My estrangement from the black community happened really early. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot going for myself when I was a wee leveret; I was mousy and had strange interests, and my mother was an older woman who had adopted me and my sister even though she had her own problems. We didn’t have much money, we didn’t share the same religion that everyone else did, and I didn’t have the temperament that let me overcome any of that.
So I was teased a lot in school. I had a few friends, but even they were fickle in the singular way boys are. I tried to keep my head down and be a good kid for the most part. I was only really passionate about school and books — I read just about any science-fiction and fantasy stuff I could get my hands on. I loved The Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia. I wanted to live in fairy tales, where you could actually live in the forests and wild animals were your neighbors. I wished I could be more graceful, playful, charismatic, less afraid.
Over the years, there would be a few chances to connect with various pockets of community — but at a price. In order to fit in at school, I would need to develop a swagger that didn’t come naturally. I wore suits to stand out from my peers; I gave myself nicknames and personality traits to see how they fit. In high school, I developed an offensively-stereotypical Australian character for writing advice columns in the school newspaper. None of it really fit. At church, I could sink in with a group of people if I filled my days with trying to evangelize the Word that I couldn’t bring myself to see as the truth; some of my brothers and sisters there liked more of the same things I did, but I couldn’t share my love of fantasy for fear of being labeled as a dallier with the demonic.
In my junior year of high school I discovered the furry fandom. When I graduated, I had plans to work a lot, save my money and go to a tiny liberal arts college in the south of Maryland to get a pre-veterinary degree. The tenuous bonds I had to the communities of my youth were completely severed there. I found acceptance in the theatre geeks and pagans on campus; there was only condemnation and “prayers for my soul” among the other black people. This fit with my previous experience; the only place I felt I could truly be myself, where I felt ultimately accepted, were with the sci-fi/fantasy geeks. As I’m sure you could imagine, almost all of them were white.
It’s been about 15 years since then, and I haven’t felt the need to double back towards the community I’ve always felt rejected by until now. This year has been something of a revelation for me about race. Through Ryan’s involvement with Clarion, I’ve learned that there’s an entire community full of people with one foot in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom that I love while keeping one foot steeped in the traditions and interests of our shared ancestry. Afro-futurism is an excitingly new concept to me, and a great chance to learn about narratives other than the ones I’ve been exposed to. For the first time, I can actually read stories written by people like me, about people like me, dealing with things that I can personally relate to. It’s a chance to construct our own stories, determine who we are, to respond and contrast to the things that are said about us in our own words. It’s a delicious idea.
I’ve also been exposed to more intense and varied forms of racism this year than I ever have been through my entire life. What’s happened in Ferguson, MO (and Ohio, and Nevada, and Florida, and New York…) and the reaction to it has opened my eyes about the many, many forms inequality can have in this world, and how people like me are still subjected to it. Even though I don’t feel like I’ve been a part of the black community for a long time, I couldn’t sit by any longer and watch this happening without saying something, without doing something. Speaking up about this exposed me to really surprising viewpoints, and showed me that even if I haven’t considered myself a member of the black community, I was going to be seen and treated like one.
This has forced me to confront my place — not only how I see myself, but how others see me and where I feel I should be right now. I think, after all this time, it’s time to reunite with my heritage and background. I can do so on my terms, and lend my own voice to the diaspora of the many African-Americans making their way through this deeply fragmented country.
So, this year, I plan to observe Kwanzaa. I know the reputation it has among the African-American community, and I definitely know it doesn’t fare much better outside of that. But I think it’s a great gateway towards reconnecting with my heritage, and I’m hoping that an honest examination of it will help to make it my own. I want this to be a legitimate celebration where honest discussion doesn’t necessarily mean that I take the holiday too seriously; there needs to be a sense of perspective and joy that weaves through the proceedings.
Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, which celebrates Unity (Umoja). I’m happy that I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel the need to reconnect with my roots, and I’m overjoyed to have found a small branch of my ancestral tree that shares my interests and priorities. At the same time, I feel well and truly planted in many communities already — this virtual one I’m speaking with now; the wonderful group of intelligent, hard-working writers and artists I’ve had the great fortune of knowing for over a decade; countless friends, guides and teachers who have shaped me into the man I am today, spread out across the country and the globe. Far from narrowing my focus towards one part of myself that’s been neglected for a while, I feel that this sense of unity has expanded my ability to consider all of myself, and the many varied relationships I have with the world around me.
So that’s my focus today. I’d like to open myself up to kinship with the people around me, to unite with my fellow black geeks and well — anyone else I come across. There’s always a way to feel connected to someone, even if you think you couldn’t be further apart.