According to research from the Urban Institute, I’m not supposed to be here.
According to the statistics, 75.4 percent of black children are poor at some point during childhood. Only 64 percent of those black children actually complete high school, but that dips to 52 percent if they were raised by a single mom. Given all those numbers — and so many more — statistically, I should not have the life I have today.
But here I am.
I was raised by a single mother who saw firsthand how black people were treated in this country when her Puerto Rican mother rejected my black father. There were various reasons, but near the top of that list — he was black. She saw how black children were treated by this country when that same black man — my father — kidnapped me, and the police failed to open an investigation. Instead, they let the case get buried in a stack of files on another officer’s desk. It wasn’t until a black detective accidentally found my file while looking for something else, that a case was opened and my mother was able to get me back. But I was gone for three months, in the hands of a man with a documented violent history.
Being black has always meant less in the eyes of this country, and for black people it has always meant we had to do more, give more, be more. Even right now, I’m giving you more of myself, even though I, as a black person in this country, am currently mourning and grieving with the rest of black America.
Being black has always meant I had to work harder in school because the underlying belief was that black people were not as smart or as capable as our white counterparts. So only As and Bs were accepted in my home.
Being black meant I wasn’t allowed to speak slang — ever. Because the underlying belief was that speaking African American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE, in public made you sound uneducated, and would close doors to opportunities. Opportunities that likely were not going to be afforded to me anyway.
Being black meant my hair was always relaxed or in braids because wearing my hair as it grows out of my head was seen as dirty, unkempt and unprofessional. An Afro, or a twist out, or dreadlocks weren’t seen as presentable, and as a lady — but first and foremost as a black person — I had to “look the part” if I wanted the part. That usually meant assimilating to the dominant white culture. I went along with it because as a child, I didn’t know better, and I did what my mama told me to do.
Being black meant keeping my hands at my sides when we went into stores, and staying close to my mother at all times. Because if black children were in a store with their hands in their pockets it was presumed they had stolen something.
Being black meant being 11-years-old while sitting at a bus stop and having someone yell the n-word out their window at me. Eyeing the rifle in the gun rack of their truck window, being black meant keeping my mouth shut if I wanted to stay alive.
That is what being black meant for me as a child.
Today, being black means working harder than my white counterparts, only to self-publish my children’s book about a black disabled child because “people weren’t ready for a story about a black girl with a disability.”
Today, being black means being told I am so well-spoken, so articulate, so well-versed.
Today, being black means staying one to two car lengths behind the police car ahead of me, for fear that I’ll get pulled over for breathing while driving — even though I’ve done nothing wrong and my tags and insurance are current.
Today, being black means checking my rear view mirror any time I pass a police car to see if they’re making a U-turn — even though I’ve done nothing wrong and my tags and insurance are current.
Today, being black means having to step aside on the sidewalk so I don’t get knocked over by the nonblack person walking toward me.
Today, being black means tipping 25 to 30 percent in restaurants because somehow, somewhere, a rumor was started that black folks don’t tip well.
Today, being black means having to choose my words very carefully, and watching my tone and volume when verbally expressing myself when I’m angry. Otherwise, I will be characterized as an angry black woman.
Today, being black means only being able to pull away from a white woman’s hand as she reaches out to touch my hair, knowing that if I slap her hand away I’ll be the one going to jail for assault.
Today, being black means having white men tell me they’ve “never kissed a black woman before,” at the end of a date.
And today, being black means trying to figure out how to explain to my disabled, black daughter why people who look like her, and people who look like me, are marching in the streets, screaming that our lives matter.
My daughter, if she could put words to her feelings, would tell you that she loves everyone. But somehow, I have to figure out how to explain to her that if she is ever in a situation where the police are involved, she needs to not act on her instinct, because she could end up dead.
I have to figure out how to quell her sunshine because not doing so could one day cost her life.
This is trauma. All of it. I was born with trauma encoded into my DNA and I will take trauma to the grave with me.
This is what it’s like to be black today.
This first-person piece was first presented as a keynote address by author Adiba Nelson in Arizona.