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Growing Up Black

By Jarrel Phillips

To the Children of the Next Generation
I grew up in a household with both parents and two younger brothers. All of us are of African American descent. When I wasn’t at my predominantly Black school, church, or after-school program, I was thriving in one of San Francisco’s once predominantly Black neighborhoods—the Fillmore or Bayview Hunter’s Point.

I grew up within a very Black reality. I celebrated Kwanzaa, praised a Black Jesus, memorized all the countries of Africa, practiced an Afro-Brazilian martial art, and honored Black leaders not only during Black History Month but throughout the year. My interactions with non-Blacks were not non-existent but they weren’t that usual, outside of a teacher every now and then.

I have a strong memory of my life before racial identity and skin color intruded. I remember when younger, thinking that Blacks were the majority in San Francisco. I even remember when I was three or four years old, asking my Mom, as she carried me through Target, if she was white. I assumed that she was, because though her skin complexion was brown, she was definitely lighter than my father and I. Since I didn’t have much to do with whites, I assumed that lighter brown skin was what people referred to as being white.

Once upon a time there were people. There were good people, bad people, funny people, mad people, tall people, small people, and so forth… but, nonetheless, they were ALL people. I did see color, but the concept of race hadn’t fully introduced itself to me. Skin color wasn’t significant in my perception of reality. Looking at others, I saw two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Appearance did not create assumptions as it does now.

My Experience of Blackness
It was not until I was 13 years old that I entered the San Francisco public schools and saw a more diverse crowd of people. Then I assumed that you were either African American, White (I believed White was simply White), Chinese, or Mexican (I didn’t understand the term Latino). This is important because of my reality now. My first 13 years of life, I was only surrounded by Blacks and African American culture. Thus, when I transferred to public school, I quickly took notice of the social stigmas placed on African Americans and the stereotypes that can come with Black racial identification. It was definitely an eye-opener and an experience that still manifests itself in different ways.

Being around so many different African Americans leading different lifestyles, I never thought of African Americans as being one particular way and I certainly didn’t think of Black in any negative way. In public school, I was told: “You’re not Black enough” or, “You talk white” (thus not Black), and rarely, “You’re acting ‘hella Black’.” I soon became used to such remarks; nonetheless, they initially puzzled me. Up until then, I had not given much thought to the idea of any particular behavior(s) being associated with having black skin or being African American. Growing up, all I had around me were Blacks/African Americans: businessmen and women, pastors, orphans, athletes, doctors, thugs, players, mothers, fathers, taxi drivers, artists, foster parents, community leaders, world travelers, teachers, ex-convicts, probation officers, activists, fire fighters, police officers, thieves, homosexuals, Muslims, Christians, and so on. I have had so many interactions and relationships with different types of Black people that the idea of accurately characterizing or defining Black people as a whole sounds absurd. It would be misleading, confining and an overgeneralization—also known as a stereotype.

My concept of self has always been strong and I must give due credit to all the positive affirmations in my upbringing. Whether being reminded that I was an “awesome leader,” singing the Black national anthem, or reciting some Maya Angelou, I was always taught to be proud and told that I matter. I grew up in an “Afrocentric” household with a Black Santa Claus for Christmas and the Nguzo Saba Kwanzaa principles for the holidays. My experience of self and Black people was so positive that society’s opinion of who I was, who I can be, and how I am supposed to act hardly dictated my life, actions and choices. I have always believed, regardless of unfortunate social prejudices, that I can do what I want if I do it with good intentions and ethics at heart. I have a strong will and cannot fathom any social construct blocking me from any goal I set my heart and mind to.

Breaking the Limits of Racism
Of course, racism is not some invisible social force that I have successfully eluded as a result of my upbringing because I deal with it to this day. I still face obstacles on a daily basis in one way or another and, to be honest, it’s not fun and definitely gets under my skin every now and then. No one likes being wrongly prejudged or limited because of superficial social constructs that determine your roles in society.  I still go into stores and get followed. I still get disregarded by some individuals who prefer not to interact with me. I still see women clutch their purses when they pass me. And, I still surprise people when they learn that I live a nice, productive life despite the fact that I am an African American San Francisco native and an inner-city kid who presumably should be at-risk and struggling to succeed.

I went through a phase where I was susceptible to messages from the media, alongside my own human ability to make bad decisions, and I tried to be cool and “hood.” From age 14 to 21, I tried my share of stealing, dealing and hanging out on the corner, not doing anything. But I always knew that I had bigger dreams and goals. My inner self knew that it was all an act that contradicted who I should be. My outer self was just distracted for a bit. It was not until I realized that I was potentially sacrificing my infinite possibilities for reckless behavior that I decided to make a change. Knowing who I am, or should be, caused me to leave such lifestyle choices in the dust.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I grew up in an environment where no matter where I went, everyone knew my family. Everybody knew everybody else and supported one another to some extent. I had positive friends and role models everywhere. That was my village. Those family ties that my parents kept up so well exposed me to so much—music and musical instruments, sports, hobbies, jobs. It allowed me to find the things that really interested me. I refocused my energy on photography, film and capoeira when I decided to cut out the reckless behavior. Capoeira still keeps me going. It is my work, my passion, my play, my health, my magic, and my ongoing goal. And it has allowed me to travel more than ever.

Being an American in Africa
My first trip to Africa was through capoeira in 2010 and I have visited and taught the art in multiple countries in East Africa each year since then. The first trip was a big eye-opener in regards to my concept of “blackness.” I had never thought of Black beyond an African American perspective. Now I cannot help but see that I am more American than I am African—both culturally and nationally. My lifestyle could not be African because I was not raised in Africa, nor do I live there. This realization originally disappointed me greatly, as I intended to find my roots and feel right at home. But although I love Africa, it’s not my home because home is the place I miss when in Africa.

I don’t mean to disregard my heritage and roots. I am of African descent and only wish that I could know more about that part of me. Going back and forth between the East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where the overwhelming majority of people have Black skin, turned my world upside down. Think about it. What happens when skin color has no significance? Is there any sense in separating and creating an unfair hierarchy? Is there any sense in mentioning skin color for the purpose of identification if everyone “looks” the same? It would be like identifying and classifying a group of penguins by color—pointless and superficial.

I met countless individuals who were doctors, great swimmers, linguists, college graduates, business owners, architects—all contradicting many Black stereotypes from an international perspective. The coolest part is the peace of mind that comes from being in East Africa. There I do not have to stay guarded to protect myself from things like racial profiling and unfair treatment. Treating me differently because of my skin color just does not work in a predominantly Black continent. My trip to Africa made me aware of how much I think and act based on skin color and “race.” It’s a mentality instilled and reinforced by our society in the United States. My newfound awareness teaches me to try my best to think and act beyond concepts of race and skin color, including many peoples’ actions and statements which, unfortunately can be products of racism as well. I do my best to not let it have such a strong influence on me. Instead of trying to dress myself up or concern myself too heavily with appearances, I see that true quality and meaning is deeper. It is not how you look but what you do that makes a person. While our own sight often blinds us, a blind man sees this clearly.

When overlooked, race and its effects become an “unseen” force that can especially impede the lives of individuals of color. Thus, it’s necessary to be aware of it and even more aware of yourself outside of social constructs, labels and roles. Whether they realized it or not, I believe my parents did a great job of preparing me to thrive in a world where my experience and interactions could be predetermined or influenced by my appearance and social identity/background. My parents emphasized acknowledgement of self so that I never felt the need to compare myself against society’s expectations. No one, including my parents, could convince me that I was something or someone that I chose not to be. Unless I agreed, it was just someone else’s idea of me. Moreover, my dynamic exposure to Black culture outweighs all the negative portrayals and overgeneralizations within society. So when I hear things like “Black people don’t read,” or “Black people are all athletic,” or “All Black people can dance,” I do not feel pressured to agree or to ensure that I fit those depictions in solidarity with my “blackness,” which I love no more or less than the rest of me.

Let the Next Generation Define Itself
As for the next generation—let them try everything so that they get a feel for what they like and don’t like. Exposure is the key to having more power to shape your own choices and actions. Introduce them to all sorts of people from different social and economic backgrounds. That way they won’t associate any one attribute, behavior or characteristic to any one “race” or type of people. And when on the topic of blackness, do not sugarcoat or undermine the negativity that society associates with it, but at the same time, do not dwell on it. Instead, expose them to blackness beyond any boxes. Black is not just African American, it’s not only soul food or hip-hop, not only kente clothes or slave chambers in Ghana.

It is also important to be honest with youth so they don’t walk out of their homes  unprepared for the world. No matter what anyone does, the world will not always be fair. Teach them not to waste their life worrying about fairness because they, like others, will have to deal with their share of bias and unfair treatment. Show them instead how to recognize advantages and disadvantages in this society, so they can make more circumstances work to their benefit and will not be caught by surprise too often. Teach them that they don’t have to play if they don’t want to because they can choose and shape their level of involvement with the world’s social nuances. Tell them that they are not necessarily destined to do what “everyone” is doing. They can make their own games, their own world, their own lifestyle. Tell them especially not to feel obligated to build ties with those who are detrimental, just because they look the same. They don›t owe anyone anything. We need more people like that anyway, so we can follow suit and learn.

I truly believe that many people would not agree with some of what I have written. What has worked for me may not work for others, or for me in the future as I continue to try to figure myself out and how I fit into this scheme of things.

I know what did not work for me. I also have witnessed enough and work with enough youth of color to know that some of the current approaches to “racism” do not work for many others as well. More than anything, I believe that it’s extremely important not to dwell on racism too much—just enough to build and maintain an awareness of it. I see so many young Blacks busy trying to find themselves through African American studies, fraternities and sororities, through other individuals who share the same skin color and “struggle” as themselves. And although I understand this fully and don’t condemn it, I am concerned about the emphasis on individuality only through the lens of blackness as constructed by racism. Because that’s like a penguin in a crowd of penguins emphasizing its individuality based on fur color rather than its character, actions or achievements. Color is most relevant and most detrimental when you grab the baton and join the race, giving it more significance in your life. The problem is that the race is rigged with hurdles and no finish line. Yet people keep on jumping in and moving forward towards nothing.

If you want to teach youth about their blackness, teach them that struggle is inevitable but you don’t have to glorify it. You don’t have to get stuck in the past, or dwell on slavery. Recognizing these things is necessary, but knowing yourself is even more pertinent because you are not a victim and you do not have to compromise yourself for any system or society.

Yes, you are Black and have every right to decide your own reality. Blackness is not a solid state and comes in infinite forms of which, you are one. You are the ambassador of yourself first and foremost, beyond any social role or category. You are the future history: know that and be it. It does not even take much effort, just consciousness and getting to know yourself more every day. Create your own traditions if you are not satisfied with the ones you have. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your triumphs more than your struggles. Do not limit yourself by shunning growth and change but learn to welcome it. You are the architect and creator of yourself and your world.

When I was about 22 years old, my uncle used to tell me that I struggle with who I am because the world tells me who I am supposed to be. When I did not fully understand him, he told me to look in the mirror and ask: “Who am I?” The question puzzled me but I realize, looking back now, that I generally identified myself with social labels and roles that come predefined, rather than with attributes and adjectives that describe me. I remember writing in a journal about this. I concluded:

 “Who am I? I’m still trying to figure that out. Until I do, I know what I’m not and I will act in accordance.”
Five years later here’s what I can add to that:

I am not who or what you say I am, unless I say I am. Like space I am black, vast, and contain multitudes. Do not confine me. I define me.  I am limitless. Infinite me. Free dimensional me—beyond three-dimensional to the depths of me. Finding me. Becoming me. Knowing me.  I am no one thing. I am no thing. Who I am is for me to decide.

Know Thyself.

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