It’s a common question here in Miami among my students, especially those from Latin America to ask, “Why do you call yourself African-American?”
Well, this is a loaded question. One because I am tempted to give a 20-page dissertation for the answer, but two because I want to get it right. But, usually I settle for some quick coded-answer that time allows for. “I am a descendent of African people living in America. It is a way to celebrate my dual heritage.” My explanation belies that there is a choice I make when using that term. I actively recognize that I am two people in one. I could just say American. But to leave that out would be to leave out a grand part of my identity: my taste for music, my choice in foods, my ogling at a dark-skinned brother with locs down to there, my family who moved from the south in search of a life beyond racism, my wavy slicked-back bun, or my kinked out fro that is hiding just beneath my daily bun. I am no short of being ridiculously proud of my heritage and well who easily omits what they are proud of.
Moreover, I actually abhor the term black because it reduces us to a color and says nothing about who we are. African-American is full, robust, inclusive and strong. It includes the lightest buttercup shades to the darkest hues found in America. We share a culture, not a color. I have often contemplated the racial divisiveness of the United States. After all I grew up hearing my dearest Aunt Emma explaining some of the racial challenges she endured growing up in North Carolina. When my six-year-old-voice answered, “I hate white people.” She kindly and peaceably said, “you’ll never get into the Kingdom of heaven if you hate people.” She is magical in that way, her simple way of recalling love back to a situation. But, I digress.
I personally grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs. My mother is a successful chemist. I went to good schools. My friends had successful African-American parents and went to good schools. I grew up in the American dream. But, yet being American is to live with the shadow of racism lurking below the surface. We know it is a part of our natural inheritance, a part of the natural discourse of being American. However, I had never experienced it living in the largely African-American community that I grew up in just outside of Washington, DC. I had only heard about its legs and its wanderings in other parts of the countries, the remnants of work stories. But, it was not my existence.
In 2001, I started what would become my long love affair with Central America: a chance to study abroad in Panama City, Panama. Why Panama? Well, frankly my French wasn’t good enough to study in Nice, so I took on the English speaking option for studying abroad. I prepared: I had my hair braided in waist-length braids; packed for the end of the world; and jetted on a flight from Dulles International to a busy, foreign Houston airport. Standing in line while waiting to board, I succinctly remember a middle-aged white woman touching me lightly on the shoulder and saying, “I just wanted to tell you , you are so beautiful.” This simple line resounded with me and I have never forgotten it. Perhaps because I was in the south, outside “Chocolate City” , hearing something so sweet and sincere when and where I least expected it. Also, because it serves as a symbolic reminder and turning point for rethinking America’s version of racism.
I remember when I landed in Panama City it was nighttime. I remember a coat of black with small-rhinestone-lights on tall buildings. Panama was already different than I had thought. It was bustling, vibrant, cosmopolitan. I was home for the next 4 months. I had come with the notion that I would study, but that I would also do what any 20-year-old loves to do: party. My three roommates were: Irene, an American from Miami, Kayla, an American from Texas, and Margerita, a Chinese-German from well we were not ever sure. But, that’s a different story. Going out mostly consisted of Irene, Kayla and I hitting the downtown Panamanian clubs. The first night we went to a discoteca was an experience. It was a crowded venue, with gorgeous clientele. We walked up with our flimsy international student IDs and Kayla and Irene easily walked in. I walked up to the guard with mine and he proceeded to ask me for another piece of ID. I did not have that. Nor, did I understand why they needed extra ID. I referred to my friends who were white and he let me through. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. On another occasion, Irene and I went out to the same place. Irene confidently ascended stairs into another section of the club. I, following behind, was denied. I asked the bouncer, and he boldly said in my ear, “you know why.” On one other occasion, my “Chocolate City” friends had come to visit. We went to a club and were universally denied.
These incidents begin my long and complicated relationship with the notion of Latin American “mestizaje.” Well, first let’s start with, what is “mestizaje”? Mestizaje is an idea put forth by most Latin American nations that they are racial democracies due to their mixed populations. It operates on the notion that “mixedness” nullifies racism. In the early 20th century, many Latin American nations went on “whitening” experiments, bringing in white immigrants to dilute the blood of their African and indigenous populations. The idea was to bleach up the blackness or the redness, not to brown or redden the white. So, while racial mixing is a mainstay of most countries in Latin America. It is not a balanced mix. It has an inherent hierarchy. In America, we know it best as, “if you white you right, if you black get back.” In Latin America, the closer to white the better, the blacker the more rejected. Mestizaje embeds these principles in the very blood of the nation.
So, to associate with blackness or redness is to be backwards, to be uneducated, to be unbeautiful. Perceived purity is the enemy: with blackness being the ultimate rival. Thus Afro descendent populations in Latin America may pass for mulatto or mixed to disassociate with the negative stigma, or in the case of the Dominican Republic may simply try to pass off their color as a holdover from the long extinguished Taino (original indigenous populations). In Latin America, unlike in America, racial categorizations have to do with phenotype. Terms like mulatto (brown-skinned or light-skinned black), or jabao (a black person that is almost white, but with African features) are common place. There is a reliance on phenotype versus culture. In the United States we default to culture and not phenotype. Regardless of how light or dark you are, there is a focus on the shared African ancestry regardless of its proportion. This too is a holdover from America’s slavery experience: the one-drop rule.
This brings me to my current life in Miami. Oh, Miami, “the capital of Latin America.” As an African-American person living in Miami, I have seen and experienced all too many of the repeats of Latin America’s mestizaje tradition. Recently, I made my classmates shudder as I disclosed some of the comments and situations I have been in over the years. I love this city. I like this city and then at times I despise this city. I carry around weights that still seem so foreign coming from the Washington, DC landscape. Here, in some circles Black still carries the racially-coded vocabulary of Latin America. Blanco-good. Mulatto-ok. Negro-bad. I do not try to pass for mulatta or the exceptional Negra. I am Nichelle, I am African-American and proud. I do not look like the Cuban jineteras (black or mulatta prostitutes) who sleep with white men for money as I was once “jokingly” referred to. I do not need to marry a light-skinned or white man to do what is referred to in Latin America as “advance my race” or “marry up”, a suggestion I hear all too often.
To focus on blending is to stamp out the absolute, to mute the conversation on race and racism in both Latin America and Miami. I hope to be a part of the dialogue and help further expose the mess with mestizaje.