A couple of weeks ago, I viewed an exhibit called “Black Power!” At the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This Harlem library has extended this exhibit until the end of March, so if you’re in NYC, take a trip uptown (or downtown, in my case), and see it! More about who this Schomburg man was in another post…
The exhibit is a powerful and bold celebration of the fight for black liberation in NYC and around the world. I enjoyed the exhibit with my friend Saida, my black sister with a Haitian background. There stood two black girls who come from different linguistic backgrounds, with different skin colors, hair textures, and ethnic labels in this country, but we stood together. We both emotionally and spiritually identified with the exhibit. While surveying the pictures of the Black Panthers and Young Lords in their signature beret hats, we both exclaimed, “I want a beret!” (I still do, by the way. Berets are dope.)
Regarding the Young Lords’ presence in this exhibit, I was shocked to see them presented as participants in the struggle for black liberation. While it may be obvious to those more informed than me, I had never even heard of the Young Lords until a couple years ago in a Puerto Rican culture class at my university. That’s right, the only Puerto Rican history or culture I learned about in school was through ELECTIVE courses at my university in NYC. I can guarantee that the majority of universities around the country have no such courses, not even as electives. Does anyone else find that odd? Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony for over a century. We’ve been citizens for a century. Why isn’t our history taught alongside the brainwashing ahem ahem whitewashed version of history that’s forced on us? But, that’s another conversation. The Young Lords were an incredibly important part of the fight for black liberation. These were black Puerto Ricans luchando for their people and I was thrilled to see them included!
I’ve written before about my experience as an Afro-Puerto Rican woman in this country, but I truly felt the dissonance I’m accustomed to while viewing this exhibit. As I studied posters advocating for Angela Davis’ liberation from prison, posters that advertised Malcolm X’s talks around the city, and posters that just celebrated black beauty and the black family, I realized where I stand in this battle for black liberation.
Before this point, I had already felt a disconnect with other Latinos since childhood, especially if they were not of African descent. I think the language barrier was a big issue as well, but I definitely did not relate to most Latinos. In fact, I still don’t. Whenever I try to connect with Latinos, my lack of Spanish skills is immediately unearthed and shamed/questioned. My ambiguous looks raise questions about my ethnic background. My distinctly upstate New York accent is seen with contempt from a Washington Heights girl’s side-eye.
So I do the best I can to connect while recognizing that I will never entirely fit in to their world. However, there is a group of people I find extraordinarily accepting of me and my blackness: non-Latino black Americans. Before I realized that I have every right to call myself “black” and identify myself with the movement for black liberation, my black friends pointed out my blackness to me. My hair is afro-textured. My grandfather is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man. My ancestry is African. These friends absolutely welcome my blackness and encourage it. It’s never questioned by them at all. My Latino identity is not challenged by them either. They completely accept me. I’m not sure why they accept me more readily than my fellow Latinos, but I think language has a large part in it. Putting language aside, I know that it’s rare for a Latino of African descent to proudly proclaim their blackness. It’s actually quite uncommon.
So for me to galavant around Inwood, where many Dominicans live, and shout out my blackness is jarring! I wear my hair in its natural state. I don my coat with pins that say things like “YLO” (Young Lords Organization) and “Pedro Albizu Campos” (a famous Puerto Rican freedom fighter). Most of the older generation don’t identify as black. The younger generation typically follows in their footsteps, by religiously straightening their hair and calling themselves “Latina, not black.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, people!
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while I would love to be welcomed with open arms into the Latino community, I am not. The non-Latino black community is more than welcoming to me. I understand that as an Afro-Puerto Rican and German-American woman with strong ties to India and an affinity for all things British and French, I will not fit in with any one community. I find myself easily weaving in between various cultures and groups of people. I thank God for this ability because the majority of people feel confined to their one ethnic group. God chose to create me to be a cross-cultural woman and I thank Him for that.