“Black is hurt.
Black is pain.
Black is strong.
Black is Love
Worked hard and long
Black is deserving
Black is unnerving
Because it is so Goddamn powerful
No matter what side of Blackness you represent
Black is beautiful.”
—excerpted from B(lack)NESS & LATINI(dad)
I remember the first time I was teased for being Black. I was trying to fit in with the kids—all Mexican—so I wore my hair gelled down, but no amount of mousse or gel could hide my nappy curls. It was my turn to get roasted. They threw out the word Mayate (a slur for Black people) and laughed at how much product my hair required. I wasn’t “really” Mexican like they were. My father was Black and my mother Mexican, so I was something caught in between. “Mayate.” The word rang in my ears. For some reason, it hurt just like n***er did, but more than that, it threw me into a state of alienation. This word was flung at me from a language that shouldn’t be foreign to me, but is.
So where did I fit in? African American didn’t feel right. My mestizo family migrated to the U.S. in the 20th century and my mother didn’t meet my father until the 1990s. I’d never felt American. So what was I then? My mom told me: “You’re Black. There’s no need to be ashamed of it, it just is what it is.”
As I began to identify as Black and Latino, the attempts to police my identity increased. “What do you speak?” “What are your fractions?” “You’re too light!” It seemed as if people could not handle me being both Black and Latino at once. Even worse, my membership in one group was reneged based on my identification with another. Was I African American or Mexican? I was both and neither. Though I lived in America, my political and racial background did not fit the narrative of the American dream. I realized that my family and so many others were being written into this dream as afterthoughts rather than as real members.
My journey into Blackness revealed to me that being multiracial was something that was far more common than people realized. More slaves went to South America than the United States during the slave trade. Afro-Latinos are the norm in many places south of the United States. After reexamining my family, I realized there were people with darker skin from our indigenous roots and plenty of other kids with Black parents—but where was the discussion about Blackness? My Brown family was forced to take on the label of white (or “Other”) because of the tenacity of the strict Black and white dichotomy, so parts of our own ancestry were erased.
I have found that the term “Black” better represents my political beliefs as it has more potential for political transformation. More people should have the audacity to be Black—not “African American”—because, ultimately, Blackness and Black culture is more often the source of strife for most Black people, not their “Americanness.” Blackness in America is definitely a unique manifestation that deserves its own attention. However, the term “Black” mobilizes all people throughout the African diaspora and allows us to focus on our shared experiences no matter our nationality or geographical location. Additionally, we can focus on the way that racism, white supremacy, and colonization affect all Black people whatever their location.
Black people have been colonized mentally, physically, and culturally for centuries. If we fail to see our connections to our Black family in Latin America, the Caribbean, and other places throughout the world, we truly risk seeing the way anti-Blackness has its roots in most societies and how Black people are intentionally forced onto the bottommost rungs of society. These issues are global. Black Americans gaining freedom and luxuries at the expense of Black and Brown bodies in other countries is not equitable and it definitely isn’t a sign of progress.
We cannot be fooled into the illusion of “progress” when so many victims are unheard and unrecognized. When we opt for white supremacist or racist conceptions of identity that erase our Blackness and its primacy in our lives, we allow these oppressive conceptions to control our own self-understanding and mask important social and political linkages. Evoking the term “Black” opens up critiques of nationalism and American exceptionalism. Using the term “Black” is the conscious decision to identify exactly how society marks you—as Black, political, and dangerous. Most importantly, the term “Black” diminishes the power of nationalist and essentialist/biological constructions of race. “Black” points to a tangible history of political awakening in the midst of oppression and subjugation. In this current sociopolitical moment, it would serve Black people well to acknowledge the power of Blackness with its historical lens and fearless critique of the systems aimed at destroying its constituents.
To know I could be Black and Latino rather than Mexican or African American would have aided my early identity crises, and I know so many other people can relate. This conversation in many ways resembles one that could be about being Latino and one’s position in Latinidad, but ultimately, this all goes to make one point: love all parts of yourself and open yourself up to a connection with other people that is radical and (self) affirming. Take on a Black political identity and make connections that national boundaries attempt to erase because the world is going to mark you as Black and treat you accordingly either way. You might as well learn how amazing identifying as Black can be!
Vincente Perez is a fourth-year in the College double majoring in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies.