Hey, black male student who boldly asked me where I’m from and when I told you Wisconsin and you asked, “No, where are you really from,” as if “really” is a magical password that would open my past up to something you could consider exotic and troubled but filled with black people brilliant in spite of their adversities: It’s okay to be black and just black and just from the United States and not even New York, but the Midwest, and not even Chicago, but from Milwaukee in Wisconsin, famous for cheese and farmland and beer and the myth of a niceness that never really existed and an almost uncontested record best in segregation. It’s okay that I’m not only black but poor—or still identify as such (though I pull in a Massachusetts assistant professor salary at a small, public university, but it’s so hard to get out of that prolonged poverty from before)—and from the bad part of the ghetto about which now, Milwaukeeans still say, “Ring Street? King Drive? That’s like the Wild West over there,” and where bullets fly like rain falling from the sky, like helicopter seeds sailing from the maple trees boldly growing among litter and loud music and brown bag remnants and the smell of weed. Hey, young black male student, it’s okay that I’m just black. And a professor. With a Ph.D. in English. I’m from Milwaukee, and that’s just cool beans (as one would say if she were from Milwaukee).
Hey, my little girls, still so young, you too are black. You don’t know that yet, but my darling daughters, we’re black. “Where are all those brown people on TV?” one of the girls asked, my girl, dancing to The 69 Boys’ “Tootsie Roll” because it was one of the regular songs on our dance hour rotation. They love the song. “I don’t know,” I told them. “They’re in the South, I think.” “I want to go there where all those brown people are,” she said. Her sister agreed. And I was tired. The 69 Boys told me to go to the left, and I went to the left. They told me to go to the right, and I went to the right, but I was tired. I wanted to sit down and say, “Look, baby girls, those people are black. Like me and like you. Like my parents.” But they were only five. They were convinced that they were white and I was brown. And no one was black. And after they turned six, in January, they learned about Dr. King and of his dream. And I taught them a little more. And they told me that they let their friend J___ play with them and invite her in even though she was brown. And I wanted to yell, “Hey, my daughters, you, too, are brown. I know you think your skin is as light as your dad’s, but you are black!” But they were six.
And I tell myself that hey, it’s okay to be black. It’s okay to go to that party, the party where no one is black, where there are no people of color at all. I tell myself, it’s okay that your hair is not only black with wry gray streaks, but nappy and thick and kinked like gnarled tree roots reaching into a dark earthiness that you believe everyone is questioning. And once you’re inside the party, peel yourself from the wall and try talking, try not joking, try taking yourself seriously, try keeping the bile from seeping up your esophagus, try not crying or screaming or succumbing to anxiety and the desperate desire to run home —not home to the rented house in middle Massachusetts, not home to the rented house in rural Wisconsin, but home to the Milwaukee ghetto where no one raises an apprehensive eyebrow at the hue of your skin, where no one worries or wonders about you because you are around all those “brown people” who look just like you—that home. Try saying goodbye before leaving, try not overthinking anything. Foolishly drink another glass of the freely flowing red wine then start backing out. Start overthinking: You are now genuinely concerned that you are an idealized version of a black person, a symbolic representation of the African-American. You’re sure you are not a token or a diversity hire, but wonder: “am I a token or diversity hire?” Start wearily worrying if it’s ever okay to be black anywhere. Leave, still anxious, still feeling like a charlatan among your assumed peers.
Back at the home I’ve adopted in Massachusetts, I assure myself that being just black is okay. Though I am still trying to understand what being just black means to anyone who may never visit the Midwest, yet alone Milwaukee, and even after meeting me, associate Wisconsin with dairy farms and white people. Though I am still wondering how living in a city with so few people like me is affecting my daughters being just black and white. And I am still figuring out how being just an African American with no origin story that makes me extraordinary places me in central Massachusetts: I am only from the Midwest. I am not magical, I am not exotic. Can my existence here be valid? Do I belong?
© DeMisty D. Bellinger
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read DeMisty’s interview]