What Does It Mean to Be Black?

Written By Kendra Summers

For a lot of black Americans, it feels like we exist in a time where you must know exactly how you define your blackness. This month especially, there’s a lot of people that suddenly want to know the ins and outs of your existence, meaning you have a short amount of time to put all of yourself in a box before someone asks you to explain what’s inside. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t always have that simple definition ready. It’s hard to wrap your entire identity up in a few sentences, cleanly packaged for the consumption of anyone that wants insight into the lives of black Americans. Black isn’t skin deep, and it runs much deeper than most people expect it to. 

From MLK and Malcom X all the way to Obama and Michelle, there’s a long line of inspirational black men and women that we can align ourselves with. It’s a great thing, to know that your skin carries an entire history with it. You’re a product of hundreds of years of activism and social change, and you have the potential to be just as influential as your brothers and sisters before you. History can be instrumental in defining who you are, but the bulk of your identity comes from the expectations in your own head. 

Sometimes, it feels like there’s a lot of restrictions associated with being black. When you’re black, society expects you to put your race on the back burner. It can feel wrong to bring up how the color of your skin intersects with an issue, especially when your rationale is met with eye-rolls and accusations of “playing the race card.” You can bring it up during the appropriate times (black history month, diversity meetings), but there’s a certain hostility surrounding the mention of being black in day-to-day life. Conformity is key, and any step away from the status quo is a step towards ostracization. The second you stand up for yourself, you’re a “loud, angry black woman” or an “aggressive black man,” and the more you try to adhere to tone yourself down, the less you feel like the person you know you’re supposed to be. There’s a kind of dissonance with this, molding yourself to be the acceptable level of black for the room while losing other important aspects of who you are. It gets jumbled quickly. Believe me. 

Growing up black is complex, in a way that you won’t ever fully understand unless you’ve gone through it yourself. It’s feeling all the eyes in your fifth-grade classroom gravitate towards you when it’s time to discuss slavery. It’s your parents telling you to drive safely, aware that if you get pulled over it may be the last time they ever see you. It’s hearing your non-black friends say that word (yes, you know the word), and not having the confidence to say anything. It’s watching the news and seeing another cop receive a temporary suspension for killing a kid that looks just like you. It’s working twice as hard to get half as far, whether it be professionally or socially. Being black isn’t always pretty, and it comes with struggles we have to learn from and adapt to. 

Though it comes with its hardships, I wholeheartedly believe that there’s no bigger blessing than being black. Whatever communities or movements you align yourself with, there’s people that look like you involved in them. It’s knowing that black men and women paved the way for the civil rights movement, and that you should continue the path of advocacy and justice. It’s channeling Rosa Parks every time you stand up for yourself, and MLK every time you go to speak your mind. Being black is knowing that a long line of people that sacrificed their comfort to give you the opportunities that you have today, and it’s being proud to represent those people. 

Henry Louis Gates Jr. famously said, “With 40 million African Americans in this country, there are 40 million ways of being black.” Gates is absolutely correct in his assessment. Each person exists in their own way, and no two black people on the planet are exactly the same. With that stated, there really can’t be a singular way that we should all conform to. There are 40 million ways, and we should be proud to accept each and every one as black. 

I’ve struggled with my blackness at times in the past, and still do this day. It could have been because I wasn’t interested in the music I thought I needed to listen to, or because that word  (yes, that word) didn’t roll nicely off my tongue. It could have been where I grew up, and the fact that I could count the number of black kids in my classes on one hand. Whatever the trigger was, I remember feeling like my skin color wasn’t mine to claim. Adding my sexuality was a whole other issue, my queerness being something I had to analyze through the lens of my already ill-defined race. There were a lot of things I struggled to come to terms with for a long time. All the aspects of my personality and my upbringing blend together to make me who I am. There is no specific schema I’m supposed to fit into. I exist in my own label (a Trinidadian woman that is exclusively into other women), and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

There is no one way to be black, every individual has their own definition of what it means to exist in their hue. Being black isn’t about adhering to a specific set of characteristics, it’s about making sure you live as truly as you possibly can. It’s about having pride in who you are, and knowing that the color of your skin gives you the power to assert yourself the way you want to. Above all, being black means learning to live comfortably in your own skin, however it is you choose to do so.