Alden Fossett ’21, Memorial Church Student Advisory Board member, speaks at Morning Prayers on March 1, 2019. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
My sacred text for this morning is the epigraph from Julia Anna Cooper’s 1892 book, A Voice from the South.
What I Miss
“With regret I forget
If the song be living yet,
Yet remember, vaguely now,
It was honest, anyhow.”
What I miss the most about being white is the not knowing — but even more than that, the not having to know. What I miss the most about being black is the knowing too much — but even more than that, the knowing too well, too often, and for too long.
Caught in between the two, my melanin invites questions and concerns I didn’t think I was supposed to have, like, “what are you?” and, “where are you really from?” Maybe I missed being black by the texture of my hair, but I certainly missed being white by the color of my skin. Race is not biological, but sometimes it feels that way—the lasting taxonomy of phenotype handed down to us by early anthropologists: Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid.
The nurse in the hospital says, “your daddy must be red, then, if your mama’s that dark.”
“No,” I tell her, “my dad’s white.”
In runaway slave advertisements, black people are described every possible way. Like the 100-dollar reward for Negro woman Sophia Gordon, “of copper color,” or the 10 dollars for a “somewhat yellow complexioned” Negro man named Will. Or the 15-dollars for Yett, who is “not of the blackest order.” How would I have been labelled if I had run away? Do I have enough yellow in my skin?
When I speak, I speak from a place of deep pain: the kind that can bury you. It’s intoxicating: a saccharine mist settles over you and sticks in your head like glue. What does it feel like to be two halves with no whole — bifurcated every time you look in a mirror? It’s a catastrophe, being black here and being white there. Knowing what they want to hear, and knowing they don’t really care. And this, this is my song. Living or dead: I have no choice but to confront it. I have to be “honest, anyhow.” I sing this to myself, today, and I’ll try to sing this to myself tomorrow.
A wail is not a whine. A wail is an act of self-respect. The kind of wailing I want to do is not beautiful, nor is it ugly. It might not be what you want from me. It might even make you uncomfortable, but I want you to look, and I want you to see. Be here with me, just for a moment, and think what it means to be born into a world that claims you as much as you claim yourself.
When your identity is a debate before you know your left from your right, you learn how to accommodate others more quickly than you learn that you have a self. You think, “If I look at you, if I really look at you, then maybe you won’t even see me. And if you don’t see me, then you won’t see all of my contradictions, all of my shames, and all of my emptiness.”
I don’t have the privilege of hiding behind anything, so I hide inside myself. It’s quiet. It’s lonely. It exists somewhere beyond sight, sound, smell, or touch. I doubt it tastes of anything at all. Though it might sound like it, it’s not a sad place, exactly, because I’m not sad. I don’t take up permanent residence because I don’t have to. I have too much to sing, I have too much to say, and I love far too many people.
Me: not a Negro, not an African-American, and not for you to say.
One ever feels his two-ness, one ever feels his newness, one ever feels his blueness.