In 2022, I was invited by my mentor to participate in Match Marry Mate’s Women’s History Month annual series honoring the works of Black women that capture the different kinds of love that Black women make. We kicked it off with Alice Walker, but this year, we are honoring Gloria Naylor, and I chose to write about the one character who had to journey into her Blackness as I did.
Melanie “Kiswana” Browne
In The Women of Brewster Place, I related most to Kiswana, a beautiful and bold Afrocentric young artist from an affluent family. The story reveals that she withdrew herself from the comfort of middle-class life and her access to college for a home amidst the struggles of disadvantaged African-American families. To her mother’s dismay, she left college and settled into a small apartment in Brewster Place, hidden away on the opposite side of town with “her people.” She found Black love with a fine, chocolate man and directed her efforts to improve the living conditions for tenants and the community. Given the name Melanie at birth, her name change revealed a journey of forging her own identity and asserting that the new title brought her closer to her heritage. Being a transplant into this lifestyle worked to her advantage because she wasn’t weary, nor was she beaten down by life or hopelessness. Kiswana advocated for social and racial progress, a revolutionary of sorts.
Although she appeared optimistic, her choices bred conflict. Internally she struggled with herself while she wrestled with her parents’ disapproval, namely her mother, on the outside. Her mother’s rejection of her chosen lifestyle caused Kiswana to resent her, viewing her as uppity and anti-Black. In a solemn monologue, her mother defends her own life choices, sharing that they were a result of her trying to do her best for her family. Unlike Kiswana, whom she thinks is someone she is not. It was apparent to me that this spirit of progress ran in the family as her mother’s resolution was to prioritize change for her household. I imagine this was difficult for Kiswana to accept as sufficient effort since she herself had yet to become a mother and had no such advantage.
However, I understood both perspectives and drew more similarities in them than they even acknowledged. Even parents who give their best may not fully understand the realities their children may face when they choose which place they will call home and raise their families. Sometimes, they miss that while housing decisions gain access and opportunities, like safety, support, and education, it may also cost them culture and true community. In some aspects, Kiswana’s journey brought balance to the outcome of her mother’s choices.
In her new home, Kiswana faced culture shock when forced to accept that her purpose required that she reconcile her ability to empathize with a people who looked similar but struggled to relate to their life experiences and social class. Still, Kiswana was unwavering in her determination to push forward on her own path by building connections and establishing her identity on her own.
My Black Card
Seeing some of myself in Kiswana led me to look inward. I understand the perplexity of feeling challenged to construct an identity that, on the surface, is already present. I also sympathize with the desperation to breach the threshold of validation in order to create more authentically in the world.
I grew up in a middle-class household in a predominantly Hispanic area as a Black girl. Layer that with my insanely strict Christian parents, who sheltered me and restricted my consumption of staple Black entertainment. For more reasons than one, I didn’t feel acquainted with, let alone immersed in Black history and cultural pride. I did recognize a missing piece, and although I never saw it through, I dreamt that an HBCU experience would finally bridge the disconnections between the person my environment had shaped me to be and the racial group to which I belong. I knew there was much more to who I was, but I wasn’t clear on how to access it.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had my Black card revoked for having not seen a certain episode of “Martin” or not having the most popular scenes from “Friday” memorized. I’ve watched the “are you even Black?” expression creep onto faces when the mention of a song or artist’s name did not immediately make me nostalgic. In the kitchen, revered as a Black woman’s studio, I’m only an artist at the table, rarely at the stove. I realize this may sound like an oversimplification of the complexities of Black existence, but these were issues from my lived experience, nonetheless.
Despite the ways that I seem to fall short, something inside me registers my Blackness. I would feel it in our family’s New Year’s Eve gumbo tradition. I’ve felt it traveling with my best friend to her grandmother’s house or at family reunions. I felt it when we danced together at my sister-in-law’s family gatherings or assembled on Sunday mornings to sing gospel songs in unison. My sense of belonging was found in a feeling that consistently occurred in the company of other Black people. A kindred welcome came from family (by blood or choice), community, romance, and companionship, all holding space for me.
“When we women came together, there was a power inside that we never felt before,” declared another character.
How Did We Get Here?
There are many of us still finding our way. Imagine the violent shock fallen on groups of people abducted from their land, displaced, enslaved, and renamed. Circumstances that rendered it nearly impossible to hold fast to identity. This left the necessity for Blackness to be redefined and embraced. The family had to be rebuilt. A keen awareness of our vulnerability to false narratives and propaganda requires conscientiousness. Old wisdom, new traditions, and intuitive practices fuse together as our guide. Self-discovery and self-esteem become pillars of security. Like an overdue wash day, generations later, we are still sitting here with our best detangler in tow, trudging through sections of kinks and knots, trying to smooth it.
Aren’t we worthy of grace in sorting through arbitrary systemic oppression and division? Moments where we are in our own company, defending, explaining, performing, or even diminishing our Blackness, are all opportunities for us to pause and reflect. How did we get here, and how do we find our way home? Perhaps we should consider moving away from the notion that Blackness has to be earned even after being born into it. I see myself as Black, as does the rest of the world. My pigment is not optional! Even if I had the choice I’d still choose the hue, depth, richness, integrity, and mystery of melanin, weeding any sprouts of self-hatred and judgment planted by colonizers who could never. Allow that to be enough because it is enough. Despite my upbringing or individual expression, if I can’t find refuge with my own people, then where do I belong? Imagine the rejection felt when we desire acceptance from the very ones who are skeptical and critical of us.
In this country, the one-drop rule demands that the Black experience belongs to me by way of lineage. Inheriting that plight doesn’t cause me to turn against myself; it only stirs my desire to fight the oppressor. Black life in America has been historically disregarded, and my spirit nudges me to rise to protect it. The beauty of journeying into my own self-discovery is that I am overcome with pride in my ancestors’ resilience, spirituality, and ingenuity. Not only does this pique my curiosity, but it also inspires and challenges me to fill the shoes of the generations before me. I’ve made great progress in owning my Blackness and accepting myself, and now I’m proud to be Black and want to do something about it!
A Critical Culture
No Black person, in particular, has ever made me feel completely ostracized. Most of the shade is cast in jest. But I’ve always had the inclination that my purpose would be a ministry to women like myself, though I’ve often sullied it with my fear of not being accepted. Sometimes my skepticism makes me question if I am suited to be a leader in my own community. Would I hold any credibility advocating for Black women, families, or love knowing that I’ve:
😟 dated and married outside of my race?
🙃 never lived in the projects?
🧐 first heard of John Henry this year?
👩🏾💼 Relaxed my hair to make it straight?
🗣️ Code switched to fit in better?
From time to time, I find that my passion for serving as an apparatus for healing in the Black community is smothered by guilt, shame, ignorance, and an expectation of ridicule. Thankfully motivation is reignited each time forgiveness, acceptance, and education have remedied my uncertainty. I’m even more grateful for evolution, allowing me to walk into new identities. When it’s all said and done, I will always be Black.
Black is the Blueprint
So, am I Black enough?🤷🏾♀️
I know that I am Black on purpose, and anyone’s perception cannot undo that. Maybe you can associate with others scrutinizing your environment, accusing you of “reaching” for your Blackness like Kiswana or atoning for inadequacies drawn from Black stereotypes, accurate or fabricated like me. Maybe you fall somewhere in between or have pegged yourself in a category I didn’t address.
We tease, but Blackness is not a monolith. I invite you to freedom that refuses a boxed entrapment that limits the vastness of Blackness. Being yourself remains a contribution to the range and variety of what Black people are. There is no single, textbook version of Blackness, and that’s why we are magic.
If you are Black, you are Black enough. Remind yourself of this as often as you need to, and love yourself for it! 🖤
🐢 V.N.Y. 🦋