Based on their field work in U.S. high schools, Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu identified a common psychological pattern found among African American high school students at this stage of identity development.1 They observed that the anger and resentment that adolescents feel in response to their growing awareness of the systemic exclusion of Black people from full participation in U. S. society leads to the development of an oppositional social identity. This oppositional stance both protects one’s identity from the psychological assault of racism and keeps the dominant group at a distance…Sometimes the emergence of an oppositional identity can be quite dramatic, as the young person tries on a new persona almost overnight…There is a certain “in your face” quality that these adolescents can take on…We need to understand that in racially mixed settings, racial grouping is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism. Joining one’s peers for support in the face of stress is a positive coping strategy.
In the above excerpt from her book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?,(59-62) Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum explained why I as a teenage did what I did. As Dr. Daniel Tatum does so well, she describes the “whys” behind behavior that I put on like an old familiar coat.
In my late grade school\early high school years, I began to understand that I was part of an unequal system which left me with very little control. The frustration I felt from this realization created a slow boiling anger in me that simmered at 211 degrees; just one degree below boiling. There were times that something insignificant would provide enough heat for me to reach the point of boiling and I would explode all over whoever was around me. You combine this with vats of testosterone and hormones pumping through my veins and you have the makings of someone who is very difficult to live with, I’m sure. You combine all that with the fact that I am surrounded by my white family who I didn’t think understood just how unequal society was and it is a wonder I didn’t just run out of the house screaming.
I found my relief valve in my black friends who understood what I was thinking and feeling. Very often we would get together and just let go of the oppression that we felt on our boney but expanding adolescent shoulders. It was in my time of oppositional identity, that rap music provided an additional relief valve. In the lyrics of other black teenagers I found understanding, in groups like NWA(Niggas with Attitudes) and Public Enemy who co-signed my belief that society was slanted against me and in their words and “in your face” attitude, I found anger and a calming peace.
Also during this time, I sat at my dining room table with my friends and wrote rap song after rap song about this stressor called racism and raged against the white machine that we thought ran society. In the kitchen about 30 feet away my mother busied herself making dinner, listening to us recite one offensive rap after another as her son, Bam Bam(my rap name, named after Bam Bam from the Flintstones, because I too was small but powerful–at least I thought I was) joined in.
This was, as Dr. Danial Tatum says, my coping strategy and in this setting I was able to bond with others who felt like I did.
Recently, I sat on a panel with my mother in front of a group of woman who had read my book, Growing Up Black In White. In the book I described this time and the scenario of my friends and I sitting at the dining room table sharing our raps all within ear shot of my mother. At the panel discussion someone asked my Mom what she thought of the raps and my mother’s response floored me.
Very flatly, she said, “They were right.”
I almost fell off the stage we were on.
“They were growing up in an unequal society and had every right to say what they were saying. They could have cleaned up the words a little bit, but what they were speaking about was true.”
I never knew that Mom understood things on such a deep level. As a white mother of a black child she somehow understood the importance of this relief valve AND she understood why I felt as we did. I always thought Mom and Dad just didn’t understand but they did at a level I can barely comprehend today.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder about the rich conversations we could have had about racism and racial identity and my struggle to figure it all out. What a great bonding experience that could have been.
1 S. Fordham & J. Ogbu, “Black Student’s school success: Coping with the burden of ‘acting White.'” Urban Review 18(1986) 176-206