Books

Excerpt from Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success

The Black Bourgeois Blues

That girl was staring at me, I could feel it from across the room.

Tugging surreptitiously at the hem of my miniskirt, I pushed my way through the crowd and poured myself another drink from the makeshift bar. A second paper cupful of cheap Chianti did little to relieve my anxiety.

I didn't know a soul in the room.

It was September 1969, and I was attending my first-ever party as a college student. I had never lived away from home before, and hard as I was trying to hide it, I had never tasted an alcoholic drink before that night. More than anything, I wanted to be as cool as the other longhaired, blue-jeaned flower children who filled the small apartment. Jefferson Airplane's music poured from a colossal speaker propped on a milk crate in the corner. "Don't you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love?" screamed Grace Slick. Yes I did. Desperately.

Clutching my drink, I took a deep breath and headed toward the kitchen. When I turned around, the girl was standing right in front of me. She was staring even harder.

"What are you?" she said, inspecting me through her granny glasses.

"Excuse me?"

"What are you? You know, what country are you from?"

"I'm American. I was born in Chicago."

Clearly unsatisfied, she twirled a lock of strawberry blonde hair between her fingers.

"You know what I mean. I mean, what ethnicity are you?"

Here we go again, I thought. A familiar knot began to tighten in my gut. I looked around for someone else to talk to, but the girl had planted herself directly in my path. There was no escape."I'm black," I replied, using the terminology of the day.

A wrinkle of irritation creased her face and twisted her thin lips into a pout. "No you're not," she said. "Your skin is nowhere near black. You're more like tan. Are you Israeli?"

"I told you, I'm black." My mother had raised me to be polite to strangers, but this was getting ridiculous. The girl's high twangy voice reverberated across the room, and a small crowd began to gather.

"I know. One of your parents must be white, then," an onlooker piped up.

"You definitely don't talk like a black person," offered another voice from the back of the room.

"Yeah. You don't even have a southern accent."

This was getting way out of hand. "I'm black. Both my parents are black. My whole family is black. Excuse me."  Abandoning all hope of ever fitting in with this crowd, I pushed past my tormentors and fled into the crisp September night.

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