So often, I remember being the only black girl in the room. In school, I took classes where there were only a handful of black people. I’ve had multiple jobs where I was the only only black woman or only black person period. Even as a writer, I’ve entered rooms or events where other than the people I invited, there were no other black people.
It could be frightening. I knew that everyone would want to talk to me. I could see people trying to figure out if I was a guest speaker or someone’s black girlfriend. I didn’t know if I was in a safe space. I couldn’t keep my mind from imagining the worst. This could turn into a klans meeting and there would be nothing I can do about it. Sounds outrageous? Ask Tamla Horsford.
There are people who do not understand why this matters. Why do black lives existing fully in these spaces matter? Further more, they don’t understand that our abscence in the room isn’t due to a lack of desire but due to the lack of oppurtunity.
Imagine this. A white girl who lives in the same neighborhood as me, goes to the same school and has the same socio-economic status can turn on the tv for an hour and see a dozen examples of who she could be and what life had to offer. Her world view is immediately expanded and her eyes are open to the possiblities. As a child, I turn on that same tv and in that hour, I may see one black woman as an unwed mother or a drug addict. I might see one black male who is a drug dealer or in jail. If I’m lucky, I might see a black janitor or a grocery store clerk. As a child, those images become my options. My only and unimagined options.
And lest we forget, the white girl has seen it too. She’s seen these same images of black women that I have. Seen them as uneducated, limited, and only in positions of servitude. So as an adult, what must she think of me when I walk into the art gallery? She ask me is this my first time. She wonders what display I like best. She wants to know if my children are in the free arts programs. She tells me she won’t stay long enough to see thems perform anyway. She introduces me to the curator. He introduces me back as the artist, the teacher, and the director of tonight’s performance. She never apologizes. For her, I must be an anomaly. I haven’t proven myself. She’ll reaffirm her beliefs of me the next time she turns on the tv.
It’s painful to be a black woman in America. Let me say it again, it’s not just difficult or frustrating, or just overwhelming but it’s actually painful. To be a black woman in America comes with inadequate health care and the false belief that we have higher pain tolerance and a natural ability to drug abuse thus doctors give us less pain management assistance resulting in preventable deaths. We are scrutinized and categorized for everything from the shape of our hips to the texture of our hair which has been physically pulled or touched. We are fetisized and lusted after than abused by those men for liking us. I’ve been propositioned by white men more times than I’d like to think about. I’ve been fired for my hair and for defending my rights. I’ve been asked to be meek and quiet. I’ve been stared at, followed, and screamed. I’ve been questioned, harassed, and insulted.
To be honest, I’m sick of it. In high school, I was ignorant in that I didn’t want to go to an HBCU. I even questioned why we still needed them; why BET or Black Girl Rock awards? It’s because Black people still need safe spaces. We have to be able to exit the constant pressure to be above reproach and non-intimidating. The world is not safe for us yet, not in it’s entirety.
I once dated a white man who had never physically spoken to a black girl before. He was from Romania or Lithuania; some European country with no black people and no sunlight. We spoke online for weeks before dating and on our first date, he revealed that because there were no black people around growing up and this being his first time out of his country, he had never spoken to a black person and had only seen a handful. It was fascinating to me so I saw him a few more times. It didn’t take long for me to realize that because of what he had seen on tv, he expected me to be an overly-sexualized and easily manipulated type of girl. I ended things with him realizing that the damage was done. Even without him having encountered black people, a mindset was created that I wanted no parts of.
I could tell you so many stories. About the old white man with his pants down as I walked home from school. Or the multiple offers to pay for college if I let them have their fantasy. The white boys in Cary Town who threw a drink at me while screaming slurs. The General Manager of Aarons who fired me because I wouldn’t “Tame” my afro. The white people who wrote “Nigger” on the women’s bathroom at my friends wedding. The girl who told me if I learned to shut up, my people wouldn’t keep dying. I don’t need to go on. This sort of talk is triggering for my black family and friends.
There’s no America without us. You know that, I know that. So change has to happen. As long as there are wells of ignorance to draw from- the media feeding lies in statistics, perpetuating stereotypes on tv, a lack of diversity in every board room, a lack of opportunities due to quota filling – there will be no progress.
How sad is that. In 2020, I have a “The First Black” title.. how sad is that.