Friday, August 12, 2016

BEING BLACK



I received an email from someone who wanted to know who I thought I was. There were some expletives and the N-word was used a time or two. Seems something I wrote struck a sensitive nerve and she doesn't plan to ever read any of my books. Ever. But since she asked, I thought I'd tell her about myself. Rather than send her back to an original post I wrote once a long time ago I thought I'd just rehash it again for those who might be finding me for the first time.

I wrote once before about a friend who thinks it is the funniest thing that I never drank Kool-Aid until I was well into my teens. Every time the subject comes up he is rolling on the floor with laughter. I can’t help but laugh myself because what family back in the day didn’t raise their children on Kool-Aid? Well, mine didn’t.

My first experience with Kool-Aid was at a cousin’s house during a summer break. I thought it was the coolest thing to be able to make a full pitcher of drink from that little packet of colored powder and a bucket load of granulated sugar! When I returned home and shared the experience with my mother she looked at me like I’d told her we’d built an atomic bomb out of shoe leather and toothpaste. She was not amused and it was many years later, after her first grandson was born, that she finally broke down and allowed Kool-Aid into her home. It was also that presweetened variety as well, not the little flavor packets that you could sweeten yourself.

My dear friend laughed himself silly when I told him I’d also never eaten canned vegetables, potted meat, Vienna sausages, or government cheese either. Not that he could talk because he never ate grits. I mean really, how many Southern Baptist black children do you know that didn’t grow up eating grits? I know I ate me some grits and I wasn’t Southern or Baptist!

I was raised in an extremely white, middle class neighborhood in very wealthy Fairfield County, Connecticut. My friends were kids who got BMW’s for their first communion and Mercedes Benz’s for their bar mitzvah’s. My mother shopped at Lord and Taylors and Bloomingdales, and I’d be the first to say that I grew up privileged, prissy and just a tad pretentious.

Ours was the first of four black families to integrate the neighborhood and until fifth grade there were only two black students in the elementary school I attended. We attended the AME church on the other side of town and I spent my summers on my grandparent’s South Carolina farm where I learned to pick cotton and eat watermelon right off the vine.

Growing up, I was an anomaly. I wasn’t blonde or blue-eyed, my mother wasn’t a stay-at-home Mom, and my father worked three jobs and none of them were on Wall Street. During my fifth grade year bussing became en vogue and suddenly there were other black kids filling up the classrooms. That’s when I discovered just how different I truly was. I didn’t feel different or look different but to everyone else I was suddenly too white to be black and too black to be white. I was called Oreo, half-n-half, high yeller, wannabe, jigaboo, and a host of other expletives more than I was called by my name. It wasn’t pretty, left me traumatized and would have made for great afternoon fodder on Oprah's sofa.

I’ve had to deal with issues of race most of my life. The environment I was raised in called it into question on a daily basis. I was either treated differently because the color of my skin was different, or I was treated differently because I spoke and behaved differently. Out of sheer necessity I learned early how to walk in two very different worlds but I was never made to feel welcome or comfortable in either.

Fast forward a few years and I married and divorced a biracial man of white and Portuguese parentage straddling his own fence. He still doesn’t have a clue where he falls on the color wheel. Our children are an amalgamation of many ethnicities and they could care less. Depending on the mood of the moment they’ve been known to check either the "black" box, the "white" box or the "other" box proudly, not having a clue what color their Kool-Aid should be. They listen to rap, classical and hard rock, eat chitlin’s, pizza, and Puerco guisado, and genuinely can’t understand what all the hoopla is about race and why people fear it so.

When I was first called about my very first manuscript, the editor at the time spoke to me on the telephone for a good fifteen minutes about my book. The conversation was curious at best and then she asked if I would please email her a picture of myself. I thought it a pretty strange request but hey, a real publisher was interested in my writing so I was ready to send as many photos as she wanted. Ten minutes after she received the email I received my second CALL and an offer to purchase my book. I later understood that they wanted to be sure I was what I claimed to be, a black woman who'd written a black romance. Apparently that didn’t come across over the telephone line.

I have no doubts that the majority of my readers are black women. Interestingly though, I had a book signing once where I sold a lot of books. Only one of the fans who came to see me was a black woman. Most of the books sold were purchased by non-black readers, male and female. I thought for just a brief second that there was actually some progress being made and then one elderly “fan” felt compelled to expound on what she thought about me and my writing. The praises were plentiful and complementary and then she leaned in, her hand pressed against my shoulder and said, “I really do like your writing. And it’s not like you’re really black, dear.”

As a black author published in the romance genre I find myself once again straddling a fence where I understand that I’m not necessarily welcome nor is there any concern that I’m comfortable. I’m discovering that to write what I want to write I will clearly have to walk in two very different worlds or make the conscious decision not to be published at all.

I wish I could be as dismissive about race as my children but I can’t. My race has a major impact on where my books are shelved in the stores, if they’re carried in certain bookstores at all, and whether or not I can even get a book deal. My race impacts how I see myself in others, when the media, movies, and books depict black women as being less than we are; somehow flawed and undeserving. My race is why random strangers think they can call me a nigger and get away with it simply because I called out the publishing industry to just do better when it comes to diversity in books.

I’m not blonde this week and since my last blonde disaster I doubt highly that me and Miss Clairol will be trying that ever again. I’ll never be blue-eyed and there is no longer anything prissy, privileged or pretentious about me. I am, however, one hell of a force to be reckoned with.

And more importantly, I’m a damn good writer no matter what I happen to be writing about. I’ve got a lot of storytelling in me and just like my Kool-Aid, the flavor I tell them in will be however I choose. I am a thing of beauty. A joy. A strength. And like my Kool-Aid, a secret cup of gladness. That's who I am. And since I don’t plan to go anywhere any time soon, you really should pull up a seat, grab yourself a glass, and join me. Otherwise, you're going to miss out on something amazing!  

And just to be sure we understand each other, if you call me a black bitch again, I may very well show you one, and my being black won't have anything to do with what I unleash.

5 comments:

Carolyn Hector Hall said...

I'm so sad and mad someone had to take the time and effort to try and insult you. I feel sorry for them..... but blessed for us who have gotten to know you as well as know you a little better with your story.

Deborah Mello said...

Thank you!

Arnell Maddox said...

Good for you. I have always believed that I am so much more than what you see and when you get to know me I have more layers that you won't understand.

Deborah Mello said...

Exactly! Thank you for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Hello! I picked up Perfect Pleasures and it's a good read. I like to know a little about the authors books I read. I appreciate you telling this particular story because I can relate. My upbringing, similar to yours, was trying. I never experienced racism until our family moved to Indiana. Like you, i was outcast due to racial ignorance from whites and blacks. My trials have made me more independent and self-sufficient. I applaud you for not allowing others to dictate your future. I will now continue reading. Blessings ��