I stumbled into a folder I’ve managed to preserve for over a decade. According to the time-stamp, this poured out exactly 11 years and 11 months ago.
It’s a little special, cause I meant it. It’s a bit personal and about how my grandmother helped me shape my ethnicity by being herself, and for me, quite a bit more. I was rambling on the internet back then, this’s approaching 2008? It’s a bit raw.
But the heart’s still there:
“I once saw this interview on the Colbert report, where the lady interviewed called Senator Barack Obama’s blackness into question as soon as he got on the campaign wagon. Her argument was, because he wasn’t a descendant of black slaves, that he isn’t really a black american, and only deserving of the label “African-American.”
At first, I thought that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, so I found it elating to watch Colbert confuse her a new one. I mean cmon, Obama’s clearly not white, he’s not arab, he’s no indian or puertorican, he’s not asain, wtf is he? He’s black. He’s Black! What was this $*(#& trying to accomplish through taking away the man’s essence of black? Pidgeon-hole “black” into an MTV genre that undeniably black? Fuck, don’t pidgeon-hole black into 50 cent. Don’t you dare pidgeon-hole black into 50 cent!
But the lady had a point. And she wasn’t really a $#@$.
Later, I watched an interview (although it was more of a conversation) between Dave Chapell and Maya Angelou in her home. In looking at her grace, her points, and her stories, and looking through her pictures and the art she’s collected, it resonated.
This country has a rich black history as a part of its past and present, and it would be a huge blunder to throw just anyone who’s not white indian tribal american latino asain etc, into black. But still, be careful, don’t pidgeon-hole black into 50 cent.
Anyone passing any culturally decent American elementary school in the month of Febuary should be familiar with a bunch of names which help textualize black american history. Textbooks only have a few of the many, many African-American’s who’ve made it despite absurd obsticles. These names connote survivors, pioneers, scientists, artists and rebel reformists. There’ve been many people with spirits that make the lyrics to songs such as Amazing Grace and We Shall Overcome much much more than cliches. Out there are Million Man Marches, real Philip Banks, George Washington Carvers, Malcom X life stories, Toni Morrisons, MLKJs, even a Dave Chapell’s walking away from 50 million dollars due to the fact that it was getting in the way of his having something to say
But knowing a black america doesn’t have to be done through such public pedestals. Obviously there’re black people who can provide another very real black and very alive black that’s out there. For example, take a certain Benjamina Hillery.
My grandmother is a nut. She’ll ram well intended advice down your throat, she’ll call you fat then wonder why you won’t drink whole milk (“You work it off”), and she’ll ask visiting grandsons to spend an entire day out of their short, short vacation just to clean her toilet because she’s old. And I love her very much for it.
Benjamina Hillery, also mixed, is a black woman. She knows how to make a real mattress and quilt from scratch because that was a practical skill for her if she wanted to sleep comfortably growing up. She refuses to touch email but insists that snail mail is an awesome form of communication, always signing her letters formally in the way she picked up. She was a schoolteacher who believes strongly in the value of education. She raised 3 obnoxiously egotistical strong brash children, and survived. She stood by a husband most of you would walk away from because it was important for the household, and because of that I’m able to be where I am today. She’s got family, she’s got connections, she’s earned her place as an elder. If you could look at her house, if you could just look at all the meaning in her house. . . screw money, she’s rich. And in considering how she’s been an active part of family to me and in helping me define family, she’s given me privilege to some very strong American roots.
Benjamina Hillery lives in her own house in bedford stuy in brooklyn. It’s the same one she’s raised her household, as well the household of my chinese “cousins”. It’s a rough neighborhood that home is in, frankly I don’t like the vibe of the area. Shit has gone down across the street enough times that it feels like I’ve seen the police there 1/4 times I visit. Yet, she lives in her own home right adjacent, and she’s an undeniably black woman.
Benjamina AKA Mumsy AKA Dolly, has grace (also her daughter’s name, but that Grace lives blocks away). She has values she lives by because she thinks those values would benefit society, and she when she does it smoothly, it gives her a dignity. She’s gone around the world cause it seems like something to do. Believe me xanga, I could issue many other sentences about her beginning with “she” and ending in noble and worldly actions, but by now have I communicated the idea? She’s a real woman. And, while I don’t often see eye to eye with her, any casual disregard of her will that sometimes occurs, it makes me angry. She’s an elder in my family. That means she gets to define a lot. She couldn’t help it.
Benjamina Hillery raised her black children to know self respect. She raised them to define the self with a connection to family, those “family values” things. She raised them in a rough area, yet taught them these values which didn’t give them a chance in hell of only coming out thuggy. Actually, I don’t think it occurred to her to move to a “nice” area. She made a nice area in her neighborhood and called it home cause that was her will, and with that kind of sight she did what she could to make other areas nice too cause, that was her will.
I’ve seen my grandmother be real, real charitable. I’ve seen her be so nice that people take advantage of her. And I’ve seen her not get how and why she’s been taken advantage of, because, what was important to her was to be a decent person. My grandmother has also lived through what is so far perhaps our nation’s harshest internal civil rights movements, and she’s, not, bitter.
Benjamina Hillery is a great black. Show me anyone who can descend from any vein of slave history and become a multi-homed landowner in nyc and not be a selfish cut-throat for it, I’ll see dignity.
And this that I hear about the Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air being a loss of black culture via whitewashing it, bullshit. The values are there:
This, definition of black as “not white” that’s real, bullshit.
This, irresponsible selfish hustler immediate life die young stereotype? Real bullshit.
Poetry, song, dance, and pictures? Black has that.
Strong backs to do backbreaking labor and still have a soul to party in your own style afterwards? Black has that.
A culture inspired enough to fuse into others, a mind to be able to stand up (or not) when the time is right? Black has that too.
And grace enough to see life for what it is and rise from under all the crap to be able to stand up and smile and say “hello child”? My, there’s some of that there too, what a great ebony!
Cmon – does it hit you yet?
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some racial awakening where I’m proudly standing up and solely identifying “I’m black!” – I’m mixed. (My great white mom is sleeping on the other side of the house right now.)
But I’m writing this because my grandmother is fading away, and I needed to preserve her importance somewhere.
So regarding the intellectualizing tangent implication of what it would mean to call Obama black, “In Dreams from My Father, Obama describes his experiences growing up in his mother’s white, middle-class family. His knowledge about his absent black Kenyan father came mainly through family stories and photographs. Of his early childhood, Obama wrote: “That my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk—barely registered in my mind. The memoir details his struggles as a young adult to reconcile social perceptions of being multi-racial. He used cannabis during his teenage years, Obama wrote, to “push questions of who I was out of my mind.” ~Wikipedia.
If you give a shit, decide for yourself.
But, my point: America you’ve got a great black niche in you. One that’s adoptive and strong and there, it’s diverse enough to breed new life within, it’s powerful, and I’m here because of it.
And if you ever really look closely in rough black culture areas, people like Benjamina Hillery and others are allllllll over the hood to contrast with the black thug stereotype you might also see (they’re way more obvious to the tourist eye)
And it could all be there because black is diverse and comes with multiple layers. Black is a heteroglot of culture and history.
Black is not just the black-washed nonsense 50 cent vibe.
Black is not just anyone with an alternate skin tone. It’s not a game, or a way of speaking, or a way you flaunt your thingy.
Black is a cultural spirit, it’s human, it appreciates a good history, and when it hears all this, it’d recognize something dead serious and very real.”
TBH: I get a little choked up when I realize grandma’s never going to process this side of her grandson’s noggin’, because I never shared these thoughts the way I could have.
But maybe this has meaning for someone else who’s thinking about the boxes, too.