50 Shades of Black: A Small Piece of My Black Experience

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Christy McDaniel, Sociology & Psychology Major with a Minor in Education. Class of 2016.
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Throughout this piece, Black will be referring to all descendants of the African Diaspora, a definition I first heard given by Ms. Guinn. Maybe this dispersal (both forced and voluntary) can be seen as a means to understand the almost schizophrenic fluctuations of the definition of Blackness and the subsequent complexity of my people. It is a complexity that the majority of Black folks are unaware of. We seem to forget that the different shades of brown we wear are not the only variations amongst Black people, which can be seen in the ‘light-skinned’ vs. ‘dark-skinned’ feud that has followed us from the plantation. Each individual comes to define and reflect Blackness differently based on their experiences and environment. My arrival to Duke has caused me to look at my own reflection questioningly.

Back home, Blackness is characterized by grammatically incorrect sentences, dope boy dreams, athletic prowess, and ‘being about that life’, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me then. My story is like many walking the quads of Duke. I was called an Oreo, and when I spoke, I was told I ‘talked white’. Regardless, I continued to use Standard English, and I refused to take part in activities that made you ‘about that life’. My life may have been easier had I given in and went further to fit in, but I found myself taking pride in the fact that I didn’t. I looked down upon those who did. The story changed at Duke.

Duke was where I was supposed to fit in. Finally, there were Black people that understood that my culture was a reason to obtain excellence not debauchery. I was amongst some of the biggest and brightest Black minds in the country. Grades suddenly mattered to Black men, and Black females wore business jackets to class. The Mary Lou, which effectively acts as a community center, encouraged professionalism, class, and community rather than hoop dreams. Let’s not get it twisted. I am aware of the ‘ratchetivity’ that can take place; but somehow, it doesn’t come to define us. What transpired in response to these facts was shocking. My private speech got even more ‘ratchet’, and I yearned for the small talk conversations of the country. Suddenly, I realized that it needn’t be either or. I could be both a black scholar and be at home at home a) because it was my desired expression and b) because they function as different sides of the same dice, not opposite entities. It also dawned on me that my picture of home was not complete. Just because it is not Duke does not mean that each male is a thug and every female a breeding ground. I had to make my understanding more nuanced. In reaction to this, I have reached a few personal inferences.

I have come to the conclusion that my people needn’t be saved from themselves, as I had believed before Duke. Like we admonish students for going overseas with a savior’s complex, I had to chastise myself for thinking that my presence and education should somehow teach other people, my people how to live. In reality, my only job is to expand their options and learn from the experiences that are unfamiliar to me. I had to reconcile my ignorance to historic hip hop performers and the intense dependence that others had on their message and power with the shared understanding that you can’t walk around a store for hours and not buy anything when your skin looks like ours.  In other words, it’s about realizing that though some reflections of Blackness are a different shade from mine, they are still black.
After my own moment of fleeting enlightenment, I am curious. Do we accept and acknowledge the hues of Black culture being represented in the ‘hoods’ and ‘country bumpkin towns’ many of us are trying to break out of? More importantly, do we appreciate them? Should we? Or am I wrong? Are we all representative of one grand Black culture, because of our shared subordination? As Black Duke graduates, what shade of black will we be? It is my hope that, once we are out of this space, we will not forget to acknowledge each person’s shade of Black with understanding and openness, as we are equipped with the understanding that there are gradations, there is no one color.

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