I grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood. My family was from the West Indies and my mom was pretty strict about what I wore and where I went. I knew I was Black, but I wasn’t Black in the same way as my peers. They became the metric to which I measured Blackness, and I kept missing the bar. They would comment on the ways I wasn’t “Black enough” because of my ignorance of their interests. I developed the habit of trying to catch up on the things I didn’t know, because somehow if I knew what they knew, they would see I was Black like them.
I often asked myself: is my Black okay?
Then, in the fall of 1993, when I was entering the 3rd grade, my teacher was a biracial woman, and it was the first time I felt truly seen at school. No, she wasn’t my first black teacher, my preschool teachers were a reflection of my mother and grandmother, familiar faces that made me feel at ease in my early years. This teacher entered my life when I was beginning to explore my racial identity. She introduced the words “stereotype,” “prejudice” and “equality” into my vocabulary. As a class we engaged in deep conversations about racism and the civil rights movement. She was the first one to speak openly of the racial discrimination she faced as a biracial woman living in New York. She held my attention and spoke to me in a way that not many teachers did or have since. She was the first one to expand my understanding of what it meant to be black.
She challenged the stereotypes of blackness held by my classmates, and helped us to understand where those ideas came from. The time in her class made me realize that black people are more than how we are perceived. We are more than the basketball players and rappers that populated my mind. Her impact was so profound that it was at the forefront of my mind when I was stopped by a reporter a few months later.
It was a crisp Saturday afternoon, and my uncle had dragged me down to South Street Seaport for some reason I can’t remember, when a reporter for the New York Post stopped us. He was interviewing New Yorkers to see what advice we would give to the newly appointed mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Without hesitation I said, “I think the mayor should hire more black teachers because at the school I go, there aren’t any.” I made sure I spoke clearly into his recorder. I watched as he wrote down my name, then my uncle’s, he thanked us and was gone. We walked away laughing and excited at what happened. The fact that I went to a private school and the mayor had no say over their hiring practice was lost on me. I was proud at the thought that my words might reach the mayor and that other brown kids like me would get to see themselves in their teacher.
My pride slowly turned to dread once the paper came out and I realized my classmates and teachers would see. My 9 year old brain feared that I had turned into the villian of my social studies lessons. Was I being unfair to my other teachers for expressing my preference for my black teacher? Was I racist? What would my teacher think?
I was just as nervous when I walked up to my teacher to tell her what I had done. While I don’t remember the exact words she said, I remember being put at ease and having my feelings validated. When I think back on this moment I remember feeling compelled to share my statement with the community and being encouraged by my proud teacher to do so. At the next school assembly, I asked my community if my quote was racist.
As my question departed my lips, I remember hands going up and thoughts being shared. I remember not caring about what they said. I realized in that moment I had exposed an important truth, black teachers matter. Representation matters. I didn’t care if my classmates thought I was racist, I knew I wasn’t, I just liked my teacher and thought there should be more like her. The assembly was over and the memory fades off.
The mayor didn’t listen to me and the number of black teachers at my school didn’t increase. I continued to compare myself to my peers, trying to understand my own blackness. It wasn’t until college, where I had had enough experience with Black friends who shared my culture and interests, that I was able to feel comfortable with my Black identity.
Today, we can see proof that we are evolving our definitions of what it means to be Black. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in her TED talk describes how powerful images can be in people’s understanding of themselves and each other, and images help to initiate a dialogue about the subject. The image of black bodies through the ages has been that of degradation, humiliation and fear. Blackness has also been displayed as a source of great pride, beauty, and grace. Today we are exposed, through different forms of media, to the expanding landscape of Black identity. Kids today don’t know how good they’ve got it. Think about it: today there’s a kaleidoscope of black images to explore. They only need to click a button or enter a hashtag to see their many identities represented. From book lover to dancer, gamer to fashion designer, programmer to business owners; the black image cannot be pinned down to a singularity.
My personal journey took a new direction in 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed and everything shifted. Injustice was on full display and it made me sick. Initially, I tried not to watch the news. I couldn’t stand the sight of watching grown White people justify the killing of children. It was all too surreal. I felt helpless, unsafe, and lost in a country that claims to be so free. How could I feel free when Black people are under attack?
In 2014, in response to Mike Brown, there was this rage swirling in me that I could not manage. I felt an intense need to disrupt what was happening. I took to the streets with my kin. Surrounded by allies – Black and Brown people of all identities, united to assert that #BlackLivesMatter – I was able to give my rage an outlet. We are here, and we aren’t going anywhere. One of the thirteen guiding principles of the movement, Unapologetically Black is an unyielding stance in achieving the goal of justice and freedom.
I came to my understanding of my Blackness through the privilege of being able to dialogue with other black people. My Blackness is now uncompromising and I don’t care who might be uncomfortable. My Blackness demands justice and respect. My Blackness is rooted in love for myself and my community. My Blackness is a commitment to be active and aware. My Blackness is accepting of all who share this belief – regardless of identity. The current political climate does not allow us the luxury to make excuses or be passive. Stand strong in your convictions and be the change. Fight for the existence you’ve created. Live unapologetically.
Shani Brignolle has lived most of her life in New York City and began teaching seven years ago. She is currently teaching 5th grade at a Manhattan private school. She loves to use humor as a way of connecting with her students. When not in the classroom, Shani enjoys spending time with her husband and friends, as well as watching obscure shows on Netflix.