Essay of the Week: A Home Beyond Labels

By Danielle Black

“You’re a token black friend too.”

My chuckle cannot kill the awkwardness after Chris shocks me with that comment. Who expects to hear something like that at a multicultural forum for private school students? His remark is a small recognition of something that makes us ostensibly similar –both of us black students at predominantly white independent schools; both of us having friends of different races. Yet his words irk me. Or more specifically, the word “token” bothers me long after the occurrence at that snack bar.

Labels have never been my friend; neither have people who conform to them. Enter my room. I am bobbing my head to the beats of “HiiiPower”- a Kendrick Lamar song with lyrics that expose truths more provocative than the repetitive lines of Top 40 hits. In this song Lamar narrates his experiences  as a black male growing up in Compton during the 1990s, the pinnacle of modern hip-hop culture. The three “i”s in the song title stand for heart, honor, and respect. I was so eager to share my new discovery that my fingers were flying across my phone screen, “Guys, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is amazing.” No responses? Maybe everyone was just busy. The next day my friends, all white, ostracized me for being “fake” for supporting something that was not commonplace for our social group.

It was more than a ‘Mean Girl’ experience. In hindsight, the group’s dismissal was a moment of personal liberation. If I had agreed with my friends about Lamar, I would have succumbed to Chris’ assumption of the “token black friend.” Admittedly, I was confined by the fear that my white friends would pigeonhole me through racial stereotypes if I embraced a lifestyle, yet unfamiliar to us, so akin to my African-American culture. Perhaps Lamar was my breaking point.

I have been a girl of many neighborhoods which I’ve grown to see mirror my versatility. I lived in downtown New York until my parents divorced in eighth grade when I moved to the Upper East Side with my Mom, further entrenched in a predominantly white neighborhood close to my school. The move catalyzed my hunger to explore beyond my zip code. Then last year, Dad cheered “Strivers Row!” referring to his new neighborhood of homes once owned by famous names of the Harlem Renaissance. Living in Harlem crystallized my ability to see that I could be valued without being one textbook definition of race and place.

During my first summer as a Harlemite, I walked down the steps of the Brownstone eager to explore my weekend neighborhood. I scanned the people outside on lawn chairs, turned the corner onto 145th street, and stumbled upon a table of CDs for sale. I recognized artists my parents played when I was younger like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Fugees, and Prince, all artists whose lyrics I could sing on command.

The air grew hot and sticky with the bustle of people flowing down the sidewalk. A vestige of a past time came to mind: a bumbling crowd entering and exiting my Upper East Side train stop. As the sun started to set into a Harlem night, the faces around me lit up in return. There was something spellbinding about this moment, variables that were lacking in my other neighborhoods, yet elements so familiar. People of all races and cultures bringing life to Harlem. An organic similarity pulled me into the sea of people, inciting a connection I had never recognized.

Like Harlem, I am an amalgam of experiences and cannot be reduced to a label. I did not expect to walk into such a recognition when I left home that day.  Similar to the fluidity of my homes, I orbit beyond the limited contours of labels. I belong in each place but neither define me — street numbers nor music tastes — and I am certainly not a token.

 

Danielle Black, a graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Dartmouth in the fall.

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