Re-Learning Black: My Journey to Understanding My Blackness in America

By: Tiara Msiza

I firmly believe that every person has at least 3 moments of clarity in their life, epiphanies. Moments where everything suddenly falls into place and something clicks. Moments like these are important for self-growth and development. They can lead to a complete change or just a change in a certain character trait.

Sometimes, these moments unlock things within us that we didn’t even know were present. I’ve had quite a few moments like this in my relatively short life and recently had one more of these moments when Beyoncé released Lemonade and shook my soul from my body.

I am not a huge Beyoncé fan by any definition. I like her music and if I met her, I can admit that I’d probably be very excited. But I’m not a Beyoncé superfan, I don’t call her Queen and see her as the beginning and the end.

Despite that, when I watched that short film, I felt something in me shift. I felt empowered. I felt possessive. I felt singled out. It was a raw and emotional experience for me. I couldn’t fathom anyone watching it and not feeling the myriad of emotions that I was feeling.

Why? Why did it evoke such a reaction from me? I realized that it was because I’d felt unsettled for so long and suddenly I felt as if everything had come together. As if it all made sense. For the first time in a long time, I felt proud to be a black woman. I felt anchored and secure in my being.

I am NOT ashamed to be a black woman and I never have been. My previous statement might lead you to believe otherwise but that’s not true. Let me better explain. I recently moved from my home in Zimbabwe, a Southern African country, to New York, a little over six months ago for school. I had lived there my whole life and being black there is something entirely different to being black here.

Being black back home, I was always secure in my identity as a black woman. I had no reason not to be. Coming here though, it changed. I wasn’t quite sure where I stood anymore. I was technically an immigrant and an outsider now, not only in America but also in the black community. I was still black but we weren’t the same. I wasn’t any less Zimbabwean than I’d been before but I realized that I was in danger of losing my culture and my heritage.

It started simply enough. Hair. It always starts with hair doesn’t it? A lot of people I knew were suddenly choosing to go natural at the same time that there was a huge online movement for black women to go natural. Not having your natural hair was viewed as denying your heritage or culture or race. This was a strange notion for me, because back home, putting chemicals in your hair was really just a matter of convenience. You didn’t do it because you’re trying to be white, you did it because it made your hair easy to manage.

You don’t get a weave because you’re trying to be white, you do it because it’s convenient. Also because it looks good. Still, it made me wonder if relaxing my hair was a sign that I was subconsciously ashamed of my race. I dismissed the notion. I’d only been putting chemicals in my hair for about 2 years and I just wasn’t willing to go back to the pain and hassles of having natural hair again, especially because I’d have to grow my hair out again.

I just couldn’t see why people were so eager to cause themselves more trouble to prove that they were blacker than the next person. What was sad about the whole thing was that it was black men attacking black women and black women attacking each other.

When I got here, I suddenly felt this pressure to be blacker; to prove that I was as black as the next person. I felt as if I weren’t black enough. That I didn’t live up to the expectations of a girl from Africa. In situations where African-Americans were offended, I found them looking at me to be offended too. I wasn’t. Particularly when it came to cultural appropriation. It wasn’t something we’d ever discussed at home, it’s not something I think people are generally aware of back home. Even if they were, I doubt they’d care.

For me, cultural appropriation is an entirely first world fixation. It isn’t something I can say I fully understand. Whether or not a white girl has braids in really isn’t all that big of a deal when I’m worrying about electricity and water. After it was explained to me, I understood the ire. Even then, I didn’t share in it. If a white girl wanted to get her hair braided back home, one of my friends would probably do it for her and we’d all enjoy it.

I’d been following a few twitter accounts of black feminists back home and couldn’t quite grasp why they seemed to be in a perpetual state of anger. I follow the same accounts now and while I don’t agree with everything they tweet, I now better understand their anger. They’re accounts run by women in the UK and America and while I was back home I couldn’t relate but now I do. As I said, I’m not any blacker here than I was at home but now I’m a minority too. Now I’m a minority in a minority.

I’m more aware that I’m black now than I’ve ever been. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that I’m black but there’s so much stigma attached to it here that I’m suddenly hyper-aware of my race. It’s not an entirely uncomfortable feeling but it’s not one I enjoy either.

Being a woman is hard in itself because you’re expected to be so many different and contradictory things all, at once. Being a black woman is a whole other ball game. You have all of the features that men want in women but they’re only attractive on other women and while you don’t need a man’s approval, it’s frustrating.

A black girl should be built like Beyoncé,Nicki Minaj, or Kim Kardashian and if she isn’t then there’s something wrong and if she is good for her, but she’ll still be found lacking in some way or the other.

I’ve always lived in a world where we’ve been taught to aspire to white ideals for beauty but back home I would see beautiful white women on T.V and then leave my house and be surrounded by equally beautiful black women. I had so many women to look up to at home, mothers, aunts, family friends and black African celebrities.

Here, it’s not that easy because I’m missing that. I always had something to counter all the white standards of beauty thrown at me and here, black women just aren’t as appreciated as they are back home. I don’t feel as appreciated and I don’t feel as sure of myself as I used to be.

This brings me back to how Lemonade made me feel. I felt like I’d found myself again. I felt like I wasn’t totally alone in feeling confused and alone. More than that I felt like I was getting reassurance that it was okay to be a black woman. Even more than that, I was getting reassurance that it’s amazing to be a black woman and that it’s something that should be proudly displayed. I think knowing that Beyoncé, a woman who seems like she has it so completely together, could relate to how I and other women feel sometimes, is very special.

So yeah, it’s not easy to be a black woman no matter what angle you approach it from but I’ve learned to see, and really appreciate the beauty there is in it and the beauty that we have within ourselves. Black women are many things but overall, I think we represent strength, not only for ourselves but for each other and the ones we care about.

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