We’ve all seen her. The Black girl in the fuchsia polka dot tights, green mini, and hair-do flipped so many different ways, we do a triple take just to figure it out. We watch her waiting for the bus, walking down the street, getting her Chai tea in Starbucks. We stare, mouths agape or twisted into a question mark while she serves up a remixed version of Punky Brewster. Oblivious to our stares and furrowed brows, she damn near floats on a cloud of confidence. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t take our eyes off of her.
Our first thought: What IS she thinking, rocking an outfit like that . . . and in public?
Our second: Who does she think she is, a White girl?
I’ve always been a little jealous of quirky Black girls. The girls unafraid to be who they are, wear what they want, and govern their lives the way they see fit. They seem happier, more grounded, and more full of life. More of what I’d like to be if only I could break out of the dreaded Black Box.
What’s the Black Box, you ask? It is the constricting space many Black folks, and particularly Black women, find ourselves trapped within. The space in which we are told to keep our skirts down, our English proper, and reppin’ Black folks properly at the forefront of our minds. The Black Box demands we aren’t too brash, too noticeable, too eccentric . . . too free?
The other day my mother summed it up. She proclaimed, “White girls have it easy. They can do what they want and no one even cares.”
She was onto something. For years I’ve thought that White women were freer than the rest of us. Think about it. White people can navigate a world that is not suspicious of their presence. They can blend seamlessly into the background without much notice, not having to worry about representing everyone who looks like them. On the other hand, the rules that govern what “good” Black women look like and act like are nearly endless.
Rule # 1: Thou shall not disgrace the race.
Rule # 2: Thou shall always see yourself as Black first and a woman second.
Rule # 3: Thou shall not walk outside without your hair done, or looking “nappy.” (Note: Natural sistas, don’t jump on me! I’m one of you.)
Rule # 4: Thou shall always look pulled together, less you violate rule # 1.
Rule # 5: Thou shall not partake in “White people shit.”
Rule # 6: Thou shall always side with the brothas over the White man, even if brothas are wrong.
Rule #7: Thou shall always be strong.
Rule # 8: Thou shall not be open about your sexuality, lest you be labeled as a whore.
Rule #9: Thou shall always follow the rules.
Rule # 10: Thou shall be governed by the confines of Blackness.
Shall I go on?
During the bad-old-days of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement when Black people were struggling for basic civil freedoms, we were viewed through the lens of prejudice. Many of our foremothers and fathers struggled to be better than their White counterparts just to prove they were worthy of equal rights. These days, that line of thinking, to be better than, remains deeply engrained in us.
Today, disgracing the race manifests itself in the “Please Don’t Let Him/Her Be Black” syndrome. Never mind that disgracing an entire group of people is impossible, the “offences” that can trigger such a reaction are extremely subjective and apparently limitless. Carrying around the weight of an entire non-monolithic faction of people while traversing through life unscathed is just damn near impossible.
Score one for the Black Box.
As if the burden of trying not to disgrace nearly 40 million people weren’t enough, Black people have to constantly choose sides. For years, we have had to ponder the question, am I a woman who happens to be Black or am I a Black woman?
A few years ago, I remember watching award-winning dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in the documentary, “The Black List.” He mused about his naïveté when he proclaimed that he was an artist first, and a Black man second. Immediately, Jones says he was attacked by some in the Black community for denouncing his race, as if it were even possible.
People of color have been forced to be double agents since we were dragged to Plymouth Rock. And how we see ourselves is not only personal, it is also political.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, many Black people were forced to reconcile their support for Hillary Clinton with their Blackness. During the race, prominent Black politicians such as Barbara Lee and Diane E. Watson were labeled as “sell-outs” and “Uncle Toms” simply because they supported Clinton. Some felt they should have supported Obama because he had a shot at history. But so did Clinton. I gather that Watson and Lee were supposed to set aside their long-standing relationships with Clinton, simply because a Black man was also vying for the job. Once again, Black women were asked to parse themselves out and blindly choose their Blackness over their gender, because when dialogue about oppression and “isms” take place, Black women and sexism stay losing.
The Black Box can be confusing, painfully limiting, and almost impossible to crack, but escaping it is possible. Thankfully, women like Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and a myriad of others, have given us examples of Black girls who’ve broken out and have claimed their freedom. Instead of giving our quirky sistas the side-eye, we should celebrate their fierceness and jack a little bit of their fresh. By being themselves and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be Black, they help us all get just a little bit more free.