High School

That Familiar Look

By:Ajaika McLemore

We’ve all been there before: that moment when you’re sitting in your history class, and the topic of slavery comes up. All eyes turn to you, and you cringe. Or when you’re sitting in the lunchroom, listening to your music a little too loud, and maybe this time it’s not the latest Drake song or the What a Time to be Alive mixtape, and instead it’s Imagine Dragons or a little Paramour, so everyone around looks at you incredulously.

Or maybe you’ve experienced that time when everyone’s talking about what they want to be, what college they want to go to, and the momentum builds because you’re excited to share your dream, and when your name is finally called and everyone looks at you, you answer proudly with a profession that actually requires a degree. That moment.

The moment that your smile fades away because maybe you’re learning, or you’re listening to your favorite band, or you’re ready to reply and tell the world about your dream, and someone gives you that look. Your once beautiful smile is transformed into a simply straight face, but inside, it’s a frown, a deep one at that. Do you remember their looks when these moments happen? That’s what I’m talking about.

That familiar look is directed to you the moment in which you defy all of what people say you’re supposed to be, and you have the audacity to be who you want to be, doing so confidently. I first noticed it my junior year of high school. I am a major history and politics nerd; in fact, my twitter is full of tweets about race, politics, and history– those things no one likes to talk about. Because of my interest, I decided to enroll in advanced placement US history. One of my favorite teachers was teaching the course, and I just knew I could do incredibly well and expand my knowledge.

The first day in her class, while everyone was greeting each other and smiling wide because they got into the same period, I was sitting at my desk, watching the door to see if anyone who looked remotely like me would walk in. I knew it wasn’t going to happen when my teacher came in, shut the door behind her, and gave me a weird look; it was like she was warning me to prepare for the class. And now that I’ve completed it, I wish I would’ve taken her advice.

My teacher sat me close to her desk, and I listened in class, until something came on the power-point slide in which she was lecturing from. It said Slavery. Most of my classmates had followed me on Twitter since my freshman year, and continued to follow all my carefree and meaningless tweets up until junior year. The summer before my junior year, I had a complete change in heart, realized the horrible system and racial problems Black people are faced with, and began tweeting about it actively and profusely.

They’d seen my tweets, they knew about how I felt. As a result, when that word appeared on her screen, the head turning was almost immediate. Everyone looked at me with ghostly faces, their mouths slightly parted, their eyes wide. It was as if they had finally realized there was a Black girl in their classroom– yes, in their advanced history class. That was my moment.

From that day on, I suffered in that class. I loved the content itself because my teacher didn’t teach from the book, and gave everyone the bare truth about America. Almost everyday she mentioned a current issue, or topics in history relating to Black people,and I couldn’t get over that familiar look casted upon on me.

It was the worst when we had debates; the Black girl barely raises her volume to match the opponents on a point in which the teacher, a woman with two degrees in history, agrees with, and the class goes wild. “Ajaika is too opinionated, she can’t have a simple debate,” they whisper between their thin lips and white skin as if I can’t hear them, and, yet again, give me that familiar look. Everyone then saw me as militant and angry, neither of which I was. That moment, that familiar look moment, was the moment I began to doubt myself.

No. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t militant; but I was being bullied. As I hung my head low and thought about how I couldn’t have a simple debate, and how the kids laughing at my “aggression” in class were right, my teacher stood up from her desk, walked to mine, and looked down at my paper. She read the small essay we had to write before we began our discussion. Then she looked at me. I was worried that maybe I had been too aggressive and my facts weren’t accurate.

Suddenly, she smiled at me, and that smile told me I had done something good, that I wasn’t angry or aggressive: I was right. She looked like them: thin lips, white skin, but the difference was that she knew the facts and was open to learning more facts from a Black perspective unlike the others.

“Everyone, listen and look at me,” she called to the class as everyone stopped their chatter and laughing, sitting up straight as she looked at them with sharp eyes, “you all can learn from Ajaika. She has the best essay I’ve read so far, even though you guys just said she was wrong. Maybe you should start listening to your classmate more.”

That was another familiar look moment. They couldn’t believe the brown girl in their class with short, natural hair was given props for doing the assignment and being able to argue her point. It was a moment where I was conflicted. I felt… strange, but I also felt more secure in my intelligence and my scholarship than any sense of anxiety or oppression they could force onto me.

The “familiar look” is designed to condemn us for not obtaining the characteristics in which they have one by one selected in order to keep us bound and ignorant; it’s not an option to not have them. That familiar look tells us to never say, sing, or do anything that doesn’t add up to their rubric for us. But you know what I say? I say do whatever the heck you want to do, and have fun doing it.

Most people have it made up in their minds what a Black woman should be, but I refuse to be shaped that way. I will listen, sing, dance, say, do, and shout anything I want, even if it comes with that familiar look as some delusional form of consequence they think they can plague me with. And I will look at them dead in their eyes with a fearlessness and a fierceness that shows I will be who I want to be… and that will be my familiar look.

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