My Black Hi(story)

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February is the one time of year I don’t like being black.

“Why?” you ask with a furrowed brow and a tone of concern.

Why? I ask myself as the conversations on the radio, in church, and even in my home start to bother me like an itch that’s too far to reach.

I guess it’s not so much the month of February that I dislike, rather it’s what happens during this designated time to talk about my race when I find myself at a loss for words.

“Black is beautiful,” they tell me, the people to whom I’m supposed to belong.

But I am not that sort of black person. My blackness is a shade of color inherited from my African father who was raised in New York City by African parents, a foster care system and eventually himself.

My blackness displayed itself in my college years when the president of the Black Student Union approached me at a football game and extended a hand of welcome. I sat in a row of white girls wondering why this black man had singled me out.

Raised in a white culture, I was desensitized to race in a most conventional way for my upbringing. Never referred to as black, my parents called my siblings and I brown. And whether to protect us from the stigma that comes with being black, or to remind us that we were indeed half white, I don’t really know.

Black to me as a child looked like teen pregnancy, friends without fathers, gang fights outside my home, gold teeth and chains. Black sounded like loud music, gun shots and a dialect — better known as ebonics — that my mother told me not to speak. And finally, black was a people I learned I didn’t really want to be like.

Apart from this somewhat dreaded month of the year I do value my blackness. Without the politics, and painful ramifications of being black, it truly is beautiful.

Black is skin that never burns in the summer sun, a hair texture like no others. Black is commonality with other ethnicities and questions of interest sparking conversations of far off countries, cultures, and languages. Black is an African heritage of which I am proud, a lineage that reaches back to my grandmother’s home in a land of a thousand hills.

So if I love my blackness, why is it that every year in February I want to hide in a hole? Perhaps because I feel ill-prepared to speak on behalf of my people. Because it only reminds me of how different I am from them. Because the conversations tend to only focus on the issues of black people as if we are powerless and should be pittied.

This blog once existed to explore my racial identity and to remind my readers to be more aware of life as a black person. But because I am biracial, I find myself being the one who is unaware.

Two years ago I stood outside a neighborhood pool, watching the little blond kids I babysit go in before me. “You have to pay $20,” the old woman at the counter barked.

I told her I was instructed by their mother to use her pass. She argued aggressively, determined to make me pay. I stood there, bewildered at her stubbornness. Meanwhile families passed by without even scanning their passes.

At a loss for what to do, I phoned the mother who was as shocked as I was. She explained they should allow me to use her pass and get through without a problem. The old woman glared at me when I hung up, so I tore my eyes away to search for a twenty dollar bill.

“That place is known for being racist,” someone told me later. “That’s why it was exclusive to begin with.”

I’m often unaware of my own skin color, more confused at how people respond to me than I am able to attribute it to race. Even compliments go over my head. When I was a kid I went to visit a nursing home with my white friend and her family. A black nurse spotted me in the group of white kids. “You are so beautiful,” she told me.  And I received the compliment without realizing why.

I cannot deny that my skin color is a blessing in many circumstances. It’s like a right to passage in any ethnic group. I’m an instant sister, daughter, or granddaughter simply because I too am a minority.

But my ignorance does not blind me to the struggle of black people. With sadness I remember standing in a Georgia Cracker Barrel with my Dad. We waited patiently to be seated and  as other white families coming after us were seated first, we eventually left without service.

And so, I teeter back and forth, irritated by the insensitivity of the majority culture, but also intolerant of my own ethnic group and their response of anger and hate. So please excuse me when I shut down during a conversation on race or when I back away from the people who victimize blacks. But this is my black hi(story) and it should be known.

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My Pursuit of Happiness

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One of the happiest moments in my life was when I got into college. My parents stood in the kitchen glowing with excitement waiting to hand me the letter of acceptance. It was like opening an envelope with my future inside. I spent the summer planning and packing. In autumn I left home and started making new friends and all the newness of college was carried by a sense of adventure and possibility.

Those were happy days.

On a cool night in November I sat in orchestra rehearsal, rolling my wrist around. Playing through our repertoire was beginning to ware on my body and the growing tingling sensation through my hand told me something was wrong.

“I think I have tendinitis,” I told my mom. She was visiting for homecoming weekend and I told her casually as we walked to the football stadium. She gave me a look of worry and I blew it off, without knowing how detrimental this could be to my life as a violinist.

And it was.

A year later I had to turn down multiple opportunities and soon enough no one remembered me for my musical ability, because I had none. The tendinitis resulted in chronic nerve pain and I, the failed violinist, began to spiral into a dark place for most of my college years.

“You should go see a counselor,” my roommate suggested as she drove me to the pharmacy for more pain meds. Eventually I did. And counseling taught me to recognize the good and bad in life and not to fixate primarily on either one. The happiness of going to college was soon forgotten and in its place dwelt the cloud of sadness and his friends broken dreams and disappointment.

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I was serving breakfast in a Puerto Rican cafe on Washington street when I got the call. It was a warm September afternoon just five months after graduating college. We were slow with customers so I slipped back to the dish-washing room to answer the phone call that would change my life entirely.

“Miss Camara? We were very impressed with your interview and we’d like to offer you the position.”

Oh the joy of getting a new job. The next two weeks I steamed lattes, pulled shots of espresso, mopped floors and washed dishes with the anticipation of doing something more in life. My closet began to fill with professional clothes as I tossed my coffee-stained aprons into a storage bin. And weeks later I was parked in my downtown garage and smiling at the sound of my high heel shoes on the Statehouse floors.

But happiness is not joy; it only lasts a moment. The days and weeks after my first day of work were rather mundane. Others were peppered with anxiety and loneliness. But I don’t think I really knew what sadness felt like, until last October when my friend John was killed in a bike accident.

Death makes life feel as if nothing will every be happy again.

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For a while I mistook happiness for joy and sadness for hopelessness. Greg Morse in his article Happiness Can Betray You said, “Physical blessing is not the same as spiritual blessedness.” I did feel betrayed by happiness. But that is simply because I mistook the good things from God for contentment in God. The question remains as to where I stand apart from all good things. Can I still find happiness? As a christian whose hope is not in happiness and whose faith is not broken by sadness, I’m learning to relate these highs and lows to my spiritual life.