Photos and essay by Brittany Mayes
What have I learned from my 22+ years of living in a black body? It’s tiring.
It’s exhausting waking up with the weight of the world on your shoulders. I feel stretched too thin. I feel heavy-hearted. I feel…tired. It wasn’t always like this for me. When I was young, I didn’t understand my blackness.
I didn’t understand why my mother would tell me that I needed to comb my hair to fit in with the other girls or I wouldn’t make the cheer team again (I didn’t make it the second time I tried out, so I guess she was right).
I didn’t understand why my mother was asked, “Are you in the right place?” when she went to enroll my sister in school in our new, extremely white school district.
I didn’t understand why I was asked how I was going to pay for my mani-pedi when my white friend right next to me was asked no such thing.
I grew up consumed by my race without even knowing it. I used to run away from places that forced me to acknowledge my race and culture. When really, I just hit the tip of the iceberg about how much of an effect my blackness had on me.
I grew up in south Charlotte, a very white community. While I knew my skin was darker than my peers, I didn’t understand what that meant. Charlotte was the first time in my life that I stayed in one place for more than a couple of years, and to me it was my entire childhood. It was my home.
Back then, I didn’t feel like I belonged in a diverse space because Charlotte was all I knew. As far as I was aware, it was the first place I belonged.
When my family packed up and moved to Woodbridge, VA, a more racially and culturally diverse area, I had so many more questions about my blackness.
I didn’t understand why I was constantly told that I was “an oreo” because of something so arbitrary like my choice in music.
I didn’t understand why I suddenly felt “too white” for my black friends and “too black” for my white friends.
I didn’t understand why I suddenly felt an overwhelming amount of pressure to be more black.
It was hard for me, to say the least. I was lost. Looking back, I could never find my “fit.” I never knew where I belonged at that high school. So, I put on a brave face and counted down the days until I could leave for college. A new place with new people wherever in the country I wanted to go.
And I wanted to go home.
I chose the University of North Carolina because I wanted less diversity, as strange as that is to admit now. I didn’t feel like I fit in when I had it, so why would I want to continue that feeling?
It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t belong in such a white space either.
When I was applying and getting accepted to colleges, it was, “You only got in because you’re black.”
Then, when I got to college, it was, “So, what sport do you play?”
Suddenly, I was starting to understand just how complex my blackness was. It took me a while, but at UNC I finally realized how powerful—and intimidating—my blackness was.
My first semester, I took an introductory Women’s Studies course. A lecture on the color of Band-Aids still resonates in my mind. Why? Because nude, the color that is supposed to match and blend in with your skin, isn’t nude for everyone.
That’s when it hit me. And then things kept hitting me.
It was the trial of George Zimmerman after killing Trayvon Martin. It was Our Three Winners, the murder of three Muslim individuals in cold blood. It was Michael Brown’s body lying dead on the streets of Ferguson for four hours.
During the first half of my college experience, I was just trying to survive, get through the days and not stand out too much. I’m not sure the exact moment, but suddenly I turned from just wanting to survive to wanting to thrive.
Beforehand, I felt like people thought I should just be happy with that fact that I, a black woman, was admitted to such a prestigious university. I felt like people wanted me to minimize my black features and conform to the reality that surrounded me. And even more so, I felt like people wanted me to forget that I was black to begin with.
I had a major turning point during the summer before my senior year. My journalism class was playing jeopardy, and my professor asked a bonus question where the team that answered correctly first would get the points.
The question was, “Who was the activist arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds?”
My hand shot up thinking that I would have to race to say the answer because everyone in the class would know her name, but I was embarrassed to look around and see that I didn’t even have to rush. Not a single other soul in the room knew that her name was Bree Newsome. It was such an important moment of activism in black history, and they couldn’t even bother to learn her name.
I realized somewhere down the road that I didn’t want to be ashamed of my kinky hair anymore. I didn’t want to keep pretending that those around me downplaying my personal experience with race was okay with me. I didn’t want to feel trapped or contained anymore. I didn’t want to be afraid of my blackness anymore.
So, I learned how to do a twist out and started accepting my natural hair. I started attending peaceful protests to voice my opinions on matters like the Ferguson decision. I even started attending a group created by women of color for women of color to talk about everything affecting us from mental health to current events.
All of these events and more shaped how I feel about my blackness today.
I’m still unsure about what exactly my blackness is. What I do know is that it is powerful, complex and beautiful.
There are still constant uphill battles.
It’s exhausting to have to explain my choices. I’m especially tired of having to explain my blackness like it’s on trial and could be taken from me. I am no less black now than I was before. Not before I decided to go natural. Not before I decided to attend a predominately white university. Not before I decided to truly work on accepting my skin. Yet, people want to tell me how I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to live as a black person.
I constantly feel like I have to prove my blackness as if it’s not painted all over my body.
More than that, everyday I wake up in this black body, wondering what fights I’ll have to bear because of the color of my skin. I wake up wondering when another unarmed person who looks like me will be killed. I wake up just praying I don’t know them.
It’s been a tough road and it will continue to be. But once you get a peek from the top, the view is beautiful.
I wake up in the morning and I sometimes I still can’t decide whether or not I like myself, how I look, who I am. But when I do, it’s…magic.
I’ve started learning to appreciate the color of my skin and how it glows in the light. I’ve started loving how my hair curls and, sometimes, how uncertain I am that it’ll curl the way I want it to. Most of all, I’m started accepting new parts of myself.
I don’t always know how to verbalize my feelings on race and culture, and I still struggle with what exactly the blessing and curse of blackness will bring me each day. This journey, my journey, has been long, drawn out and tough, but it’s certainly not over yet.
Brittany Mayes graduated from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in May 2016 with a degree in Media and Journalism concentrated in multimedia. Driven Media is excited to have her as the second contributor in the Fall 2016 self-acceptance essay series. To view more of her work, visit her website at brmayes.com.