I’m also certain we’re created to explore, learn and grow, not exist solely within the confines of stereotypes.
And I’m absolutely positive we have the right to exercise our freedom of personal choice.
But every now and then I enter some awkward territory with someone who takes those beliefs, crumples them like college-ruled paper filled with poorly written lecture notes and tosses them back to you to rewrite.
It’s a meh weekday morning. I walk over to the stove where a cast iron frying pan is heating up so a relative and I can cook breakfast. I glance towards her while she’s prepping our meal and I think, We’re not eating bacon today. I say:
“I like mine sliced thin.”
She lets out a quick puff of air as the knife strikes the countertop with a sharp echo. One long speckled slice of the pork-grain mix already rests alongside the block. She slams the knife down to coat the hot frying pan with a teaspoon of cooking oil. Her breath was the type of exhale that lets you know that you’ve struck a nerve even though it was the only comment or request you’ve made that day.
“What difference does it make if it’s thick or thin!” she snaps, her tone too indignant for some scrapple.
“Because then it’s mushy,” I calmly reply as I retrieve a small pan and fill it with water to make hard-boiled eggs.
Scrapple isn’t my breakfast favorite – bacon is – but as a rural Mid-Atlantic native, I grew up eating it. And I continue to eat it although I know it’s made from the scraps of a pig’s head, heart and liver. I also know the scrapped meat is practically boiled to pieces, later mixed with cornmeal and ultimately formed into a slimy, congealed loaf that we slice and fry to a savory goodness.
The truth is I kinda like it. And while most of my #teamscrapple cohorts drench it in pancake syrup or cook it soft and then scramble it with eggs for their solid-eating infants, I prefer it alongside that boiled egg. However we adults all agree on one thing: There needs to be some crunch.
Or so I assumed.
“I like mine thin and crispy,” I clarify.
“Well that’s how you ‘high-society’ people think!” she retorts.
I let those words swirl and expand until they bounce off the kitchen walls and deflate, small enough for me to inhale them. It takes me a few seconds to process what she says.
Did she just try to formulate a correlation between class and the desired texture of some scrapple?
It’s not a correlation problem I’ve found in my statistics book.
My first instinct is to clap back but I was temporarily taken aback by the fact that the person who threw the eclipse-level shade was an older family member, someone with whom I thought I could share space and comfortably be me. I was already accustomed to being the seemingly unending target of the “b-word” and its first cousins – high saddity, uppity and stuck up – from everyone else.
Associates and strangers alike formulated their opinions of my choice to attend my alma mater “with the bougie folk” over a less expensive college as if I couldn’t have honestly liked that program, campus and proximity to my hometown the best. Those ill feelings only intensified when I started looking at Ivy League schools for business school.
They made slick statements about my sunglasses, my nails, my clothing, my standing 4 p.m. on Thursday biweekly hair appointment even if my hair didn’t look like it needed to be done.
“Girl, if you have nothing better to do with your money,” the salon receptionist said, while laughing and holding out her hand, “give it to me.”
And then there was that dinner.
A cousin and I had ventured to a friend of a friend’s house this particular Sunday evening and the friend of a friend decided to fry chicken wings – my favorite part of the bird, mind you—for all of us. Our manners suggested we decline or even leave, reminded us that we were only last-minute visitors who came for the laughs and the libations. But the aroma of those seasonings convinced us to stay and feast.
The wings were deep golden-crusted, an image of those from those hole-in-a-wall food joints that have you individually licking all of your fingers, on both hands, after every greasy, steamy bite. Oh, we were staying.
We grabbed our plates off of the back of the kitchen table but then I was suddenly startled. I thought I detected a sudden, yet subtle, movement out of the corner of my right eye. Like a quick shadow when you’re sitting at home, alone at night, watching a horror flick knowing you should’ve watched it in the daylight hours. However, nothing was there, at least not at that very second. I glanced at my cousin for confirmation. It seemed she was eyeing the chicken.
So I reached for a wing. And froze. I looked back pointedly at my cousin, who initiated a quick, cohesive escape plan with her three-second gaze.
Her: I don’t know if I really have the taste for chicken after all. You?
Me, right on cue: Eh, you know what? Me, either.
Her, to make it look good, as we replace our plates: I could really go for a sub…
Our host: Oh y’all some new bitches, huh?
If “new” meant not comfortably breaking chicken wings with the roaches, then, well, yeah, although another cousin once said years later, “I don’t know too many people who didn’t grow up with roaches.”
Yeah, uh, no, that wasn’t ever an attribute of my household.
Granted each of those encounters were surface-level. Superficial. They hovered slightly above what I ate, drank and wore and how I lived. But this scrapple incident? I felt it came from a deep-seeded place that finally found the ideal condition to sprout. It was almost as if I disrespected my elders and ancestors or dismissed a family tradition. But even my 81-year-old grandmother’s scrapple looked more like sausage patties than corned beef hash!
Part of me understood it. I grew up in a rural (i.e. repressed for those of us in that environment who look like me) community where certain thoughts, patterns and attributes sum up a typical black experience. We’re supposed to all have the same story, one that almost always starts from rock bottom, centers on lack, loss and hardships and climaxes at some long-term struggle before a blessing can even be realized and appreciated. We’re not exempt from that. There are no deviations or shortcuts. And there’s still no real glow-up in the end.
But there is a huge disconnect when those beliefs and experiences totally contrast with those in a flourishing community such as Bowie, Maryland, where the narrative doesn’t highlight that level of strife and humbleness as necessary precursors to growth and reward. Sure there are obstacles but there’s also opportunity, potential, progress and prosperity. Suddenly there’s also this unfair chatter about what typical black folk can’t, won’t or don’t do. We must think we’re better. We must want to assimilate within another culture. We must think we’re white. We all must have forgotten where we came from!
First, I don’t want to be constantly shamed for the things I’ve done, gotten or want.
Second, I don’t need to reenact the life of my ancestors for those things to ultimately be meaningful.
I wanted to explain to my relative that I remembered my humble roots; they actually hold my fondest memories like the radiating warmth from a wood-burning stove; the spaghetti and hamburgers with ketchup instead of sauce; the white artificial Christmas tree; the many nights watching Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing and Dallas on antenna television because there was no cable in my neighborhood; all those years when my mom was still alive.
Not once has my exposure to higher education and culture outside of my hometown compelled me to abandon my upbringing and heritage. Never had I thought I was suddenly immune to rampant racism or the daily microaggressions I encounter.
I lived it and I felt it.
I still do.
Like the time this hippie, middle-aged white man kept referring to me and my grandmother as “gals.”
Or like just last year when a Delaware state trooper decided to follow me and my cousin for over a mile, pull over when we stopped at a gas station, resume trailing us when we got back on the highway and finally pull us over wondering where we Virginians were coming from before noon.
My blackness is never diminished with every enunciated syllable I utter or each degree I attain.
It’s never diluted by the amount of champagne I pour into my freshly-squeezed orange juice. It doesn’t seep out with every yoga pose I strike or convert like currency in every international city I plan to visit.
I don’t try to whitewash my DNA by claiming at least 1% of something other than black.
I’m a dark-skinned black woman with 4A to 4C coils that shrink and knot up at the ends when I wear a curly ‘fro and absolutely refuse to slick back even with a hefty scoop of ECOstyler, which I’m totally okay with, by the way. The point is I’m comfortable in all my blackety blackness.
I absolutely love being a black woman.
With different preferences.
But I don’t tell my relative any of this because I didn’t want to come across as defensive or trying too hard or playing the white friend who decries racism because he has at least one black friend. Instead I blink and look at my angry relative, incredulously – like Seriously?! – as she goes back to her scrapple station and slashes yet another slice that’s too thick for me to swallow without gagging. I want to be ornery and let her cook it her way and then leave it on the plate for the trash can to eat it later because You were warned.
But I’m too hungry for that, and the two eggs I place on one of the stove’s back burners would hardly satisfy the growl in my stomach.
More importantly, in the words of baby vegan Tabitha Brown: I don’t have to because it’s my business.
“I’ll slice it myself,” I say as I reach for the knife. She actually storms off into the living room, leaving me to fry the varying widths of mush.
I later text family and friends about the incident, still somewhat stinging from the cut of the “high society” remark. Funny, everyone else also opts for thin, crispy scrapple.
We deduce they must be high-society, too.
Or maybe my relative’s thinking is a tad bit negative, limited and antiquated; she equates black with stagnant and monolithic rather than dynamic and diverse.
I like blurring the rigid lines of the proverbial box to construct a new shape, one that’s outside of some one-dimensional cultural norm of blackness and coloring it rich shades of ebony, onyx, carbon, charcoal or vanta.
I might even edge it with a bit of sangria and encrust it all with a sheath of glitter as delicate as butter-crisped scrapple because that’s just me.
But my preferences are nothing to get so irritated or angry about.
It’s still cheap ass scrapple.
And I’m still black.