One afternoon in second grade on the bus home, my best friend Carly asked me why my hair was so curly. I simply responded that it was because I was black. She gently placed her hand on my shoulder in an almost compassionate manner and whispered, “African-American.”
I have heard the term "African-American" used interchangeably with "black" all my life but have never been comfortable with it. Whenever I had to fill in a box describing my race, ethnicity, or nationality, I would always check "African-American," but couldn’t help but wonder why the other kids in my predominantly white school weren’t labeled by their ethnic roots. My peers would proudly claim to be "half-German" and "a quarter Italian" or "16 percent Irish." They would brag about their family’s traditions: the foods they ate, the holidays they celebrated, the languages their grandparents would teach them. Yet none of them had to check a box that said "German-American" or "Italian-American." They were just white Americans.
I was baffled by white kids' ability to be in touch with their heritage without having to label it, whereas I felt forced to identify as "African-American" even though I couldn’t even tell you which of the 54 African countries my ancestors are from. This is likely true for most black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, as slaveowners historically made sure that their workers lost ties to their homelands. The thousands of African ethnic groups -- each with its own language and customs -- eventually merged to create a new culture. This history has left me without any emotional ties to Africa. I know nothing about the continent and feel 100 percent American, but am still forced to label myself in relation to this foreign land.
For years I not only felt disconnected from these roots but ashamed of them. As the only black kid in a room full of white students, I learned that black people once weren't considered human in this nation and were forced to be completely submissive to their white owners. I was ashamed to realize that my peers whose families had lived in the South -— particularly Alabama, where my dad's family is from — could be the descendants of slaveowners who owned my family. In middle school, I even wore hazel-colored contacts and rocked a long, wavy weave and tried to tell people that I was biracial, even though everyone in town knew my parents and could clearly see that they were both black.
One day I had a talk with my mom about these feelings. She told me that instead of feeling embarrassed about my family’s past, I should be proud. My ancestors may have been enslaved, but only the strongest survived those torturous years. Of the 10 million Africans that were brought through the Middle Passage, I was a descendant of the toughest, healthiest, and most capable captives.
Perhaps my mom exaggerated historical details to cheer up her 10-year-old, but from that day forward, I learned to admire the traits that my strong forefathers passed down to me. Sure, my incredibly oily skin causes more bumps on my face than I would prefer, but this oil is the same that once made my late grandmother, my mother, my sister, and me all look as though we could have been born in the same generation. My skin doesn't sag or wrinkle, and I've never had a sunburn in my life. I'll always find watching girls put on layers of sunscreen in the summer, only to later complain about their peeling faces and their pale complexions in the winter, entertaining. It never gets old to stick my arm into the mix of girls comparing theirs to see whose tan lasted longest into the cold months and proclaim that I have a "year-round tan."
The shame that I once felt about my race is now gone. Even though I have no record of who my ancestors were or where they came from, I respect them for fighting to survive long enough to pass on their traits to future generations, including me. I label myself as American first, but I am still black -- and damn proud of it.
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