You see this scene in the trailer but the clip doesn’t convey the full weight of the words. Tony has said something so offensive to Dr. Shirley that he demands that Tony pulls the car over. Infuriated he gets out of the car in pounding rain. Tony goes after him and Ali’s Dr. Shirley turns and delivers lines that brought tears immediately to my eyes and clenched my heart.
“So f I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and if I’m not man enough then what am I!?”
Because my life has been the first two parts of that question, “If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then what am I?”
I am African-American but I prefer to say, black. I’m a black woman who, as a child moved around a lot, and invariably attended schools that were mostly white. This created a mashup of cultures in my head and in my life. In my home I grew up listening to R&B: Pattie Labelle, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker to name a few but by the time I was in the 11th grade (and in the predominately white city of Glendale) my taste in music had grown to include what my classmates listened to – Pearl Jam, Morrissey, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Tool and Nine Inch Nails.
Not only did the music change as I moved around – my voice did too. When I lived in South Carolina I picked up a Southern accent. When we moved to Chatsworth, CA, I picked up a “Valley Girl” accent. My voice is an amalgamation of all the places I’ve lived and people often ask me, “Where is your accent from?” I just say, “Everywhere.”
But the issue with my voice is that I never have sounded “black”. Case in point: one day when I was a teenager a family member called our house and when I answered, they hung up. They called again and when I answered again and found out who it was and they found out who I was they said, “Girl, I hung up because I thought I’d reached a white person’s house.”
And that’s my family.
When I was 16, living in Glendale I would ride the bus over an hour to Los Angeles to go get my hair done by a black hairdresser. Her name was Pattie and she ran the beauty shop with her sister. They called me, “the white girl.” I don’t know when that started but for the years that I went to her to do my hair, that’s what they called me. I can recall one time when Pattie’s sister had failed to give Pattie a message about my appointment saying, “I forgot her name,” Pattie replied, “You could have just said ‘the white girl’ and I would have known who you were talking about.”
I didn’t say anything. Even when they teased me that if I were to just get dropped off in that part of Los Angeles I wouldn’t know what to do; assuming that because I lived in suburbia I had lost all common sense. But I didn’t say anything. I just shrugged and laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
I never let on how deeply that bothered me. I guess I figured there was little point.
In my early twenties, I was on a bus in San Francisco. I was seated at the front of the bus when a handful of black teenagers boarded the bus and headed to the back. I felt them looking at me and I heard one them say with venom in her voice, “she must be white.”
I wore my hair shorter then and natural, which is extremely curly. Black people immediately think I’m mixed when they see my hair. Can you imagine what a mind-f$@k it is to be of a deep chocolate completion and hear another black person say that you must be white? It’s unreal.
It’s a painful reality. I am grateful to Issa Rae for making Insecure because she was the first person I heard talk about her experience of growing up black in predominantly white neighborhoods. It was a relief in a small way.
But it doesn’t speak to the dilemma as powerfully as that line in Green Book laid it out.
For so long I have felt that I lived in two worlds – one black and one white. But I am not fully at home in either.
I love the South. Both sides of my family are from South Carolina and when I return to that land I feel at home. My soul feels at peace. But that is the land; being around my family in the South, there is a distinct feeling that I am different. It’s not spoken. Well, at least not by anyone other than my outspoken uncle but when he does it – it’s in love, like him hollering, “Damn! Even when you talk slang you sound proper!”
I am different from my family. There’s no question.
But then I went to visit my partner’s family and it got even more complicated.
My partner comes from a lovely, large, and very traditional family. And they happen to be white.
What was so strange for me in being with his family was the feeling of total ease, like I was one of the fold. But clearly, CLEARLY I’m not.
Green Book tied up the loose ends in a bow of hopefulness and you leave the theatre with a warm glow in your heart.
But my life is not like that.
Some things just can’t be wrapped up so neatly.
This will be a question that will probably live with me for as long as I live – If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then what am I?
© 2018 Tamara Jefferies.