Recollections on Growing Up an Awkward Black Girl

by Brittany Dawson

I was crowned the title “awkward Black girl” in the seventh grade.

Other than my parent’s collection, I didn’t personally own magazines popular within the African American community, like JET Magazine or Essence. Harry Potter books consumed all the space in my locker where others thought Chris Brown posters should’ve been.

I skateboarded and listened to rock bands like All-American Rejects, Fall Out Boy, and Switchfoot, but couldn’t play basketball or recite any G-Unit lyrics. Mind you, my peers used the aforementioned signifiers to qualify their diagnosis of awkward Black girl, and I believed them.

Early on I formed a dangerous, materialistic relationship to Blackness partly due to how often my peers reminded me how I wasn’t Black enough. I grew hyper-aware of my figure, constantly comparing my style of dress to classmates who modeled Blackness “correctly.”

Girls wore South Pole. Boys laced up their Jordans. Me? I wore tawdry Bill Blass jeans and oversized novelty t-shirts. When my mother would take me and my sisters shopping, I’d envy girls my age who flaunted their pear shapes in Apple Bottom Jeans.

Every night I’d pray to God for more sartorial flair, hips as wide as a door frame, plump lips bubbling in strawberry sweetness, the bullish bravado of Crime Mob. I’d open my eyes disappointingly to my oafish reality: crooked glasses rested smugly on a round face freckled with pimples. Liberally applied Blue Magic grease clumped at the height of my ponytail where a malnourished bun, dry and brittle, sat roughly as would a bale of hay. A stocky frame kept all the boys away, and at the time, I understood why: I was a dorky, ugly, awkward Black girl.

Well, at least that’s what Russ said.

Russ sported a mustache and a booming voice with the intensity of a diesel truck engine that belied his twelve years of age. He had an impressive herd of young girls—who, as he regularly reminded everyone in Mrs. Bee’s art class, “got jiggy with”—and a youthful cadence peers yearned to emulate. Russ even smoked Marlboro Reds. Indeed, he was literally a young man. Even White girls in class didn’t seem to mind his Blackness; he was a charmer who gleamed admirers across every race.

I never spoke in class unless spoken to. I buried my nose in Harry Potter or Game Informer magazines to avoid any trouble with Russ’ crew.

Before class, the boys would rate girls based on appearance on a 1 to 10 scale.

“Jenny… EIGHT!” Russ laughed, dapping up his crew.

“What about, uh… let’s see.” Russ scanned the room for his next victim. “Hey, what about Kelly?”

A sheepish grin splashed across his face, his lips pursed as his all-too-knowing eyes ripped through Kelly’s outfit.

“Homie, you know she a TEN!” chirped Miles, Russ’ most vocal follower.

The boys traced Kelly’s angelic figure in the air, detailing the jutting of her hips and chest.

Suddenly I overheard my name.


The boys dropped their pens and pencils, stared pointedly in my direction, and pivoted their menacing glares back to their table. Then, they let out a boisterous laughter I’d never forget, cheering and clapping their hands like they were at a lively Sunday service.

“A TWO!” they squawked unanimously, slapping their fists on the table.

“Homie, she SO UGLY!”

“All she do is read them White boy books!”

“I would never want a girl like dat, nah man!”

“Better yet, she a ONE,” interjected Russ. “‘Cause no ONE wanna pimply girl like that!”

A stone lodged in my throat. I tried to counter the tears by violently turning the pages in my Harry Potter book, but as the sobbing grew louder I knew I was doomed.

My teacher noticed the raucous behavior, and, too far removed from the unrepairable damage, patted my shoulder instead.

“Brittany, whatever is going on, please keep it down.” Mrs. Bee cooed. “You can be as loud as you want after lunch.”
* * *

Less than two weeks later I found a boyfriend, Anthony. Not just any boyfriend, but a Black boyfriend. We complimented each other as two Black outcasts barely surviving the torrential storms of middle school. Anthony always smelled of Pine Sol and orange juice. His brown skin stayed moisturized except for the crackled webs between his fingers. Still, Anthony was someone I could call mine no matter how ashy or odoriferous.

My heart tingled to know that despite Russ’ harsh words from the weeks before, other Black peers gave me their approval without ever saying “Brittany, you’ve been granted access into the wonderful world of Blackness.” We sat at the couple’s lunch table together, sipping lukewarm chocolate milk with other Black kids in love. I finally belonged. I no longer had to entertain harsh asides such as, “You finally have a boyfriend! We were getting concerned you were a…” simply based on my seventh grade paramour.

After second period, we’d send notes to each other riddled in mushy hearts and stickers, vowing our love in bubble lettered font. I wanted to appeal to Anthony with my newfound affinity to Black culture, wanting nothing more than to be validated by my own. After all, we were an African American community right?

I waited dutifully against his locker as a chipper puppy would a freshly scooped cup of Kibbles & Bits. Even then I felt fraudulent. Unable to risk losing being treated as an insider rather than an outsider to Blackness I maintained my Oscar worthy performance with guiltless ease.

Anthony appeared bothered, embarrassed even. When he opened his mouth, my suspicions were confirmed.

“We can’t be together.”

I grew impatient. “Why not? We belong together!”

Thanks to sneaking into my family’s shared computer room the night before, I listened to Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” on the radio for the first time. “We Belong Together” provided me with a socially accurate way to describe Black [cis]hetero love, a language I lacked.

“’Imma be real with you, Brittany, you not really Black. Russ told me you was White and act like a tomboy… I need a girl.” preached Anthony, providing a litany of “real chicks” he needed. You know, a “down” girl like Ciara he sighed. A talented soul like Alicia Keys.

All I heard was everything but a bookish Black girl. “I’ll prove it to you!” I stammered.

School finally ended and as usual, my homework was complete, freeing up time to relearn Blackness.

I logged on to our local radio station and listened to every single on the HOT JAMZ R&B/Hip Hop playlist. In particular, I paid close attention to the trending single, Destiny’s Child “Soldier”.

I spent the entire evening and part of the next early morning memorizing every word and inflection: from swagger-filled lyrics like “gotta know to get dough and he betta be street,” to the low growls of Lil Wayne and T.I’s slightly unintelligible intro.

The next day, Anthony stood unenthusiastically in the middle of the hallway.

“Anthony, I am Black! For real this time. I’m a woman too!” I teased, performing an unreal level of sassiness better suited for Flavor of Love.

“Pssht, since when?” scoffed Anthony, arms crossed and eyebrows raised.

“You’ll see.” I said sanguinely.

I sang the lyrics to Destiny’s Child “Soldier” in its entirety. I rocked my hips and poked out my chapped lips, sashaying my blocky body to match what I saw online.

“Brittany, you really aren’t Black. Stop trying to be something you’ll never be!” Anthony bolted from the impromptu concert, leaving me to drown in a pool of low self-esteem.
* * *

It was then I learned even Destiny’s Child wouldn’t be enough to earn my Black card—that Black folk and disparate identities alike jokingly threaten to take away, or in my case, leisurely remind you when you don’t have one. If you’re too idiosyncratic or dare take the liberty of exploring atypical interests outside of what society markets, then prepare to lip sync for your life. Prepare to submit to a gauntlet teeming with identity games, ruthless challenges, and questions particularly focused on extracting or testing Blackness. This is no way to treat Blackness, as seen in my own life. If only my peers had been inundated with resources that suggested otherwise.

I projected a problematic disdain and misunderstanding of Black culture inwards, limiting my growth as a woman. Now, nearly eleven years later, I proudly flaunt my Blackness authentically. Mentorships with Black women, volunteering in the community, counseling, and understanding my worth brought me to the other side. And more specifically, after I purchased and devoured Issa Rae’s highly anticipated book The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, I realized that I too suffered from similar bouts of low self-esteem.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl does an exceptional job at reclaiming, explaining, and finding empowerment in being labeled “awkward Black girl.” Issa Rae’s ascent to the top—from her widely watched web series to an upcoming HBO pilot—is in fact attributed to her unique struggles with birthing a relationship to Black womanhood most suitable for her.

I am forever grateful for Issa Rae, a woman who takes the phrase “girls like us” to an emotionally relatable level. By making her story known, Rae demystifies the idea that Blackness is natural: we sculpt, shift, and adapt to its fluidity based on our lived experiences.

Photo: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.