where do i find veins like rivers
to carry me to the ocean
where i am indigenous
for i belong in no one place
what do I call my own?
I finally took the time to watch Beyonce’s “Lemonade” this morning. I was afraid to at first because I’d heard so much praise from other black women, a sense of deep validation ringing their words, and I feared I would emerge from the experience feeling stranded. My relationship to my own blackness has undergone so many phases in past years, and when I hear of a media piece oriented towards black women, I tiptoe closer with the engraved expectation that it will not speak to me–that it can’t.
Black womanhood has been introduced to me in an array of forms: the strong, crinkled hands of my grandmother; my aunt’s afro-earrings and paintings of dancing dark women; the fawn-skinned, gleaming arms of models in Seventeen magazine; the razor-edged sass of countless black best friends and co-workers on television; the smoldering and unapologetic sexuality of the Rihannas and Beyonces; the deep-throated crooning and soaring vocals of Motown singers; the proud trading of natural hair tips among my friends on Facebook; the dignified swell of sorrow and triumph in the poetry of Maya Angelou.
These bits and pieces composed my mosaic of black womanhood– but not where I found myself. As a young girl growing up with mostly white friends in a New York suburb, access to blackness came primarily through my family. I strung together a narrative of my aunt’s Afro-centric street fairs and black female empowerment treatises, my mother’s Motown and drive to visit historic sites like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, my paternal grandmother’s stewpot stories of Jamaica. I craved these experiences, thirsted for more that could help me define what black could mean to me.
The TV shows I watched, the music blaring from the school bus radio, the images sprawled on commercials taunted me with a kind of black womanhood I couldn’t relate to as a teenager from a predominantly white suburb. They showed me black women who were either tough, brassy, carnal, and angry or submissive, needy, abused, and broken. You could be the token flipping your weave as the encore to your sassy quip or the damaged one needing a man, Jesus, a white savior, or all of the above. There were positive images that deviated from the norm, and I found them and clung to them, the Tia and Tamera Mowrys and others for my generation. Yet there were never enough.
For so long the media images overpowered the truth of my family connections, and like a parched sponge I imbibed the racism teeming in them. I wanted to claim that kind of blackness because I did not feel that my story as a Hisblasian mutt counted as a legitimate experience of blackness. I did not see my story anywhere; how many depictions of Afro-Latinos, blacks with Asian heritage even existed? Few to none.
Everyone told me matter-of-factly: “You’re black. That’s it. Claim it.” I wanted to, wished it was that easy, but I still grasped at the images of black womanhood elevated as the standard. Marshaling my thoughts, I tried to locate myself in my faith, in my identity as a Christian. Your identity is in Christ, I murmured as my mantra. It wasn’t as if it was untrue; there was a time in college where I had made my cultural background my idol as a defense mechanism to feel somehow superior despite my status as a minority student. I didn’t want to revert to that attitude, that kind of self-absorption in racial and ethnic markers.
Your identity is in Christ. God also designed me as what is labeled and understood by my society as a “black woman.” I walk through predominantly white spaces with a heightened awareness of my physical stamp of difference. Even in my current neighborhood of the South Bronx, I cannot walk unskinned because I am constantly cognizant of the skin that pales in winter and the curls that coil rather than kink. My story of middle-class privilege binds my skin in place, and I stand in a crowd, alienated from the people I am told I belong to.
So when I sat in front of my computer to watch “Lemonade,” I waited for the ache of self-consciousness to begin again. I had to ask myself, is it really that important that I can claim this–claim blackness? I didn’t answer the question; I planted myself into the chair and pressed play.
A poetry of sounds and images enclosed me…and liberated something. A knotted tension balled up in my chest for the first half hour-and it felt long-then somewhere around loss it loosened. I let the music and sights sweep over me. I watched black sisters of all shades staring into my eyes, caught the allusions to plantations and police brutality and infidelity and “good hair.” I held my breath, absorbing lyrics of ragged rage and unfiltered vulnerability. My defenses down, I allowed myself to be part of their story because there was finally nothing else restraining me in that moment from recognizing it as OUR story–the story of black women.
I usually resist meta-narratives, for there is no ONE black story of womanhood. My experiences will never represent all those known by other black women–and neither are they meant to. Yet there remains a thread connecting the stories of all black women, a thread of histories and oppression and blood and love and body and family. I locate myself in that thread even as I continue to take ownership and work out of the unique story God has gifted me.
“Lemonade” reminded me of that kinship, and for once I felt relief rather than frustration. Without living all her experiences, I could resonate with Beyonce’s journey and with the women she presented beside her. Despite the racist history underpinning the social label “black,” I could value the vibrant, diverse, resilient peoples who have arisen out of it.
Wandering between different narratives of black womanhood, I will still struggle to locate myself and from where I speak. The pangs of diaspora are fathomless. They represent a division of peoples, a forced distance where there may have once been oneness, a place to belong to. I have felt isolated and unable to fully embrace my own blackness; that has been denied me by a world that cramps my story into its singular categories. It tells me that this is the way to be black–that having lighter-skin and mixed features only maps me as ambiguous. No security awaits those like me, no community for chameleons.
But us black women are used to making lemonade out of paltry fruit. Rooted in relationship with Christ, who tells me I am an heir of God’s abundance and freedom and promise, I claim what I have already been given and allow it to shape my path. I claim my darker-skinned sisters and celebrate them without denigrating my own face. I claim my African-American and African sisters without diminishing my Caribbean and Chinese beginnings. I claim dominicana, Jamaican, Afro-Latina, American, black without de-partitioning my body. I claim the anger of dispossessed peoples and enslaved ancestors and racially discriminated matriarchs without denying the miraculous work of forgiveness and grace and redemption.
This voice matters in the church, in this country, in this world. We must give such voices space to inhabit and affirm them in our midst, for there are lessons learned through the eyes and cries of black women.
I am realizing that I no longer need one place or community to define the silhouette of my womanhood. Our journeys in the world cascade in fluid rhythms, and we find new words and experiences around each bend to realize who we are, from where and whom we come, and where we’re going. We are able to finally see the past refracted in beauty and the present tragedies and fears and victories as part of something ongoing and larger, extending beyond us. I am proud to be a black woman and take up space in that way, and I aspire to speak alongside-not for-my sisters of all stories. Instead of grasping to possess a narrow expression of black womanhood, I learn to examine and steward what I have and join the conversations that others like Beyonce are sustaining.
I thank God now for the moments in the morning when I claim my curls and call them black–and everything else mixed in. I call them mine.