FIRST PERSON: Black, not like me

by Charles Miller

“You’re not really black.”

I remember pausing. To this day, I don’t remember who it was that said those words. I don’t remember why, or when, or where.

Senior Charles Miller was inspired to write this column by a prompt for a college application essay. He said, "I wanted to write something that was significant and unique." Miller plans to study medicine or theology in college.

Senior Charles Miller was inspired to write this column by a prompt for a college application essay. He said, “I wanted to write something that was significant and unique.” Miller plans to study medicine or theology in college.

Was that an insult? A failure on my part? Had I betrayed myself?

“Yes…I am.”

Of course, I am black. My mother is black, and my father is black. My dog is black. There are two black cars in my garage. My skin and my eyes and my hair—all black.

That’s not what the kid really said, though. He (certainly, I remember it being a he) had looked beyond skin color. He had undone what King had once fought for—equality of the inward man. He had given “black” tangibility.

Was black a style? Was it a way to walk and to talk and to think? Surely, I had not fulfilled those entry requirements.

Yes, I reasoned. I have failed something. I have missed some “blackening” in my life. So, naturally, I must find it.

My younger self would occasionally observe my black cousins. I studied my peers in my dominantly African American church. I learned that my clothes were rather white—dipped in some invisible dye, perhaps? Stitched with some foreign thread? And my speech—that was different too! My likes and my dislikes, my music and my favorite TV shows—all foreign, all false.

At first I was horrified. “Mom, I want to be white,” I once said. Truly, I didn’t mean it. But I was lost ethnically; I had no “people” to share everything with.

That didn’t seem fair to me. I changed perspectives; surrounded by white, I could still be black!

Throughout school (subconsciously, as I now realize), I rarely gave a speech if it was about a white person. In kindergarten, when all my friends were “four-scoring,” I was reciting lines of King’s dream. In elementary school, it became Ray Charles. In high school, I taught on Marquette Fry, the Watts Riots instigator. I shouted as a Black Panther. I orated as Barack Obama. Doesn’t that make me black?

Some of my white friends would shout “Say it loud!” and, with a pause, I would retort “I’m black…and I’m proud,” and think to myself, am I passing?

As I live and grow and learn with whites and browns and reds, and as I type this and I think and I drum my fingers over the keys, I can’t help but wonder, maybe I’ll be black tomorrow?

FIRST PERSON is a regular guest column that accepts personal essays from students. You may submit an essay by email to Mrs. Martin (gmartin@rochester.k12.mi.us) or by putting a copy in her mailbox in the main office. Names must be included to be considered for publication.

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