I Am Grateful My Community Raised Me to Be an Unapologetic Black Girl

by Gina Torres

My journey to becoming an Unapologetic Black Girl began with my upbringing. I was born in the late 1960’s to Black parents who were grew up in the northern United States. It was towards the end of the the Civil Rights Movement. I drank in “Black Power!” and “Black is Beautiful!” with my mother’s milk; I threw up the Black Power fist before I could speak. I believed it. I believed my mother’s creamy brown skin was beautiful (it still is). I believed my own beige skin was beautiful, because I was taught shades all across the spectrum of Blackness were—and are—beautiful.

I remember when Black people were rarely represented on television or in print. And when we were, we were limited to background roles. Thus, the black community did exactly what allowed us to survive: we created our own standards of beauty. Because of this, I didn’t grow up wishing for white skin and blonde hair. Those things were incomprehensible to me. Sure, I saw attractive white people here or there, but they had nothing to do with me. I could dispassionately admire their physical appearance without coveting it for myself. Instead, my standards of beauty were culled from the diverse group of sophisticated Black beauties that included my mother, her peers, my aunts, the women in my neighborhood, and those who populated the covers of Ebony and Jet. Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson, Denise Nicholas, Leslie Uggams, Diana Ross, Pam Grier, Paula Kelly, Lonette Mckee, Jayne Kennedy, Chaka Khan, Telma Hopkins, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Reshād were many of the examples I saw of Black beauty.

I longed to have figure like my Aunt Sharon, Pam Grier, or Jayne Kennedy; not Farrah Fawcett or Bo Derek. I wasn’t moved by Derek’s cultural appropriation of cornrows in the movie “10,” which many people then attributed to her—despite the fact that the intricate braiding style had been a staple in the black community. I sported the style a full two years before the movie came out.

Growing up, mother insisted that my siblings and I speak using correct pronunciation and grammar. She recognized that how we communicated shaped the perceptions of those who interacted with us. While we were around our friends we could speak in a more relaxed way, but when in school, speaking with adults, or answering the phone we were expected to use standard English. This set the foundation for my love and respect of words and their power.

The predominantly Black working class community I grew up in also affirmed my blackness. The Black teachers at schools made sure there was no lack of culturally enriching experiences. Accomplished leaders like Carl and Louis Stokes, legendary Ohio politicians, spoke frequently at our schools. The Bethune Cookman Choir sang. We wore dashikis, and performed African dances and Swahili songs. We were told often that we were “somebody.” As little kids, we laughed and rolled our eyes when we heard this. At the time, we did not understand our community was fortifying us against the systems of power that so often seek to destroy us Black people in the United States.

My upbringing allowed me to have distance from whiteness. I could view the white majority in a way that didn’t diminish who I was as a black person. I didn’t feel that white people were superior or more beautiful or more of anything compared to Black people. Later, I was able to attend a predominantly white college and sit in the front row with confidence. I raised my hand and engaged with my professors. Even now, I still work and live predominantly among white people. This hasn’t eroded my sense of self as a Black person.

The recent events in our country—the high profile civil rights violations and the overall disrespect and devaluing our lives as human beings—underscores the why we must look the past for guidance. Our elders have gone before us and survived. We must learn from their lessons. Our children have to find strength in our communities. We have to give them unwavering faith in their abilities, in their Blackness.

Black is beautiful. Black is smart. Black is strength. Black lives matter. We must live unapologetically black.

Photo: Shutterstock

Follow Gina on Twitter @geeshouse. Gina’s short story, “The ‘What If?’ Game” appears in The Dating Game: Short stories about the Search for Mr. Right.

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