A Black Girl Made Of

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At the age of 7, I realized that each of us is patchwork, assembled from our past. My best friend Liana, for example, had her mother’s thick hair and her father’s moon face. And once, when we visited her grandmother, I saw parts of my girlfriend on the faces of old family photos. An ear here, an eye there. A dozen pieces that, all patched, made liana. At that time it was not strange for me to call Liana’s grandmother, who was old and white, my grandmother-ma Yaya. I didn’t know I was black at the time.

Ten years after, at 17, I became aware. The question of positive action arose in my senior history course, and my hand rose. I was firm for it. After all, my parents had benefited from a positive action. Without this, perhaps my whole life of the upper middle class would not have materialized.

A blonde girl, Marianne, disagreed with me. “Sloths who are not as intelligent as me should not have my place at university just because they are black.”When several students accepted his opinion, I was shocked and the debate began. Opposition mounted. I stopped raising my hand and got up to action the whole class, including the teacher, who tore up my ideas. I didn’t know anything about systemic racism or white privilege — my high school didn’t teach that. I could not unpack misleading statistics that indicated in their faces that the blacks were – indeed-lazy and incomprehensible.

I had nothing but the judgment that my mother was not inferior to her. And my cousins weren’t silly. My father earned his medical degree, and I myself earned my life. If something was broken in America, I knew it wasn’t us — only my upbringing hadn’t prepared me to prove it.

When the bell rang, everyone left for the second period, when I sat down with my eyes wide open. My colleagues, I saw, with their myriad differences, were the same in the only way that matters. They were white, I realized. And finally I understood that I was black.

After that, everything split in half, and I was suddenly excluded, contrary to everything I admired. My textbooks were mostly white. My church-including Jesus-was white. My teachers, the celebrities I idolized, the Disney princesses, the heroes I read about-everyone knows. The best parts of my world belonged to the white race, and according to the well-known history it has always been so.

It was during this period that I began to wonder about the patchwork of my people. What was I made of, a Black girl? I thought about the photos of my current house in Yaya and thought about studying the history of what I knew. Before and after Martin Luther King, I concluded, there was little to be proud of.

It was a lie that it took 15 years to dispel. I was jogging and listening to James Baldwin’s fire the next time the truth finally hit me.

“Don’t take anyone’s word for nothing,” Baldwin said. “The details and symbols of your life were deliberately built to make you believe what white people say about you. Try to remember this. . . [They] come from a robust farming background, men who. . . in the teeth of the most frightening reviews, achieved an inviolable and monumental dignity.”

The words struck with such force, I stopped in the street to cry. I was lied to. Deceived by my biased upbringing. To heal, I had to look for myself, where I came from. From that moment on, I questioned everything — especially what I had learned about American history. This was the beginning of a very long journey.

Arika’s journey through the Rekord Keeper is parallel to my own path to freedom. Realizing that her view of herself and her people is greatly influenced by her upbringing, she begins to question her upbringing and the government structures that dictate it. Soon she awakens to the prejudices that underlie her thinking, and armed with the truth, she begins to resist.

In my opinion, every American has to make the same journey if we want to achieve racial reconciliation. Like all of us, our country is made up of its past. In order to realize the ideal — a more perfect union, the government itself must search, dig, enlighten and atone for its misdeeds. I wrote The Record Keeper, mainly to encourage readers to embark on this quest.

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