It may sound strange to suggest we have to practice being black. After all we are born into a racialized society and we live in racially defined spaces. Black is just who we are. We practice professional work — law, medicine, teaching, architecture, etc., or skills and talents — musical instruments, painting, athletic skills, or other special gifts. To suggest that we “practice” being black sounds as if I am talking about rehearsing a part or a role. It suggests that we are somehow inauthentic in our identities and representations. But practicing being black is not something we want to do. It is something we have to do!
I began practicing being black when I was 7 years old. Before that, I spent each day in a relatively carefree life. I loved living in a multigenerational household with my brother, my parents, and my grandfather. I loved how we laughed, loved, and lived our lives. I loved the foods we ate that were a mixture of South Carolina Gullah (rice EVERY day) and Philadelphia street foods like cheesesteaks, hoagies, Frank’s sodas, and Tastykakes. But, during the summer I was 7 years old something happened to change all of that. We received the news that a little 14-year-old boy from Chicago was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman in a little country town called Money, Mississippi. His body was beaten, stabbed, lynched, and drowned. He was unrecognizable to the people who loved him most — his mother, his uncle, and his cousins. All I could think about as the Emmitt Till murder unfolded was what on earth could a 14-year-old boy do to deserve what happened to Emmitt Till? My own brother was 14-years old. Emmitt Till’s death horrified me and changed me forever.
What I learned from Till’s murder was that it was important to “practice” being Black, especially in the presence of white people. White people are bothered when we have what they deem “too much fun.” You can see it in the shopping malls as they steer away from and yet glare at black youth doing what all youth do — talk and laugh loudly and play silly games with each other. Indeed, a group of black women in a book club boarded the Wine Train in Napa, California, last month and they were “having too much fun.” Their fun got them put off the train and arrested!
I had to have my own children, especially my sons, practice being black. They attended schools with white middle class kids and I had to give them instructions on how to behave in settings with them. My boys were teenagers when Rodney King was beaten within an inch of his life and my husband and I had to sit them down and go over the rules of “being black” so they could stay alive. They resented our cautionary tales and warnings.
“Why can’t we do what other kids do?” they asked.
“Because you’re black!” we sternly replied. It’s not fun practicing being black but it is necessary.
In the past few years we have seen so many black people who slipped out of “character” end up dead. Trayvon Martin was just trying to get away from a “creepy guy” but in doing so he slipped out of “character.” Jordan Davis was just sitting in a car listening to his music and not being “black” in the way a white man in the gas station who shot him thought he should be because his “loud music” was “threatening.” Eric Garner slipped out of “character” when he questioned a police officer who attempted to arrest him for selling individual cigarettes. Tamir Rice was out of “character” when in less than 5 seconds he was shot for playing in the park with a toy gun. Sandra Bland was out of “character” when she ended up dead in a jail cell after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change and then refusing to put out a cigarette she was smoking in her own car.
So, yes, those of us who manage to continue to live and go about our business practice being black in myriad ways. We pretend that white people are making sense when they claim to “want their country back.” We act like we don’t know racially coded language like, “I don’t watch professional ball anymore; I’d much rather follow the college game” or “You’re so articulate.” We understand that we are regularly singled out as the “token” black person because white people are not comfortable around more than a few token black people.
Having worked in academia for 30 years, I have practiced being black for a very long time. I have pretended that a “party” is an event where people eat, drink, and stand around talking to each other instead of putting on some jammin’ music and dancing the night away. I have rehearsed “small talk” and “chit chat” ad infinitum. I have listened to people drone on about their research projects as if the world would come to a screeching halt if they didn’t do it instead of engaging in the real work of alleviating human suffering. I have cultivated the “fake laugh” since real black laughing apparently gets one arrested.
Yes, I have had decades of practicing how to be black and I’m really good at it!