By Charlene Haparimwi
I sit in my multicultural literature class as we sit and read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I enjoy the read, relating to his struggle and wisdom, lost in the translation of his oppression until I am called on by my professor. The trance is broken and I tensely wait for him to ask me the inevitable. I am the only black student in this required multicultural class.
“Charlene, tell us what you think. What is it like to be African-American in the present day?”
First off, I am not African-American. I was born in the summer heat in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1995. The Zambezi river runs deep in my veins, the Victoria Falls crash against my skin, the soft grass and roots of the Earth grow in my natural hair.
I am African, I am Zimbabwean.
Second, I cannot and will not speak for the plight of an entire race. Would I ask you professor what it is like to be white? I can only talk about my own experiences, my personal struggles and joys as a young black woman living in Chicago. I can only talk about how some people look so reserved and fearful when they see me walk down the streets of Lincoln Park, when I enter restaurants and shops in Wicker Park, when I visit my white boyfriend in Logan Square. I see the look of relief flood their faces when they realize I’m one of the good ones because I “talk white.” I am not like other black people in their eyes, they do not see my skin, they see themselves. I am the model minority and that hurts me more than it appeases them.
I am unapologetically black.
I love my deep melanin, my rich culture, and the voice I have to speak about important issues. I am absolutely here for the gum popping, finger snapping, fast talking, weave wearing black women. I am here for the basketball playing, rap loving, fashion forward black men. I am here for nerdy black girls and boys, quiet black boys and girls, entrepreneurial black boys and girls. I am here for every stereotype and every exception to the rule of blackness the world sees, imagines, perpetuates or try to eradicate.
There is no me against them, we are all one voice, one people.
So when you ask me what it is like to be African-American in the present day, let my voice be silent while the voice of others rise high. Listen to the histories of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, listen to the truths of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Hear the words of Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, do not try to explain to us, think for us, be us. Let our culture breathe and live on its own.
It all begins with listening. This isn’t a piece about perpetuating white guilt, claiming ignorance or prejudice. I am glad that my professor wanted my voice to be heard. I am glad when people try. But the first thing to do is just listen. Let us speak when we want to speak, when we want to be heard. Let us educate you on our personal oppressions and struggles, whatever they may be. Help us help you formulate the right questions in the right way. I am so proud of who I am, who I want to be. And whenever someone wants to just sit and listen, I will be unapologetically me.