How I Reconnected With My Black Culture
I've talked in the past about how TRAs struggle with connecting with their cultures. For me, I didn't have any type of racial or cultural mirrors until well into my high school years. Even then, the mirrors were very limited. Olympia, Washington is very white. I mean WHITE. It's home to Evergreen State College where you can create your own major and grade yourself. If that doesn't tell you how white and hippy Washington is, I don't know what else to tell you. When I finally did get high school and started to see and interact with other black people, I was swiftly reminded by black people that I wasn't "black enough". I didn't get the black references, jokes, values, culture etc. I didn't know why everyone loved The Golden Girls (still don't tbh), I wasn't raised on Tupac and Biggie, I didn't get the jokes about your aunties and uncles. I didn't know about "The Nod", I didn't know about the etiquette of calling all your elders Mr or Ms *insert the first name* and every other black norm you learn when you're raised black. This is why many adoptees don't ever re-connected with their cultures. Instead, they spend their lives not really being accepted by anyone. I was too black for the white people and too white for the black people. But for my stubborn ass, it was a challenge. I figured if black people were going to help me, I needed to just do it myself, which led me to re-connecting with my blackness and culture organically.
I've had parents and other TRAs ask me how to go about doing this, and while I can't say the same methods work for everyone, I can share with y'all some things that I did it and hopefully it will inspire some ideas you can use yourself. Before we get to my list, I want to make a point that I do not believe reconnecting with your culture necessarily means academically or historically. I think many of us get too focused on learning the historical details, which (don't get me wrong) are important, but does not equal connecting to culture. I can know everything historically about any culture, that doesn't make me a part of it. For me, reconnecting mean finding a way to comfortably relate and identify with your culture, and that's what I did on my journey. I had to find myself and create my identity within black culture.
Here's how I did it.
1. Read, Read, Read!
My family was always big on reading books. We used to read various series like Narnia, Little Britches, and Father Brown as a family before bedtime. So naturally, the first thing I did was I decided to start my re-connection journey—was read. While I did read historical books and articles, that's actually not where I spent the vast majority of my time. I discovered authors I actually enjoyed and read their stuff. Some of the first black authors I picked up was Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. I love their writing. Maya Angelou's writing just resonated with me and I read everything of hers I could get my hands on. I was introduced to Alice Walker, in high school English class. One of the first assignments we had was to read her short story "The Flower". We then read The Color Purple, which lead me to the film and then to looking up those people. I kind of worked my way backwards. I found things I was interested in, and researched their origins. I read MLK's work, Angela Davis and others. I also delve into no fiction like Octavia Butler, who's book "Kindred" is still one of my favorite books on the planet. As someone who just enjoys reading, it was a fantastic way to connect with the voices of my people whether fiction or otherwise
2. Music, Media & Film
I wrote a piece about how music was a staple in my life for many reasons, but the main one being it was the first place I saw racial mirrors. Secular music was banned in my house, but that didn't stop me from finding ways to listen to R&B & hip hop. It was the only music I ever related to. I started to learn more about the history and impact of those genres and, that was really where I started to identify with something "black". The women of hip and R&B looked like me, they were strong and fearless, they spoke their minds, it was everything I wished I had the confidence to be. Music inspired me to dance, which led to studying different types of dancing and meeting more people from different backgrounds. It was just a snowball effect of learning. Alongside music, there were films, magazine and any other media I could get my hands on. In the beginning, we watched a lot of white savior films, but eventually I started demanding we watch some more serious things. But even with the white savior films, it was a start. It told a basic outline about a story we were never taught about at home or in school.
3. Getting Involved On Campus
College was when I really came into my black identity. I had just came back home from my first year at a terribly racist college in New Hampshire, and ended up SPSCC, a local community college in Washington. By the time I got to community college, back home in Washington where I thought I had escaped I wasn't really in the mood to get involved with anything. Turns out, those 2 years at community college would truly be the best years of my life and the push I needed to come into my own identity. I was recruited to join the Diversity & Equity Center (DEC). I was skeptical at first. I half hardheartedly attended a meeting and realized that I wasn't alone. I had finally found a place full of POCs who got it. I no longer had to keep quiet about what I was feeling. I didn't have to explain why it's annoying when the teacher don't know your name or looks at YOU the only black person in class, when slavery comes up. I finally was around people who shared the same experiences at me.
It allowed me to open up and be comfortable. DEC also offered education programs, which I attended and learned about social issues and the foundation of all the problems that exist in America. I was able to connect all the dots for everything I had every had questions about. After getting involved there, I became a leader. I was hired onto student senate, I started a black student union, I started challenging the administration on things like their polices and curriculum. I got to attend all kinds of student diversity conferences across the country, on the college's dime. It was amazing and everything that I needed to really become grounded in who I am. I was exposed to people from different backgrounds and experiences and learned that we all share a lot of the same issues and we could help each other.
4. I Got A Mentor
Not willingly though. I am stubborn. One of the things I have been trying to work on for many years, is allowing myself to ask for help. This is something I have always struggled with, and I actually learned in college, that many POCs struggle with this too. We tend to have trouble asking for help, because it's seen as a sign of weakness. As underprivileged people, we are already dealing with so much, that we don't want to seem like we are failing. We always to put on this strong face of overcoming hardship, and one of those consequences is, not asking for help when you need it. Realistically, there's nothing wrong with needing some help. We all need help in one way or another. I mean I hated asking for help so much that got D's in half my classes my first semester. So when the director of DEC, Eileen, suggested I think about getting a mentor, I let out a big ol' "PFFFT, YEAH OKAY I'LL GET RIGHT ON THAT!"
Eileen kept pushing me to give it a try and eventually I agreed to at least meet with this woman she thought would be a great mentor for me. Her name is Rhonda, she was one of the only black women on the college administrative staff and THE only black person on the president's administrative board. Rhonda was also raised the opposite of me. From the south, raised in a black family, attended an HBCU been all over the country working for all kinds of people. But the one thing we had in common was that we were two black women in predominately white institutions. I met with her and we clicked instantly. I didn't need someone to love and coddle me, I needed someone to tell me to get my shit together and hold me accountable. The first time we met she told me to write down my short term and long term goals and held me to those goals. She would check my grades through out the quarter and would call a meeting if she saw I had anything less than an A. Not in an overbearing way, but because I have always been an A+ student. Literally—I graduated valedictorian from high school and with honors from college. The lowest grade I ever got was a B, so if I was falling behind through out the year, something was up, and she wanted help fix whatever the problem was. Was it the teacher? The curriculum? Did I need help but not want to ask? I needed that accountability. Rhonda pushed me to get back on track with my academics and life goals. It was because of her that I even thought about attending a school in Boston, and majoring in something I actually wanted to. Before I was majoring in generic business because that's what you're "supposed" to do. Pick something you can make money in, but I didn't want to do that. She encouraged me to seek out a school that offered something I would actually enjoy studying. Rhonda saw the strong black women that was hiding withing me, and pushed me to let her out. Told me to speak up, and stand firm in my beliefs and was always there to back me up. I needed another, older black women to show me how to navigate the world as a black woman, and she did that for me.
These 4 things led me to reconnecting with my culture. They allowed me to explore at my own pace, in my own way without judgement or shaming. I was able to comfortably rebuild my identity as a black woman within my culture and I hope you can do the same for yourself.
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