It’s hard to be black when you’re ethnically ambiguous. But what’s not is to hear the questions “What are you?” or “Where are you from” a lot. For me, the answer’s kind of complicated. It goes a little something like this: So, my dad’s from Cape Verde, that’s a country in Africa. But he grew up in Cape Cod, that’s in Massachusetts. My mom is Jewish, she’s from New Jersey. She didn’t like being a Jew from New Jersey so she moved to Boston, met my dad, had me and my sister. We’re all Baha’is. I know that’s a little confusing because I just said I was Jewish. Culturally I’m Jewish, religiously I’m a Baha’i. It’s a faith about unity. You should look it up sometime. But I am black.
Growing up, I didn’t always love being black because all my friends were white and I didn’t like being different. Let me give you an example. In seventh grade I wasn’t invited to Amy McCarthy’s birthday party. So what do you do when you’re in middle school and you’re not invited to a birthday party but all your friends are? You cry in the bathroom, which is where my dad found me.
“PJ, why ya cryin?”
“I’m not crying.”
“PJ, why ya cryin”
“I wasn’t invited to a birthday party.”
“Who’s birthday party?”
“You don’t care.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But, ah, who was invited?”
I told him.
“Huh. There’s no black kids on that list. Jane, get the school directory. We’re calling this Amy McCarthy’s parents and getting PJ invited to this <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>racist birthday party.”
Now, first of all, I didn’t know that being black was a reason that you could not be invited to something. This was hard to hear as a young kid. But I had to stop my dad right there because I wasn’t about to be the first kid invited to a birthday party via affirmative action.
But the lesson was clear: race matters and being black can have real negative implications on your life.
At the same time I really wanted to be black because my dad loves being black. He loves his black friends and I always knew when they would call.
“Hello, this is Kevin Andrews. Nasif? Man, I looked at a piece of dog shit today and thought of you. Whatchyou calling me fo?”
And he loves black culture so, Saturday morning clean ups, long car rides, we were listening to Quincy Jones, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker. And I think we owned every single book with the word “black” in the title.
And he loved seeing black people succeed. So he opened a charter school in Dorchester, which is an inner city neighborhood in Boston, with the express purpose of bringing a quality education to the kids in that neighborhood who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have access to one. And the slogan of the school is “Succeed Anywhere.”
So I really wanted to be black, but I didn’t know how to be because, like I said, all my friends were white. When I got to high school there were a lot more black kids around but they were all bussed in from Boston and they didn’t really intermingle with my white friends. So I had this sort of awkward tension where on the one hand I didn’t want to alienate my white friends by reaching out to the black crowd but, on the other hand I couldn’t reach out to the black crowd because I didn’t know how to be black. In hindsight I probably could have just tried “Hi. My name is PJ.” But that’s another story.
When I got to college, I came to a new realization; that I was Indian. I found this out because I was talking to one of my friends and he was like:
“Yeah so I was talking to this girl and she was like ‘Hey, that PJ guy, is he Indian?’”
“That’s funny. Why would she ask that?”
“Dude. Everyone thinks you’re Indian.”
Turns out, I look really Indian. Growing up, everyone knew my dad so they knew that I was black. But in college people didn’t have this information so I was just some Indian kid walking around campus.
So as I’m dealing with my newly found Indian identity, I am, for the first time, embracing my blackness. So what does it look like when you embrace your blackness in college? You enroll in all the race studies courses, you move into the Africana Center, and you start doing spoken word poetry. I did all three of those things … And I went to Africa. What?!
I did my study abroad in Ghana and when I got there I found out that not only was I not black, I wasn’t even Indian. I was white. My childhood self would have been so happy but, my college self was trying really hard to be black so this wasn’t welcome news.
I found this out because I was walking across the quad one day when I heard a guy call out:
“Hey. White man.”
I looked around for the white man and realized he’s looking right at me. He said it again like I was an idiot.
“Hey. White man. Come here I have some toilette paper and peanuts for you.”
I got mad. I was like “Dude, look at my skin. I am black.”
Unfortunately I chose to pick this battle with a guy that makes Wesley Snipes look pale. He came up to me with a dumbfounded look on his face. He put my arm next to his arm, just like this, then pointed to his arm and said “Black.” Then he pointed to my arm and said “White.” And at this point I was just like dude, fine. I give up. I’m white.
Every year my dad goes to something called the black men’s gathering. The Black Men’s Gathering takes place in Maine, of all places, over the course of a week in July. And it’s a space for men of African descent to learn how to be spiritual beings in a world that’s not so kind to black men.
My dad had wanted me to go to the Black Men’s Gathering for many years but, it was’t my dad that convinced me to go but, his very close friend, Patrick.
Now Patrick is black. He’s from Detroit. And he’s seen it all. Just to give you a sense of what I mean by seen it all. One time, my dad said “PJ, ask Patrick if he’s ever been shot.”
So I did. And he told me about the time he was stuck up at an ATM.
“This fool came up behind me and said ‘gimme your money.’ I said, ‘muthafucka, you gon have to shoot me to get my money. And the muthafucka shot me. And he took my money. Now you know.’”
The first time I met Patrick he took me out to lunch and I was expressing to him why I was hesitant to attend the Black Men’s Gathering.
“You know, I don’t feel black enough, I don’t feel spiritual and I look at my dad and uncle Gene and uncle Billy and I just can’t live up to all that.”
“Boy, fuck your father, fuck Gene, and muthafucka fuck Billy too.”
Turns out, that’s exactly what I needed to hear because I went to the Black Men’s Gathering.
Over the course of the week I was literally and figuratively embraced by a sea of black men whose tranquility, confidence and assurance shone like the sun.
Some people were black like Patrick, some were black like me, some weren’t like either of us. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we loved each other, and we supported each other to become the best human beings we could be, whoever that was.
During one of our sessions, I looked around at these radiant black men, these powerful souls, all different, all unique, but all untied and I recalled Patrick’s eloquent words and realized that I had finally broken free from the need to learn how to “be black.” And for the first time I just was.