As a college student, she liked to wear this one t-shirt that she had purchased from her favorite street vendor. On it was the image of Bart Simpson–except this Bart Simpson had deep brown, instead of yellow, skin and his hair was styled in black long locs instead of yellow pointed triangles. This bootleg Bart was wearing a multi-colored tie-dye t-shirt and around his neck was a gold chain with a huge pendant in the shape of the African continent. The speech bubble beside Bart’s open mouth read
YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY
She used to wear this t-shirt around campus and around town, receiving appreciative nods and comments from other Black people and from White people, confused stares and uncomfortable silences. (At least, uncomfortable for the White people.)
She liked being the recipient of both. In those days, there were many things that seemed to bring Black people together, things that Black people understood–and that seemed beyond the comprehension of White people. Unlike previous generations, her 20-something crowd did not seek or desire the understanding of the majority culture. They did not long to be accepted. They were comforted by their outsider status, even as they traveled inside the campus halls and workplaces and neighborhoods of the insiders. They were, perhaps, a little weary of being this first fully integrated generation of young Blacks, weary of having to explain, of having to Represent the Race. Of being every White person’s First Black Friend. (At least the White people called them Friend, but often to the Blacks barely knew them.)
It’s a Black thing; You could not possibly understand. If you had to ask, then it was not for you to know.
She was reminded of this t-shirt–now long gone–one day recently. She was having a conversation with a White neighbor. She and the neighbor “knew each other” in that comfortable distance of associates. They, perhaps, both had children in the same suburban school and perhaps exchanged advice about dry cleaners and landscaping. They spoke of places to have birthday parties and places to go on a long weekend. This relationship buffer allowed certain topics and interactions between them while excluding others.
Yet one morning, this relationship buffer was breached. She had mentioned something relatively benign and completely in keeping with their unspoken relationship rules–something about getting her daughters ready for school in the morning. Then the neighbor said, “Now, do you think that you will keep their hair natural or are they going to get a relaxer in their hair like you have?”
In that breach came several pieces of knowledge at once. First, for this neighbor Black hair was no longer one of those “Black things” that White people were destined to never understand. She was well aware of the “flavor”–understood to some extent the heavy political weight of Black hair. Further, the neighbor knew enough about Black hair to tell by visual examination who had what kind of hair and to use the correct descriptive terms. This was no instance of a White woman mindlessly repeating something she had heard on Oprah. (“You go, girl!)
Finally the realization dawned on her: This neighbor had already had her First Black Friend, and this wonderful woman had already patiently explained the mysteries of Black hair to her.
She was not sure how she felt about this new knowledge about her neighbor. Would their relationship change now, become deeper? Did she want that? Was there no more “behind closed doors,” no more private in-group Black cultural space for her to inhabit with others who looked like her? If so, was that a good thing or a bad thing? What would be required of being someone’s second (or third or fourth or fifth…) Black Friend? Would that just be like…being someone’s friend?
Oh, brave new, post-post-racial world that has such Black and White (and all other) people in it!