“What are you?’’’
“Are you adopted?”
“What are you mixed with?”
Many photos and stories submitted to “Historically Black,” The Washington Post Tumblr project, have touched on what it means to identify as a particular race and ethnic background. Throughout this project, multiple stories surfaced a theme that pointed to an ongoing internal and external conflict based on the societal criteria that deemed a person “black.” These stories identified the struggle to understand the judgment — by both black and non-black communities — based on the way one dresses, speaks and acts.
This has led to a hard, and conflicting, question: What does it mean to be “black enough” in modern America?
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That’s the question Marcelle Hutchins faced ever since she, her twin sister and their mother emigrated from Cameroon to Portland, Maine. Hutchins’s mother married a white man, and together they settled in as a family. But as early as the third grade, Hutchins faced the harsh reality of integrating into American society.
“Growing up, I really struggled with my identity in America. For a long time, I often questioned, you know, who I was in this world. And I was told by a variety of different people that I didn’t fit my birthright, that I didn’t act the way I should act or the way black people should act, and because of my mannerisms I was too white,” Hutchins said.
According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.
“The most kind of basic understanding is the one-drop rule, wherein people said if a person had any drop of blood, black blood, they were black. And the purposes of that were to present whiteness as a category of purity and that any tincture of African ancestry would irrevocably taint a person and remove them from the, you know, pure category of whiteness,” Cobb said. “There’s a wide range of ancestries that are included within the category of black, and so the category itself is amorphous.”
Many people have embraced the amorphous to define themselves on their own terms and rooted these definitions in their own explorations of identity.
Kianah Jay grew up with her single Native American mother and was raised in a small village in New Mexico before moving to Albuquerque. Her father is black, but growing up she didn’t know him.
“I know how different we looked,” she said of living with her mom and visiting Native American communities. “Everywhere we went, I stood out. … I was always being told, like especially once I started school, like, oh you’re black, you’re black. Little kids saying, like, telling me I was black, or that I was African American, and I didn’t really agree, at that age even. I would have described myself pretty strictly as Native American.”
She remembers exploring her black identity once she moved to Los Angeles, where she works as a model, singer and behavior specialist in schools. There and on her personal Tumblr, she began connecting more with black bloggers.
“I was being embraced as an equal almost immediately,” she says. “All I had to do was be there, and it is so comfortable, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve really been missing out. I’ve really been missing out on an entire culture, entire history.’ They made me really sad that I didn’t grow up with my dad and that side of my family because I think I would have not felt so alone. Because it is hard, it is hard not looking like anybody that I grew up with.”
Christina Tucker understands the feeling. She grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of New Paltz, N.Y., with a white mom and a black dad. “Someone was like, ‘Are you adopted?’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s my mom.’ And they were like, ‘but she’s white,’ ” Tucker said. She said these questions came around the time she was in kindergarten and first grade. “And I was like, ‘Yeah ’cause she’s my mom. Like that’s the color that she is,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, but you’re not white.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhh. Got it.’ ”
But she remembers her mom taking particular care to surround their house with representations of blackness — from buying a black Santa Christmas tree topper in the early 2000s to using black emojis when texting today — so that her daughter would see more of herself in their white neighborhood.
These stories told by women of varying backgrounds, different yet all connected in questioning the current model of black identity, show a glimpse of a growing conviction that self-identification stems from within the person.
What does it mean to be black enough in American society? That’s a question that continues to pervade America, where race can place a person in categories unbeknownst to them, where it can divide Americans living in the same location and raise questions on conforming to labels long established and ingrained in modern society. But there is a growing understanding that each person chooses who they are, establishes their own voice and ultimately defines their own path in society without the need to bend to the pressure of blending in and immersing themselves into a culture that they’re told they belong in.
You can hear host Roxane Gay talk more about these women’s individual approach to understanding their black identity on Historically Black, a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Washington Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connections.
Subscribe to Historically Black on iTunes, TuneIn, Spotify and wherever else you listen to podcasts.
See more objects that have been submitted to the project and share your own at historicallyblack.tumblr.com.
EXPLORE OTHER EPISODES:
Episode 1: How WWII opened doors for one of the first black women at NASA
Episode 2: The Million Man March changed history — and it transformed this father’s life
Episode 3: A hunt for his slave ancestor’s original bill of sale unearthed a surprising history
Episode 4: He went searching for his roots and found the most popular black fiddler in 1920s Missouri
Episode 5: In photos of ordinary life, James Van Der Zee captured Harlem Renaissance glamour