for me at the prospect of the ignorance and racism that I would have to endure. That she realized she couldn't shield me from it and that, ultimately, it would make me stronger. So, she invited the little girl over for a play date. All I remember is that we had fun.
Thing is, living in Edina was one of the best experiences of my life thus far. I made amazing friends, had wonderful teachers, and participated in some unique activities. It was a community and sometimes; the Highlands community felt more like a family than a school. I belonged to a group of friends that I still keep in touch with to this day. We did everything together! Movie nights, sleepovers, swimming, arts & crafts. You name it and we probably did it. Our differences just didn't matter. The apples, in this case, fell not far from a very inclusive tree.
My time in Edina was with peppered with covert or subtle racism, like other children -- and parents -- wanting to feel my hair and comment on how "puffy" it was. My life was also interrupted a few times by overt racism, like the time my mom, brother and I were at the gas station and some racist idiot in a red pick-up truck yelled out the N word and spit. He sped off. Coward. I will never forget that.
The beginning of my fourth grade year I received the news that my family would be relocating back to the small village of Homewood, Illinois, about 25 miles south of Chicago. Once there, I began attending a private school called Calvary Academy in nearby South Holland; this is where everything I thought I knew about myself changed forever.
Walking into my classroom for the first time all I remember thinking was, “ Oh my gosh, everybody in this room look just like me!” along with a general sense of confusion. Yes it sounds highly ignorant, but you have to remember that I really hadn’t had the opportunity to be around so many African Americans at one time. The clothing brands worn, the music listened to, the way to talk, everything was different than what I had come to know as the “norm.” Essentially what I experienced was culture shock.
I will never forget my first week of class when I heard a group of girls whispering, “ She talks funny,” all because I spoke in "proper fashion", as if Black people don't speak that way.
I will never forget the dozens of times I was referred to as an “oreo.” I will never forget when I was talking and a boy in my class approached me to say, “ You know you’re Black right?” “Of course!” I replied, to which he said, “ Then maybe you should stop talking like a white person.” Hurt, is the only word I can think of to describe how I felt that day. No, rejected is another word. Hurt and rejected. I spent a long time with that feeling. I knew I wasn’t white, but apparently now I wasn’t Black enough to be able to call myself Black. I felt like I was lacking an identity.
I was. I was lacking self-identify.
As the years went on, I began to internalize my role as “the oreo,” or the “Black friend.” I guess it just seemed easier than fighting to find an identity, but as I’ve gotten older, I've experienced a shift in thought. After long hours of self reflection and discussion I’ve fully embraced something. I am a Black woman. And that has so much richness and diversity within itself. Our culture and experiences inform who we are.
Stereotypes here in America are so prevalent and influential they can change the way a person sees themselves. Movies, tv shows, books too often still portray Black people as charicatures and perpetuate ignorant stereotypes. They make us believe that if we do not live up to these standards no matter how low they are, we don’t deserve to be in that group. Not me. I proudly identify as a Black young woman, who like thousands of other Black young women across the country, is going to graduate high school as a member of National Honor Society. A proud Black young woman who strives to get a bachelors, masters, and PhD in Marine Biology. A proud Black woman who is going to travel this world and make a difference in the lives of others. A proud Black woman that wants to help others realize that they do not have to live up to stereotypes imposed from those outside -- or inside -- my race.
Whoever you are, embrace it and live unapologetically. Plant more of those inclusive apple trees. Do not let stereotypes or racism dictate who you are. Don't let the gift of embracing friendships from a wide spectrum of races and cultures question your identify.
I am Jade and I am young, gifted and Black.
Who are you?