My friend Keith Thompson suggested, as part of his birthday greeting to me in early September, that perhaps now would be a good time to write a post where I reflect back on this blog, and see where I’ve come from, what I’ve learned along the way.
My first post on February 14, 2012, started off as a so-called Valentine to black people. The last paragraph of my About page, states that I would be sharing about my attraction to black people and black culture.*
I hadn’t read my About page in some time, but when I saw those words they reminded me that was what I thought was the original purpose of the journey–to reflect on why I seemed so obsessed with having to connect with black people after leaving New York City, and the realization that those connections were always important to me throughout my lifetime, but I hadn’t had to think about them on a conscious level because they were simply there. It’s when they were taken away that I realized I missed having my life enriched by being around all different kinds of people.
There’s so much that has happened over the past three years as I look over my writings, with of course the road taken, shifting and forking off in different directions. It’s only natural that the thing we think we are exploring leads us into other terrain. The twists and turns come from my self-education, what I learned from listening to others’ stories, my increasing self-awareness of how my own white privilege has shaped my perspective, and most of all, the increasingly violent landscape that has black people in this country openly endangered. Well, they have been for centuries, and yet it’s escalated to the surface in these past three years since I started writing, and brought into the public eye with cell phone video recording of the excessive use of force by police officers on black men and women, and killing of black men and women primarily by police officers.
Of course, being white, I have the privilege to say, well, today I’ll write about what I’ve learned about the “why” of being attracted to black people and culture, and tomorrow I’ll write about B and the next day C.
But that first question does seem to be the one that most people ask when they learn about my passion for writing about race. I’m pretty sure my friends on Facebook must also be thinking what’s up with Wendy?, when all I share are posts related to race, racism, and black popular culture. So sometimes I share some cute video of a white toddler singing just for good measure, to balance things out, throw my friends off.
But, seriously, there have been a few friends, who say that the way to get to the “why” of my attraction to black people and black culture is to ask myself the question:
What do you feel is lacking in you, in your life, your upbringing, that you are trying to fulfill by your attraction to black people and black culture?
What immediately comes to mind are a few things. On a lighter note, from the time I was a little girl, I loved listening to music, and I loved to dance. The music I most connected to was soul music, R & B, Motown. My parents had these records at home. I could pull out a Supremes album, or later on, Diana Ross, the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (I know–Herb’s not black), Al Green, Curtis Mayfield. I remember my aunt playing Sly and the Family Stone, and I remember discovering and falling in love with Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, and dancing to ABC in my basement. I couldn’t dance to rock and roll, and didn’t feel connected to it or have a desire to listen to it, except for a few select songs like Stairway To Heaven, or later, The Rolling Stones’ Angie or Brown Sugar, both latter songs of course influenced by the Stones’ love for blues music, as all rock stemmed from.
So, one thing that was missing for me in white culture was what I felt was a lack of soul in the music that white people were making.
I remember too, that, it was the norm in our family to hold in high reverence, artists, entertainers, and athletes of color, to have these talents be the topic of conversation. I remember asking my parents what movie they were going to see, and having them answer, Shaft, and my dad’s ability to recite verbatim at the dinner table, scenes from Richard Pryor’s film, Stir Crazy. And, it wasn’t like they ever talked about it like, hey, look at us, we are white liberals, and we support black culture, and feel it’s important to do so. It just was, and I think I now realize that that inclusiveness of a diverse array of cultures represented in our home as something normal, gave me the gift of wanting to always be appreciative of the artistry of people of color, in particular, black people, which I believe has to do primarily with growing up a child of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
As I write that paragraph, I can’t help but notice that I’ve named only black people who fall under the category of entertainers. I realize that that can be problematic, since it has long been an issue, for the white person to see black people as there for entertainment for white people to enjoy and yes, exploit, over the ages. I won’t make any excuses for being a white family that holds up black entertainers, but doesn’t recognize the achievements in all facets of life that black people have made in this country and beyond.
My only thoughts on the matter are that I come from a family that didn’t talk about world politics, history, literature or other high-brow topics around the dinner table. If we did, I don’t remember it. My Mom and Dad, both bright people, and young parents when they had my sisters and me, ran their own retail gift shops. At the dinner table we talked about dish towels, Danskware, and Dr. J. Also, during this time, and still sparsely today, did we or do we see or hear in our media, or our schoolbooks, the achievements of extraordinary black Americans who have contributed to science, business, design, philanthropy. And, if we are not allowed to witness these contributions or the existence of black doctors, lawyers, scientists, writers, in television, movies, the news, in magazines, then we don’t believe they exist and so black people just must not be these things.
It was only as an adult that I recognized this on a conscious level. My white privilege enabled me to not have to notice that. I remember shelving magazines as part of my volunteer work at the African American Resource Center at the Rudisill Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma when I lived there from 2003 through 2006. I came upon the magazine Black Issues Book Review. As I picked up an issue and thumbed through it, it embarrasses me to admit I had the thought, not a negative thought, but a curious one, hmmm, I wonder why there is a separate magazine for black writers. A second later, I answered my own question, as my eye caught the stack of Black Enterprise magazines on the shelf above me. It’s because white people don’t give any space to black writers. White people don’t give any space to black people who achieve in business, or any area of life, and so that is why I am sorting magazines like Jet, and Ebony, and Sepia, and Black Issues Book Review. Black people had to create their own sources of media to see themselves exist.
What else was lacking in myself that draws me to black culture? An ability to express myself without feeling self-conscious and uninhibited. In Go Ahead Girl, written in March 2012, I wrote about my attraction to the demonstrativeness in black culture, the ability to say Go Ahead Girl! and say it with feeling, to say what you mean, to throw shade, to dance like no one’s watching. I said it with the knowledge and intention to note that black people are not one monolithic dancing, sassing machine. That there are many black people who would consider themselves shy or inhibited, who will say they have no rhythm, who aren’t so quick with comebacks. We are all individuals who belong to the same human race, and each of us have qualities that make us unique. Yet, black people speak to me, and write about these characteristics of black culture that I wish I could show more outwardly.
So, do I say it is my Eastern European heritage that makes me an uptight, white person? Or my family’s teasing when family members, myself included, or strangers displayed overly enthusiastic self-expression? Perhaps, it’s a combination of the two.
The weightier matter that I know shaped my strong desire to connect with black people, again from a very young age, was the inequity and racial hatred of black people I witnessed during the Civil Rights era. Though it was from a distance, living in the Northeast, watching the horrors before me on television of events in Selma and across the nation, I also noticed matters of racism, and lack of inclusion of black people in the white bubbles (as author of Waking Up White, Debby Irving, calls it) we white folks tend to live in. In my blog post Thalia, about one of the few black girls in our class before busing was instituted in the third grade, I recall how some of the white girls in my circle of elementary school friends unconsciously wrecked Thalia’s birthday party year-after-year.
These feelings of deep sadness over the repercussions of racism drew me to want to connect, be kind, and show black people that I was their friend. A simple act as a child and teenager, and yet not enough now, as a middle-aged white adult living in dire times for black people. Though the journey through this blog has made me become more and more awake to how my own white privilege, and the systems of white privilege, and systemic and institutional racism that have continued to keep things from being far from equal for black people in this country, I need to step up and do more.
I thank you, Keith, and Adrienne and Debby, and the many other readers who have asked me the question, albeit in a variety of ways, Why are you attracted to black people and black culture?
It has been helpful for me to take a closer exploration and begin to answer the question. In doing so, I see that what I lacked in myself, my own culture and upbringing, and what I had, the inclusion and the validation of black culture in my upbringing, and the despair I felt from a young age regarding racial inequity, has contributed to my strong desire to connect with black people and be attracted to black culture. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback, and I ask you:
Why are you attracted to black people and black culture?
Or to really, truly open things up, I ask:
Please share about a culture, race, ethnicity, different from your own that you are attracted to, and please share why. Try using Debby Irving and Adrienne Wallace’s framework of looking at what may have been lacking in your culture or upbringing that draws you to a particular culture.
As always, thanks for reading!
*On using the term black people and black culture, I have a good friend, who I respect a great deal, an Anthropology professor, who finds the use of these terms problematic. I do want to speak on the reason on why I am continuing to use these terms, but that is a post in and of itself that I won’t address here, except to say, that when I use the term black people, I am not lumping all black people that exist into one, monolithic group that all think, feel, and behave the same way. The same goes for the term black culture.
On the matter of who is included in these groups, and intersectionality, I again, hope to explore and explain my use of those words/terms, and am very open to feedback on people’s feelings about the use of these words and terms when I write the post on that topic.