A coworker turned me on to a brilliant podcast called On Being. Each week, award-winning broadcaster and bestselling author Krista Tippett speaks with artists, civil rights activists, spiritual leaders, and other smart and fascinating people on what it means to be human and how we want to live.
Last month, Tippett spoke with African-American poet Nikki Giovanni. The episode included Giovanni reading her poems. As she read “Nikki-Rosa”, I was overcome by a deep sense of knowing and disorientation. Here’s an excerpt from it:
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
You can read the poem in its entirety here.
I grew up poor and my parents fought a lot and my father is an alcoholic and my sister and I had happy birthdays and very good Christmases. Love was wealth. It still is. And it was hard, but I was happy.
I was happy because I didn’t know.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. – Genesis 3:7
I was born in Havana, Cuba. My family left Cuba as refugees/exiles. The reason was plain: my father didn’t want my sister and me to grow up under an oppressive, communist regime. The circumstances were more complicated. It’s been 37 years since my father and mother stepped foot on their homeland, 37 years since they last saw their brothers and sisters. A lot happens in 37 years. Grandparents and parents die. Families crumble and collapse like Havana’s old buildings.
What could I know of these things? I was two years old. I don’t remember crying or vomiting and becoming dehydrated from the boat journey to the point it filled my mother with terror. I don’t remember being hungry. I don’t remember being scared. I don’t remember being separated from my father and sister during our first months in the United States. I don’t remember not knowing how to speak English.
And yet, in the curious ways of the fluidity of privilege, I belonged to the dominant class. I was Cuban in Miami.
It wasn’t too many years after our immigration that my father bought his property: two buildings with six apartments. He owned a car and a small boat and had excellent credit and, other than the mortgage, which he paid off years ahead of schedule, he never accrued debt. We had toys and an Atari console and a Sony Walkman and records and nice clothes and cars and computers and happy birthdays and very good Christmases. Did I even notice that many things were secondhand? That my family never went on a vacation or even to the movies?
My sister and I went to good public schools with other boys and girls who looked like us. In retrospect, I know they didn’t look like us. There was a blonde, blue-eyed Polish boy and a Black Haitian boy. There were light-skinned Hispanic kids with blue eyes and light brown hair. There were kids with skin like milk chocolate. There were teachers that were “American”, which, turns out, meant white, and still does.
My sister and I don’t even look like “us”. You can tell we’re sisters, but she takes after our father with his fair skin, light eyes, straight hair, and long, narrow Spanish nose. I take after my mother: swarthy skin, dark curls, and a nose and lips that are a little too wide for her liking.
I grew up under the shadow of something inferior called Blackness. I didn’t know what Blackness was, but it was the reason my hair was “bad” and had to be chemically straightened. It was the reason my father yelled at me when I was a teenager after a boy from school made an unannounced visit.
“He’s not Black,” I said naively. “He’s half Dominican and half Puerto Rican.”
I didn’t know what Blackness was, but it was the reason I had to marry up and “improve the race”. For that matter, I didn’t know what whiteness was either. It’s not that I was colour-blind. I could see we were all different, but I didn’t know those differences mattered.
One evening, when I was a little girl, I came home and my father wasn’t there. His side of the closet was empty. Nobody told me where he’d gone or if he would return. In fact, there was no acknowledgement that he had left. It was like he had not been there.
Years later, I realised that this event stabbed me deeply. The wound healed but left a scar that sometimes burns.
I was confused and I assume that I was sad and that I missed him. And still, I remember my childhood as happy. I saw my father again and I saw him a lot. He moved back in and he left again. And still, there were games of dominoes and fishing trips and happy birthdays and very good Christmases. Eventually, he moved into an apartment out back. My sister and I have moved away. My parents, now divorced, are neighbours on the property my father bought in 1980-something.
A part of my father is imprisoned by traumas. He is displaced and disoriented. A part of him is lost to alcoholism. An emotional side of him has always been closed to me and always will be. He is difficult and stubborn and domineering. He is also loving and kind and generous and funny. He’s imperfect. He’s human. He’s done his best and I’d say he’s done pretty well.
When I graduated high school, I broke my mother’s heart by going to a university five hours away from home. Although I didn’t learn about whiteness for many more years, it was here that I was first made conscious of my otherness. I was “a minority”. And yet, in the curious ways of the fluidity of privilege, I became a member of a different advantaged group of people: university graduates.
In the curious ways of the fluidity of privilege, I was poor and yet not poor, a majority and a minority, a white person and a brown person.