TRIGGER WARNING: Bullying and language
“Oh my gosh, Osheta! I’m so glad I ran in to you. This is so God!” exclaimed my friend. With an infectious passion for the oppressed that I’ve grown to love, she told me about a seven-year-old black girl in Tulsa who was expelled from school for having dreadlocks. “That’s…horrible! Don’t you think?” she asked. I nodded not quite sure why it’s ‘SO GOD’ she ran into me and how I, a black woman who regularly relaxes her hair can help but…like a good progressive, social justice Christian, I nodded and echoed her horror. “Today in class,” she continued, “I had this idea to encourage her with pictures and messages from professional, African-American women wearing dreads and I need your help because obviously…. I can only do so much ” she pointed to her fine, chestnut hair. Then the other shoe dropped—she expected me to help because I am a black woman. Stunned, at the reminder that yes, I am a black woman and yes, I should care about these things, I ramped up my nodding and even laughed at her little joke. We tossed around some ideas and I told her to FB message me the news story—I’ll see what I could do. We hugged, gave each other knowing smiles, smiles that said, ‘you go, Social Justice Girl, let’s take down the man” and I rushed away feeling like a fraud.
That night as we brainstormed about this idea online I suggested my husband, who is a marketing genius, could help us with getting this campaign off the ground. But as I approached him, simultaneously angry about the ignorance that perpetuates anything Afro-centric to be “unprofessional” or “faddish” and hell-bent to restore a girl’s self-esteem, an insecurity I’m well acquainted with nestled up to me, pulled back my coarse black hair and hissed into my brown ear, “You’re not black enough to make a difference for this girl…as a matter of fact, who do you think you are calling dreadlocks beautiful? Did you forget you relax your hair every six weeks? What right have you to champion this girl who at seven is prouder of her African-American heritage than you… a thirty-two year old Oreo married to a white man. You must have forgotten you are Osheta White-ney”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When I was eleven and brought home an “F” on my progress report, my father sat me down and explained the ugly reality of being black in America. “You are a black girl, studying in a predominately white school. Everyone expects you to fail. Everyone. Even the teachers that are nice to you— if they’re white, they expect you to fail. You shouldn’t expect them to help you succeed. Because of the color of your skin, they see a lost cause.” He went on to paint terrifying pictures of unwed and pregnant, strung out and desperate, ashy and angry black women.
Way before the Hunger Games, my father explained to me how the odds are never in my favor. Like Katniss and her angry, determined arrow, I had to get their attention. Black women fade into the background, so I needed to stand out! Play their game better! And he should know. My black father, has two Master’s degrees, a successful military career, and possesses a command of the English language that thrills me everytime we speak. That afternoon, holding my sub-par progress report, he gave me the secret of his success: A black woman in America has to become better at being white than most white women. “You’ve got to be extraordinary, Osheta.” he concluded, ” No more F’s, no more playing around, and no more Zina.”
Zina was a black girl in our neighborhood. I don’t remember how we met but the summer before my fifth grade year we were inseparable. When we swam at the city pool, we’d let our hair get wet because my momma would fashion cute little puffs atop our heads. We both started filling out with the soft curves for which most black women are adored. Our skin darkened in harmony that summer; we’d hold up our arms and giggle at the sameness. We were becoming Nubian princesses.
I never felt more beautiful or known or normal than that Summer of Zina.
Zina was beautiful, yes, but she had parts of her that didn’t quite fit in my father’s expectation of a well-bred, young lady. She had horrible diction that grated his polished speech, an edgy nature about her that gave away her free ranged upbringing and she said, “yeah” instead of “yes”. Soon, my yeses slopped into yeahs. My docile nature formed an edge. Then Zina asked outright, “why do y’all say ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ like you white?” and my Marine trained father nearly had a conniption fit.
I knew Summer of Zina was coming to an end.
When I brought home that “F” and stopped sitting with Zina and her new group of friends at lunch—she knew our summer had come to an end too. On a field trip to the science museum, that Nubian princess become a warrior the likes I’ve never seen or battled since.
“Yo, white girl!”
“You think you’re better than us because you got a daddy at home, right?”
“Bitch, don’t ignore us with that book…oh you’re so smart because you read all the time”
“You nothing but an Oreo—black on the outside but white on the inside”
“Your name ain’t Whitney…. Whitney Houston is a real black woman…you’re Osheta White-ney….No! She’s O-shitty White-ney…”
Zina and her tribe of warriors taunted me the whole forty five minutes to the museum. I tried to lose myself in R.L. Stien’s pseudo-horror story — but I couldn’t. They were so loud, so insistent, so sure about my identity.
I understood why white people feared us, because I was terrified of these brazen, loud, angry, black warrior princesses.
When we finally got to the museum, I tore up the aisle, out of the bus and into the cathedral of intelligence and wonder. Hoping to drown the previous hour’s ignorance with the brilliance of the past, I wandered the halls. I only made things worse though, because now I was a snob.
Then my own hair betrayed me, telling me, ‘you’re not even black enough to take better care of me’.
I have this nervous habit. I hate it. It’s worse than fidgeting and “ummm-ing” all the time. I take down and put up my pony-tails incessantly. If I’m uncomfortable, I’m always messing in my hair. I know Ebony magazine suggests not over manipulating our fragile hair, but I can’t help it. It’s comforting and keeps my anxious fingers busy.
But this habit has a cost. I break hair ties all the time. The constant tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, and down, of doing and re-doing my ponytails is just too much…and they snap. This is what happened as I walked the halls of dinosaur bones, thinking it must have been much easier to identify your enemy by his blood-stained teeth and jagged claws—your enemy shouldn’t look like you, with matching mocha skin you marveled at just weeks before.
As I thought and prayed to God what to do, I played with my pony-tail. Tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, down…tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, down…and on and on as I walked the halls with my class. Until finally…snap! In that moment, more than my hair elastic broke because Zina and her friends were not too far away. When they realized my hair was a hot mess and I didn’t have a back up hair tie…they pounced.
“Wish you had white girl’s hair now don’t you? At least your outside would match your inside, Oreo!”
My teacher, my poor Southern, white, well-meaning but out-of-touch teacher muttered something about being kind and suggested I use a pencil to twist my hair into a bun.
A bun that kept falling all day long. To which Zina and her friends responded by surrounding me at the back of the bus and in concert sneezed on me, showering me with a slimy, chemical smelling substance I later learned was hair gel.
And that afternoon I thought they were going to kill me.
They chased me down on my walk home from school, yelling “White-ney, White-ney, O-shitty White-ney” while Zina, their general stood back and watched. Knees skinned, eyes squinting at my Sister assailants, hands burning from the hot concrete and sweat running down my new polo top, I screamed at Zina, “I thought you were my friend!”
Stepping into the circle, she crouched down and coldly replied, “I ‘aint friends with no white girl.” she then turned around said something about getting out of there and they all sauntered away, sure and confident in their blackness. Those Nubian princesses left one of their own crumpled on the sidewalk. It would be ten years before I would think of myself as a black girl. As one of them. As beautiful in this brown skin.
When I was sure they were gone, I ran away. I ran home and sat on my porch and waited for my dad to pull up from work. I was going to tell him he was right. Black is bad and I needed to be whiter than the whitest girl I knew. I needed to get the hell away from Texas City with their bigoted whites and uncouth blacks. I needed the power of a degree, silky fine hair, and a well-spoken manner. I was going to become Osheta Whitney, Attorney at Law, and then come back to rub my success in their unwed, pregnant, strung-out, desperate, ashy, and angry black faces.
God got a hold of me years later through a white man who loves black people. He explained the wisdom in Lauyrn Hill’s lyrics and called me beautiful when I wrapped my hair in a scarf. He fused SAT vocabulary and street slang seamlessly. He gave me compassion for those “uncouth blacks” because desperate people do desperate things when they want to be loved. He showed me my black is beautiful. This short, Irish-Jewish man understood the black experience and he passed his knowledge onto me.
So most days, I’m ok with being my particular shade of gray. I’m not Osheta White-ney, but I’m not brave enough to wear dreadlocks or read an Alice Walker novel. I’m a black woman in the process of figuring out how to love my heritage when I’ve been so hurt by my Sisters and I think there’s grace for that.
I have my days though, like the night I went to approach my husband to help with the dreadlocks campaign. Those days, I’m reminded of that girl curled up on the side walk, skin sticky from sweat and dried hair gel. I’m reminded of that year and how being a black woman in a white world, yet rejected by your black community was the worst form of isolation. Worse than solitary confinement, because life and connection and love sings around you, yet your ears cannot comprehend their melody.
On the days I don’t feel black enough, when that slippery accuser comes to remind me that I’ve forgotten I’m Osheta White-ney I stop and I think of Jesus. A man who was not what anyone expected. To the Jews, his own people, he wasn’t Jewish enough because he rejected the law for love. And I wonder when he watched Zina reject me as her own, did he remember the cross and how he was rejected by his very own people. And I wonder….did he cry for me? I think he did. The Lord is gracious and compassionate.
On the days I don’t feel black enough, I remember a song we used to sing in church that Jesus is more than enough. That his love satisfies the feeble places in my heart that lack confidence in my racial identity. That I’m a Kingdom Woman and that trumps American, white, or even black.
On those days I don’t feel black enough, I remember my King gets it! He gets rejection, confusion, identifying with the Jew and Gentile, loving aspects of it all and wanting to bring peace to both sides. He gets reconciliation and his confidence as the Beloved Son satisfied his need in the obscurity of identity.
On the days I don’t feel black enough I stop and buy Oreos. I remember every hateful word spoken because I love both Lady Antebellum and Lauryn Hill. I remember the skinned knees and broken heart of a girl who lost her brown skinned buddy. I remember the stand-offish black hair dressers when they realize I’m incapable of mimicking their street-wise mannerisms. I remember Osheta White-ney, the Oreo thrown onto the concrete, cracked and unwanted.
But instead of hating my past, I conquer it by taking and eating the symbol of my rejection.
And I gnash those offenses between my teeth.
And I savor the sweetness of the cookie remembering that God makes beautiful things out of dirt.
Then I swallow and take into myself the truth that we’re all tough exteriors hiding gooey vulnerabilities on the inside.
I take another and do it again. And again. And again. With the same reverence as when I take the bread and drink the wine, I do this in the presence of my Jesus.
This becomes my Eucharist. Jesus’ brokenness becoming my wholeness.
And finally…finally…. finally…. I am enough.
So if you’re like me—you feel stuck in between, not enough of this or that, and too much “other”—you’re not! You’re not too much, not for a Jesus who was despised, rejected, familiar with pain, and misunderstood.
I know that now and I invite you to come share in my Eucharist. I’ll schooch over and make room for you on my blanket. I’ll listen to your story and then if you’ll pour the milk, I’ll arrange the cookies. Then we’ll decimate those lies by taking and eating and proclaiming one to another “You are enough, because he is enough”.
Thanks be to God.