This week, several of my friends are packing up the U-Hauls and minivans for the long, bittersweet journey to the college campuses where they will leave their children. There, these children will begin their own journeys, discovering the mysteries of laundry, and negotiating with a slightly slutty roommate about curbing certain "activities" when you're in the room. My freshman year of college was the beginning of a long journey for me. My school was a small southern college set on a charming parcel that looked like it had been plucked from a Hollywood movie. The center of campus life was a brick plaza area, in the middle of which was a fountain. Ringed around the courtyard were the campus center, the administrative building, and the three main dormitories, one of which would be my freshman home. As my parents and I finished our load-in of all of my things, we sat down on the front steps of the dorm. This was the first time they had ever said good-bye to one of their children, the first time that a child of theirs would be sleeping 100 miles from them, and they were this confusing mass of worried and proud. Would I eat right? Would I wake up in time for class? Would I know what to do if I got sick? Would I lock my doors? I laughed off their worries and I hugged them and I sent them on their way. But they were right to be worried.
In all of their checklists of things for me, the one thing we never talked about was the fact that my small, southern college, with a student body just under 1,100, was predominantly white and that I was one of only a dozen or so African-American students on campus. At first, it wasn't so strange, especially when you added in all of the other strangeness of college life, like eating strange food, living in a strange place, and learning strange new things. But soon I came to the uncomfortable realization that my blackness was strange to a lot of people.
First, there were the questions from the girls on my floor in the dorm - questions about the texture of my hair, and just what does a relaxer do?? Do black people tan?? Do you get sunburned?? Why do you put baby oil on your face after you shower?
Then came the questions from the boys, usually shouted drunkenly at me during fraternity parties - You know how to dance, right?? Why's your booty so round?? And other questions of a more prurient and insulting nature.
Even my professors got in on it, asking for my informed (black) opinion on the slave trade, inner city poverty, and Jim Crow.
I never knew how Black I was until I was in the company of so many white people! So much so that my Blackness became strange even to me.
I began to dissect myself, and to view myself from the perspective of my white classmates. Looking at yourself from the outside-in is as unnerving as it sounds, especially when you're a seventeen year old who's still trying to figure out who you are. I began to craft a new narrative for myself, one that would address my strangeness with a light-hearted flare. Like Cleavon Little in "Blazing Saddles", I would take the sting out of racism and, instead, make a joke. I learned a new vocabulary and new cultural references. I could spot the difference between Laura Ashley and a cheap knockoff at 20 paces and I knew the names of all of the members of R.E.M. I could tell Shannen Doharty from Tori Spelling and I knew that when the Lambda Chi boys put on Rob Base' "It Takes Two" that my job was to burn up the dance floors with the Running Man. I became the Cool Black Friend who didn't judge you when you needed an opinion on whether or not a joke was racist. I became the VIP at the fraternity house that, prior to my arrival on campus, had been sanctioned for holding mock slave auctions of their pledges and watermelon eating contests on their front lawn.
With every trip home, I measured just how alien my own skin felt to me, until I was no longer at ease at home or at school. I never felt so alone in all of my life. I had truly become untethered from myself, disembodied and strange. Looking back now, more than 20 years later, I'm not sure which surprises me more: how I survived it or why I endured it!
In my days since college, the Cool Black Friend has slowly faded into the background, but she's not totally out of my life. There are moments when I call upon her, like when someone addresses me as "girlfriend!" or attempts to cloak their racist sentiments about my Black President in partisan political speak. But I've found that my Cool Black Friend simply doesn't want to be bothered anymore and I can't blame her. It has been a long, bittersweet journey, but that's what life and growing up are. After twisting myself inside and out, I know who I am...I'm just saying.