“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, o you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison Portland State, “Black Studies Center public dialogue” May 30, 1975.
My life is like a slice of watermelon.
Words I would never have written (let alone said) 10 years ago. My penchant for respectability politics at the times had me less like Malcolm X, and more like Don Lemon. Okay, never as bad as Don Lemon, but bad enough to half jokingly/ half seriously say to a friend at a party “I’d grab a piece of watermelon, but there are too many white people around.” I’ll never forget what he said. “You better eat that!”, while shooting a look best described as “you-dred-having-dashiki-wearing-kwanzaa-celebrating-back-to-africa-but-still-scared-of-what-white-people-think-of-you-ass-nigga”. I felt convicted. My reaction was slow, and brooding, but showed itself in every way that I have represented my people, my community and my family ever since.
This moment was a result of a seed that was planted before I had ever seen Petey Greene’s oratory epiphany on the love of watermelon. (If Chuck Brown is the Chocolate City’s Godfather, than Petey is its patron saint.) But even well before then, my life was like a slice of watermelon. Let me explain.
I was born and raised in Washington DC and Prince George’s County Maryland. My home is a unique metropolitan area that combines the chocolate city (now with a brand new marshmellow filling), and the “richest” dark chocolate in the country. Due to the good fortune of being born to my parents, middle class black folks with South Carolina roots, morals and work ethics, I found myself in a sea of blackness. Every kind of blackness you could imagine. From the crack head to the mayor (insert Marion Barry joke here) everyone was black.
Who we were and were capable of being (from our “best” to our “worst”) was an every day reality to me. This did not seem like a big deal to me, until I was with out of town family, stunned into a nervous state of paranoia from seeing so many black people in one place. I would calmly reassure them that it’s just a normal Saturday evening at Landover Mall. As I explained to Michael Baisden on the radio years ago, I’m not used to caring about what people outside my community think of my community. All Red, Black and Green (with a line of white all around it and some through it).
Here, we thoroughly enjoy being black. We revel in it. My fondest memories are very black moments like taking the metro to the Million Man March (minutes away from my home), or my father explaining Ivan Van Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus” as he handed me my own copy. DC and its surrounding counties make up a community where indigenous music (go-go) feels like what it must have been like back in the mother land. There are large communities dedicated to learning culture and tradition like capoeira and African drumming (from all four corners of the continent). All expressions of our African American musical heritage like gospel, rock, funk, hip-hop, dj’ing, spoken word poetry, and story telling (griot) are treasured and passed down generationally. My hometown consists of large communities dedicated to alternative learning styles for our children in a way that highlights pan African thought and consciousness, while catering to the cultural needs of our students. A fertile environment for young minds my partner in parenting calls Community Schooling.
I’ve checked myself getting overly defensive of people (especially out-of-towners) talking about how black people don’t do “fill-in-the-blank” here“. “Not in my circle! Not in my community!” is what I inevitably yell. My extended family doesn’t let dead beat dads into the cipher. My community doesn’t feel the need for popular culture to embrace our natural beauty before we do. My dollar stays in my community almost effortlessly. From Sankofa and Woodlands on Georgia Ave, to Sweet and Natural, the Glut or the rest of the Mt. Ranier businesses that cater to a burgeoning pan-African scene. My people have made conscious attempts (to varying degrees of success but with an undeniable zeal) to connect with the wider diaspora. It’s important to appreciate the unique opportunity to discuss Ethiopia in person with Ethiopians, and Nigeria face to face with Nigerians (note the plural). I don’t want to believe that I’m the only one who experiences such lovely shades of blackness on a daily basis. I’m in a circle where you can’t misstate popular black life fables like “there are more black men in prison than in college”, and don’t dare try to quote the Willie Lynch Letter like it’s fact.
It’s an extended metaphor, that reaches back generations and forward into the future. Seeds being set years ago are coming to fruition now, in the form of the strong community I am now a part of. I am eternally thankful for that, and I wear my blackness as a badge of honor. With everything that entails. I am hip-hop, I am R&B, I am jazz, I am funk, I am rock’n’roll, I am blues, I am the drum. I am Anglicized, and Francophone, and Creole, and Gicci, and West Indian, and Afro-Latino. All in one place. All becoming more African, more black, less assimilated and more empowered, from day to day.
Why should I be so eager to impress people who think so little of this community I have learned to know and love? Why despise my own culture as a show of solidarity with theirs? Assigning the sting of racism to a piece of fruit, instead of the humans who used every opportunity to belittle my people. I will not let our oppressors, who have taken every opportunity to dehumanize us, take a tradition that was nothing but healthy for us, and make us ashamed of it. Truth of the matter is, watermelon is one of the most healthy foods you can possibly eat. It grows like weeds with no help, and becomes the food of kings when properly tended to.
It’s why I celebrate and uplift my people. All of my people. It’s why I celebrate everything I love. Especially watermelon.