Acting “Black” – an aspiration

I’d like to share a piece I wrote. I’m particularly posting this in honor of the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall this week. This is a first draft. It is actually part of an essay that I wrote for a scholarship application.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “acting black”? How would you describe what is meant by that term. How accurate, factual, is your description?
To those of you who are African-American, or any other “black”, how important is your heritage to you? How important is it that you have a correct perception of your heritage? How do you think our perception of our heritage shapes who we are? What effect does it have on the larger scale (how we interact with others, how others interact with us)?

Do you aspire to “act black”?

Food for thought.

Acting “Black”

I was born to a young couple, who, while they were not of remarkable economic status possessed a quality of person and well bred manner which they sought to instill in their children. They sought to foster our natural curiosity and train our minds in wholesome ways, giving us glimpses into the worlds of, nature, science, culture and art and encouraging us to explore the beckoning beyond. To this end, my parents decided to home-school us. They sought to surround us with positive social and cultural situations through church, youth groups, Pathfinders (similar to Boy scouts), and supported travel opportunities.

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. For me the “village” came most strongly into play at 12 when my family was introduced to the community Fab Lab program at a local tech center. (Fab Labs started as an MIT outreach project and are internationally connected, digital fabrication laboratories whose purpose is to give lay people access to high-end technology for innovation and personal problem solving – technology such as is typically found in well endowed research labs.) My “Fab Family” (the MIT folks involved in Fab Labs) guided and inspired me as I learned to use the tools in the lab and supported me as I went from a user to a contributor and eventually began developing curricula to teach young people math, science, engineering and technology in the Fab Labs.

If you accede our society’s oftentimes-arbitrary stereotypes, you might be surprised to learn that my family is African American. The “black” culture, as presented by mainstream media could be described by and abundance of crass, irresponsible behavior. It’s a culture of people who live for the most part in either poverty or extreme wealth, the wealth being derived from occupations that destroy society. The people are portrayed as violent, insolent, unproductive, under-educated, out of control. We are depicted as prioritizing appearances over substance and as having an aversion to upward movement and engaging in activities that would benefit those around us. We are portrayed as the party people who can sing, dance and play ball –and very little else.

This is portrayed as “the way to be”. They call it “acting black”. We have to “be hard”. Being well spoken is often considered a bad thing.

I am a person who knows better. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. My parents and grandparents have always told me about my heritage – that of the African-American Diaspora. The story of my people is the story of a people in harsh servitude, ground into the dust and yet alive. The story of the African-American is a story of a people dealt with in violence and heartlessness, which were able to respond with peace. Our story is the story of the men and woman who built the world’s greatest country. With their blood, sweat and tears they watered it’s fields. With hope in their hearts they longed for their “inalienable right(s) to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Even when it was illegal, they learned to read and write. Our leaders were the ones who did everything in their power to obtain an education – knowing that it was the golden key to success. They were the ones who, once they had achieved, reached back to lend a hand and help someone else up. They were the ones who braved brutality and injustice so that I could have a better chance. I know what it truly means to “act black”. It means to strive towards better, and to help your neighbor get there too.

I was born at the crossroads of these twain perceptions, and, like the wind and rain carve out the landscape, these cultural forces have helped carve me into the person I am today. I have been described as “with it”, “capable” “confident” and a “strong leader”. Why?
I’ve been able to make an informed decision, partly because I’ve seen both worlds. For a time, my family of six lived in a one-bedroom apartment with prostitutes, gangbangers, drug dealers and drunks on the next floor. The place where we currently live is rife with violence, ignorance and irresponsible behavior. I’ve made a conscious decision to dream and go higher instead of lower.

I want to be a consequential force for good, not just in my neighborhood – but also in the world. I am interested, inquisitive, and place a high value on my education. I see myself as a bridge, a helping hand, to those who will follow in the footsteps of our great African-American leaders, embrace our heritage, dream past what we don’t have, and cross over into the sun of a better life.

Just a few minutes ago, as I Googled “blogging software” – it hit me. I was reading one blogger’s take on a particular desktop publishing application when I realized “I’m a blogger”. I think this is the first time I’ve really “felt” like one. Hmmm…this is interesting. At any rate, as I now have two blogs with identical content (this one and the one hosted on my server [that one is still under aesthetic development but is online:]) and numbers three and four in the making (not with identical content), I need a desktop publishing/blogging tool. I saw one for windows, but I need one for OSX. And it needs to be free (this is already costing me enough lol). What do you use? Experience is the best review tool. 🙂

What a day, what a day. This morning I went out to the park with my mom and dad… We walked/jogged/ran about 2 miles. (I’m not sure what kind of delusion I was under to suppose that I might be able to keep up with him…especially in my lack of shape.)
My mom is a runner and my dad is just an antelope. I am short, with short legs and I’ve only just started (again, in the last couple of weeks) going out and speed walking. I’m trying to build up to running – but I was there today. It actually went much better than I thought it would. I’ll just be the short antelope. (Lol). I did my couple hundred yard sprint that I like to do at the end and it hurt. I did finish it and then raced my mom in a hundred yard dash. Smh. Then we went home and went out to play basketball with the guys.
Needless to say, between that, the lab marathon this afternoon and the fact that I spent the vast majority of last night working on my website – I am exhausted.
I felt awesome today but I don’t even want to imagine how I’ll feel in the next couple days. :S I’m still going out in the morning. I will not be a victim of inertia (or fear of pain).

The lab was full today. This time mostly kids. We helped with the development and printing of 6 t-shirts (I’m pretty sure that’s a record). Here’s a t-shirt one of my girls made (she’s 7 or 8):


    • Jason Barnett
    • August 21st, 2011

    Fantastic essay! Must say your blog is one of the most interesting I’ve come across. Keep up the good work

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