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On Being a Black Person in America: The Beauty, the Brilliance . . . the Pain

February 25, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

I have always hated the phrase "The Black Experience." It implies that there is some one experience, or set of them, that can define a people. Further, the word black is often misused by many people to mean Afro-Americans exclusively, when it actually refers to Africans and all people of African descent.

I am a chosen Afro-American; that is how I think of myself culturally. That is the black ethnic group I identify with most. My father was an Afro-American, who, like most black people in America, was of mixed racial-ethnic ancestry. The mix among American blacks is usually African, European and Native American. My mother's family is West Indian--Jamaican and Guyanese. That side of my family has a little of everything, including an English pirate named Sam Lord. His castle in Barbados is now a Marriott Hotel. He's my great-great-great-grandfather. But the folks on my mother's side are mainly black and East Indian.

The black diaspora, or people of African descent in the West, are as varied as the people on the continent from which their ancestors come. They are as different as the Italians and French and Germans are from one another.

Perhaps that is the reason the Assn. for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, which sponsors Black History month each February, has ceased to call it that. February is now Afro-American History month. The focus is now the history of black Americans. I regret the change. I like the all-encompassing implications of the word black. I like the fact that each February we can reinforce for ourselves and share with the world the diversity and common currents of black international culture. For there is a common thread that runs among us. In some cases it may be the knowledge of a shared oppression, either as colonial subjects, descendants of the enslaved or the continued objects of racist attacks. But our lives have never been defined by oppression only. I have always been renewed by black people's seemingly infinite capacity to confront the world as it is, laugh at it, ignore the obstacles, and go on to do battle. What other people in America have endured so much, lived to tell the tale and created so much beauty? The rest of the world must have seen this beauty, too. Why else would they want to sing like us, dance like us, walk like us--do everything but take the weight associated with actually being us. But being us, like being you, is full of brilliance, beauty and pain.

The portraits that follow do not speak for the race. My family and I are simply among its \f7 infinite variations.

Daddy wore boxer shorts when he worked; that's all. He'd sit at a long table covered with neat piles of I.F. Stone's Weekly, The New Republic, The Nation, and the handwritten pages of his book-in-progress, "The Tolono Station and Beyond." A Mott's applesauce jar filled with Teacher's Scotch was a constant, and his own forerunner of today's wine coolers was the ever-present chaser: Manischewitz Concord grape wine and ginger ale in a tall, green iced-tea glass.

As he sat there, his beer belly weighing down the waistband of his shorts, I'd watch. He seldom saw me. I hid at the far end of the long, dark corridor in our Manhattan apartment inspecting him through a telescope formed by my forefinger and thumb: bare feet in thonged sandals, long, hairy legs that rose toward the notorious shorts, breasts that could fill a B cup, and a long neck on which a balding head rested. Viewed in isolation, perhaps, I thought, I'd see him clearer, know him better.

Daddy was a philosopher, a Marxist historian, an exceptional teacher. When he received his doctorate from the University of Toronto, he was in his early 20s and America was in the third decade of the 20th Century. It was a particularly bad time to be black in America. Hitler's influence was spreading. Theories of white racial supremacy were rampant and discussed, as if legitimate, in the halls of academe.

Daddy became a journalist. He worked for black papers in the Southwest for several years, then began teaching at various black colleges. He was the head of the philosophy department at Morgan State in Baltimore for a while and later taught part-time at City College in New York and New York University. He had a short stint with the government too; head of adult education for the state of New York during the Rockefeller Administration. But as I said, that was short. A security check revealed he had been a member of the socialist DuBois Club, named for the great Afro-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois.

Out of necessity and desire, Daddy decided he wanted to devote his time to teaching young people at a stage in their lives when he felt he could make a difference. He joined the faculty of a Jersey City high school and began teaching journalism, history and English. His students, I came to learn, loved him. His daughter found it hard to.

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