Learning to Own My Blackness

It’s not funny, politicized, or insignificant—it’s mine

Illustration: Richard A Chance

Out of my first day of middle school, I thought for certain I’d killed a man. I’d kicked a rider off his bike into moving traffic after he rolled by and called me “sale nègre”—“dirty n*gger” in French. I’d been waiting for the little green man to light up so I could cross the street when I noticed the biker coming from my left looking daggers at me. When he crossed my path and insulted me, my foot plunged into his liver as if it were muscle memory and sent him straight down to the ground.

Panting and clutching at the straps of my heavy backpack, I dashed across the street with a total disregard for the oncoming traffic and angry car honks. I looked back only once to check that I hadn’t really become a murderer at age 11. He was still alive, thankfully, and cursing loudly. I ran for dear life the rest of the way home. I wobbled up the stairs of my worn-down apartment building and gasped for breath until I reached my doorstep.

I needed a minute to calm down and collect my thoughts, and in that minute, I made the executive decision to not tell my mom about what happened. I feared she would get angry if she knew I’d reacted with no regard for another person’s life. I took a deep breath, smiled, knocked five times, and was greeted with the hustle and bustle of a tiny flat occupied by an exhausted mom and two overexcited siblings. I sighed in relief.

Oddly enough, the meaning of the N-word was foreign to me at that time. I knew it was a mean, bad word, but I had been called bad words before. I was a kid after all, and that’s when you learn all the bad words. And yet, never had a bad word prompted such a violent yet frighteningly natural reaction from me.

Anger gives way to laughter

While growing up in Bordeaux, France, I’d learned about my Blackness through the snickering glances of my White friends in eighth grade when my history teacher taught us about slavery. “Bande de cons” (“You freakin’ idiots”), I’d puff as I laughed along. In the same way I didn’t tell my mom about the biker incident, I did not speak up about this because I feared the consequences, the alienation—the same alienation faced by people who looked like me in those history books. I went with the flow and sighed in relief when it was over.

When playing pool with my White friends, I learned that black, the color itself, was synonymous with me. “Boom! La boule noire dans le trou et la partie est finie!” (“Black ball in the hole—party’s over!”) a friend said as he won the game. Another friend rolled her head back and laughed, saying, “Putain, Assad, t’as gâché l’ambiance!” (“Dammit, Assad, you’re such a buzzkill!”) My other friends laughed along, and so did I.

When I replied that my Blackness had nothing to do with what I’d just said, the answer would be, “Je sais, c’est pour ça que c’est marrant!” (“I know, that’s why it’s funny!”)

Over time, my Blackness became so funny that I prided myself in making self-deprecating jokes about it. In 10th-grade math class, the teacher gave us a statistics problem: “If you throw the ball and hit the black cup, you have an 85 percent chance of losing everything.” It was too easy for me to cut off the teacher to offer, “And obviously there’s a higher probability of losing when you touch the black one, huh? Sounds a teensy bit racist to me, Teach.” My classmates roared with laughter.

In the end, I learned that my Blackness could be funny regardless of context. I can’t remember all the conversations—yes, plural—where I would unexpectedly be met with someone telling me, “Tu dis ça parce que t’es noir” (“You say that because you’re Black”). That sentence can steer a conversation away from its original topic and send a crowd laughing in genuine glee or genuine confusion, but laughing nonetheless. And when I replied that my Blackness had nothing to do with what I’d just said, the answer would be, “Je sais, c’est pour ça que c’est marrant!” (“I know, that’s why it’s funny!”)

Censoring myself despite free speech

The French have a history of censoring their way out of their dark legacy, yet it’s a country that does not censor the N-word. Every day, when biking to university, I cross a bridge over the river of a city that used to be the second largest slave-trading port in France. I make my way through the city center and look up at blue street plates with the names of slave traders written in plain white—the beauty of the city hiding the red blood of my ancestors.

The word we used to call slaves is not as hurtful as it once was here. Those people were beaten, abused, forced to work 20 hours a day, and so much more. As a country that recently removed the word “race” from its constitution, why are slavery and its insulting vocabulary so easy to talk about?

Three years ago, a theater group from my university rehearsed all year to perform the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. The play takes place in a large cotton plantation in 1950s Mississippi. Needless to say, the N-word flies left and right uncensored. Upon reading the script at the first rehearsal, the director, a young Canadian-American woman, fiercely crossed out every single mention of the word. “We can’t have that in there,” she said in a frenzy. “We can’t have you say that! It’s really not politically correct.” When a crew member told me this story, he laughed and said, “J’avais envie de lui dire que, genre, c’est vraiment pas taboo ici.” (“I wanted to tell her, like, it’s really not taboo here.”)

That’s when it clicked. My Blackness could be funny, politicized, and insignificant all at the same time.

My fight to reclaim my Blackness

On Nov. 24, 2014, I stayed up until five a.m. in hopes of watching the grand jury indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. What a fool I was. I pulled at my black hair and grunted in frustration at a justice system that legalized yet another murder.

My Blackness and I, after that, went through a period of transition where contradictory ideas clashed. I’d thought my black ass didn’t matter, but suddenly Black Lives Matter. I gained more pride and confidence regarding the color of my skin, but then, suddenly, Eric Garner got choked on camera. I educated myself on Black history, read the famous authors, embraced Black empowerment in pop culture, and did so much more to reconnect with my roots and feel at peace with my Blackness, but the world always slapped me back down to the ground.

The truth is, my Blackness is still going through this period of transition.

Despite the hardships my brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean met, I lived vicariously through them. The frustration, the sorrow, the rage—all the energy fueled me and then drained me just as fast. With my proverbial fist in the air, I inwardly chanted “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” but every day when I woke up, my black hair in my fist, I dreaded the sight of another unknown name trending on Twitter. “There’s no fucking end to this,” I’d seethe.

How can my Blackness be funny and insignificant when its constant politicization makes it everything but?

The truth is, my Blackness is still going through this period of transition. I am painfully aware that my skin color isn’t funny, but when my self-esteem reaches its lows, my old habits find their way back in. My partner picks up on the self-deprecating jokes that only years of internalized racism and being marginalized can birth. But I have decided not to put myself down in order to speak anymore because it’s unfair to me and to anyone who identifies with me. I am not immune to weakness, and I am glad I have someone by my side who grounds me when my mental state plummets. Indeed, I cannot deal with my Blackness all on my own yet.

Having some time to breathe

I recently returned to the street where I once thought I might have killed a man. The street hasn’t changed much since then, though the traffic doesn’t look as terrifying to me as it used to. Everything looked terrifying back then. I remember having a nightmare about the incident the night after it happened. I’d thought I would never be able to forget his face and how it was lined with hatred for what I was—“sale nègre,” whatever that meant. As I stood in that same spot, over 10 years later, waiting once again for the little green man to light up, I looked left, and a biker crossed in front of me.

I expected a rush of emotions—to feel fear or panic at recalling the unforgettable face of a person who vehemently despised my very existence—but nothing happened.

The biker gave me the kind of awkward smile people do after making eye contact with a stranger, and then I crossed the street and moved on with my day. It only dawned on me the following night that I had actually forgotten the biker’s face. I wish I could pinpoint the moment my brain lost grasp of the memory. All I know now is that the incident had been the first formative experience in my journey toward understanding my Blackness, and I’d learned from it.

My Blackness means breathing of my own accord.

I believe we have an emotional connection with our ancestors. Black folks have always tended to have a deep relationship with music, and with music comes rhythm, patterns, and motifs. I believe one of the motifs they pass along is our emotional connection with our ancestors. When I heard the N-word out of the mouth of a person who could have been considered hostile years and years ago, I didn’t know the intricacies of the word. Yet, a jolt ran through my veins and shouted at me, “Fight back!”—words my ancestors must have thought countless times. They’re words we still think countless times.

I may have forgotten the biker’s face, but I did not forget the fear, the panic, or the irregular and exponentially rising heartbeat. I remember panting, taking shallow breaths, and gasping for breath. To this day, whenever I’m subjected to racism, it’s a pattern I experience—in less intense ways, of course, but it’s still there.

No more. Through this writing, I am making the executive decision that my Blackness means breathing of my own accord.

Eric Garner couldn’t breathe. The Black community couldn’t breathe. But I will breathe. Only I can choose when I breathe. No one can take this ability away from me because I will fight back and live. My breath is mine alone.

Sigh.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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