A Very Confusing Mix!

This piece was written by spechaar contributor, Udo Elleh.

“And I am black, but O! My soul is white”

William Blake – The Little Black Boy, 1789

When William Blake first wrote the above words in his poem, ‘The Little Black Boy’, from his work, ‘The Songs of Innocence’, he was pointing out what we, as students in a classroom, see as an immutable fact: that all of us are the same on the inside. We have all been told this since we were a child, and yet, for all of my life I have had an inner conflict about who I am, how the colour of my skin defines me, and where I belong.

When growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, all of my neighbours were white. I played with the white kids in the street, and they were all I knew. Of course, I was aware of all of the other kids that looked more like me, but there was always a difference. The most obvious difference was that they were darker than me. They had tighter curls than I did. They looked just different enough to set us apart.

Secondly, we lived in different worlds. We spoke differently. When I said, “you, ” they said, “y’all.” When I said “It’s not,” they said, “it ain’t.” I didn’t fit in with the other kids who looked almost like me.

The reality of my not belonging only set in seventh grade, when a lady wouldn’t give me a sign-up form to register for the advanced Latin class because she didn’t believe that a kid with melanin had high enough marks – she didn’t say in as many words, but she did believe that 30 other white kids she just handed the sheet to would be fine – all of whom I had higher marks than.

It was at that moment that I realised that some people saw me differently. I knew in theory – because I was black and they weren’t they thought I wasn’t as capable as them, but at this moment I learned that even though I saw myself no differently than I saw any of my fellow white kids in my advanced classes, that I, the only pigmented kid, was different from them because I was seen as different.

After reckoning with this reality, I realised that we are defined by what we look like. There are people in the world who see the colour of my skin and assume that I am part of a group of people that they themselves don’t even understand, no matter who I am in that very moment with.

And so, I decided that I was black.

I am not African American, or African, or anything else beyond or in between. Those are not my ethnicities to claim as I am distanced from my Nigerian family, and my father’s ancestors weren’t taken as a slave to be African American.

I am simply black.

And yet, when I came to South Africa as a teenager, I was confronted with a new identity. “Your mom is white, and your dad is black, so that means you’re mixed.” I was of course confused. “Of course technically mixed? But I’m still black.” I was confronted with a new definition of race, built on classifications that stemmed from an old regime and that now grouped me in with people who I was supposed to belong with, but were still different as I came from a place where I was black.

This new confrontation with race transformed my perspective. While we are defined by race, what is race defined by? Race crosses so many boundaries and is so muddled that these definitions of who we are are not even constant.

And so I was conflicted. I had just come to terms with being black, and now I had been told I’m mixed here in this country. Is saying that I’m not wrong? Is it disrespectful to disagree with what is now the culture of these people as an outsider, even though they have lumped me in with another culture that I have no connection with?

So here I stand today with no place in the blurred, chaotic and incoherent system that we call race, with the knowledge that unless I speak up then I will continue to be grouped in with other people.

And so, I say once again “I am black, but O! My soul is a very confusing mix!”