I was talking with a friend the other day and in the course of the conversation he turned to me and said, “Oh my God, you are a Huxtable.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I did a little bit of both. It’s true. My mother is a doctor (of Philosophy) and my father is a bona fide lawyer. So I decided this morning that I’d submit a little contribution to the oftentimes aggravating discussion on what it means to be Black in America.
I grew up in a middle class, African American family and due to the sacrifices of my parents and their parents before them, I have been afforded opportunities in education and a feeling of overall safety that many people don’t enjoy in this life.
So what’s wrong with that, right? Everybody wants to be a Huxtable, right? Two working professional parents who are always there for you. Five kids, none of them in jail, all of them college educated or college bound. Gorgeous home, friendly neighbors, sounds like the life, right?
But does anyone remember Sondra, the eldest daughter and what happened right after she and her husband Elvin graduated from Princeton? Yeah, this is the part we don’t talk about. They scared the crap out of both their families and decided to open a wilderness store. Did anyone ever ask the question why they felt the need to do that? I see this as their attempt to find the things they were passionate about and in truth I really admire them for taking a bold step like that. I mean, everyone laughed at them but at least they took the risk to figure out what they really wanted apart from what everyone else in their lives wanted FOR them. I think Huxtable kids have all kinds of expectations heaped onto their backs because they were raised without having to work jobs to support their families as children and some people will go to the extent of calling them spoiled and under motivated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Those kids don’t know the meaning of hard work.” I think it depends on your definition of hard work.
As a child I volunteered at the public library, did church work, took advanced classes, participated in extracurricular activities, the whole gambit. I even worked a real job a couple of summers so that I could make money of my own to buy things for my college dorm. But as hard as I worked and as much energy and time as I put into these activities to be the best, there are people who don’t think anything I just listed above is hard work. Okay, so I didn’t pick cotton, trust me, all this stuff I did was HARD work.
It’s hard work doing things that aren’t your passion. Doing things you feel duty bound to do. Preparing yourself to step into some great and larger destiny that stands on the shoulders of your ancestors and positions you to lift up the generation coming behind you. Yes, I know the definition of hard work, work that can break your mind just like a plow can break your back. In fact, if my work was easy then I’d like to see some of these nay sayers walk a mile in my shoes.
Being black, middle class and desirous of a professional career can in a very real way cut you off from most of the support networks that by definition you should have a right to participate in. You are often shunned by the “black community” at large for acting like you are a white person or making yourself appear smarter than other people. You’re not completely accepted by the “white community” because you’re visibly black. And don’t assume this is an overt act of racism because it’s not. People are most comfortable being surrounded by people who look like them and talk like them and think like them. It is unnatural to be drawn to people who are different from you. That being said, we are also learning as a society that there are GREAT benefits to reaching across those borders and exposing ourselves to different and different cultures even when it feels uncomfortable at times.
But can you imagine having to live in that uncomfortable zone everyday in your head?
That’s what it feels like to me. I belong everywhere and nowhere and it makes for an emotionally exhausting battle on a daily basis and there is no easy solution to this.
Being black, female and the product of a middle class upbrining in America, my main struggle is to figure out how to balance my personal happiness with the things I feel duty bound to do as a woman, as a black woman, as an American with unconfirmable foreign ancestry that is ever so neatly stuffed into the census designation “black-African-American (non Hispanic)” which could be a lie by the way because I have no way of knowing whether I have an Hispanic heritage. Add on top of that the choice I make to be a Christian and you really have a fun pot of stew.
I feel the pull of so many other peoples’ expectations on me and honest to God I wonder if I stopped doing what other people want me to do and only focused on the things that make me happy would those other people still want anything to do with me? Am I a friend or am I a commodity?
Now, don’t get mad at me (actually if you want to I don’t really care) but how realistic do you really think the Cosby Show is? I don’t think that Bill Cosby created the show with the intent of saying that is how a black family is supposed to be. I think Cosby was trying to expand our definition of success, not create a ruler by which we constantly feel compelled to measure ourselves. Life is not a situation comedy!
I’m going to close with the lyrics of one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Aida. This song is called “Dance of the Robe” and it speaks to the battle this woman faced in choosing to live her life for herself or for her people. I couldn’t in good conscious post the link to the bootleg recording of Heather Headley’s performance of this song but there is one out in Cyberspace. If you can see the musical you should really do so because it is quiet moving.
Dance of the Robe from AIDA, the Musical
Aida: It’s knowing what they want of me that scares me It’s knowing having followed that I must lead It’s knowing that each person there compares me To those in my past whom I now succeed But how can whatever I do for them now Be enough Be enough
Nubians: Aida! Aida! All we ask of you Is a lifetime of service, wisdom, courage To ask more would be selfish But nothing less will do Aida! Aida!
Nehebka: Your robe should be golden, your robe should be perfect Instead of this ragged concoction of thread But may you be moved by its desperate beauty To give us new life for we’d rather be dead Than live in the squalor and shame of the slave To the dance! To the dance!
Nubians: Aida! Aida! All we ask of you
All we ask is a lifetime of Service, wisdom, courage To ask more would be selfish But nothing less will do Aida! Aida!
Aida! Aida! Aida! Aida! Aida!
Aida: I know expectations are wild and almost Beyond my fulfillment but they won’t hear A word about doubt or see signs of weakness My royal impassible duty is clear but If I can rekindle my ancestors’ dreams It’s enough It’s enough
Nubians: Aida! Aida! Aida! Aida! Aida!
Aida: It’s enough