Jersey Black

Photo: Christina Joy
America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

When I tell people I’m from Jersey that usually garners one of three reactions:

  1. “Oh yeah what part, Newark?” Translation: All Black people from Jersey live in Newark.
  2. “Like Jersey Shore?!” Translation: That’s the most memorable Jersey reference I have.  
  3. “Oooooh so you’re a Jersey Girl?!” Translation: I still don’t know what this means because no one ever has a real answer when I ask.
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To all, I sigh or laugh to make them feel comfortable and then politely respond with the correct information.

I grew up in an immigrant-diverse Jersey suburb that no one’s ever heard of and that no one ever associates with black people from Jersey. I am from Central Jersey (#weexist). When I tell people I’m from the suburbs they usually assume my family is well off. I did not grow up rich by any means and my parents made sure we knew that. They made it seem like we were one step from poverty.

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I was also raised in the church. Specifically an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church or A.M.E. Zion for short. I was heavily involved in my church so I spent a lot of time there. From choirs to praise dancing and everything in between, you could find me at St. James at least three days a week.

Being black at church, where everyone was black, was always about proving how black I was to my peer group.

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Perth Amboy, NJ, is the town where I attended church and was where I originally started school. The majority of Perth Amboy is Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, a mix of other minorities and an insignificant amount of white people. When we moved a couple towns over to Iselin in the middle of my elementary years, it was like I lost all credibility for my blackness.

Iselin (at the time) was still a majority white town but the overall cultural influence was and remains Indian. The downtown area, renamed “India Square,” is lined with shops and restaurants where you can buy spices, saris (traditional Indian dress), get your ears pierced at 16 without parental consent (me and my friends took full advantage) and eat authentic Indian food.

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There is not an ounce of black culture in that town.

I went from being with the “appropriate” minorities for black kids to coexist with to uncharted territory. My church friends and I were ignorant of other cultures outside of those that resided in Perth Amboy, and being one of usually at most three to five black kids in my new classes at school didn’t make the transition any easier.

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After I moved, elementary school was the first place I remember being singled out for my blackness. Like being called Ludacris in my fourth grade class picture because my roller set had turned into an afro from the rain that morning on my walk to school. Every time I wore my hair in cornrows I was compared to Sean Paul by some peers.

Middle school was different because there were more kids from different elementary schools and by default more black kids. I was so happy to see more faces that looked like me. Sixth grade was where they started separating the “smart kids” from everyone else for english and math classes. I was a smart kid, so I started in honors english and math. These classes had the least amount of black kids in them than all my other classes and created a barrier between myself and other black kids in my grade.

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Some black kids assumed that the honors black kids thought we were better than the rest of them. Or that we “acted white” if we liked different things. One time in art class, we did this awesome collage project and our canvas was an old book. We painted over the pages with our favorite colors, added the pictures that represented stuff we liked, varnished the whole book, and put a hole on top to make it a wall piece. This other black girl in my class took one look at my open book collage and said:

“It looks like a white girl made that.”  

My collage was filled with all the things I was obsessed with at the time, like Sailor Moon, Pharrell, Gwen Stefani, S Club 7 and a bunch of other people and things that were apparently not on the list of things black girls are supposed to like.

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In high school, there were even more black and Hispanic kids but I was immersed in the arts and still taking honors courses. I was a choir kid. Almost every choir you could think of, I was in and I loved it. The arts and honors crowds overlapped so I was always taking classes with the same black kids I had been with since middle school. However, being in those classes I dealt with an entirely different beast.

Speaking on behalf and representing the entire race.

I will never forget reading A Raisin in the Sun in English class aloud. One of the Indian girls in my class was about to read the word “nigger” from the text and she paused to look at me (the closest black person in her proximity) unconsciously for approval. My white male teacher, Mr. Koch, called her out: “Did you just look at Christina for her permission?! She is not the empress of all black people!”

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I didn’t know whether to be offended or honored, so I just laughed and so did the rest of the class.

When I arrived at Howard University, I didn’t know what to expect. One of my friends warned me against the “bougie blacks” that were said to be at historically black colleges and universities. However, nothing shook the feeling I got when I visited my best friend at Howard during my last year in high school; I was home.

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I never had to prove how black I was at Howard.

I was in the land of all the smart black kids that made it, from every walk of life. I found the artsy choir kids, the hardcore hip-hop fans and everyone in between, including a few Indian friends. Howard allowed me to just be and experience my people and others as simply people. There was something for everyone and no one to shame you for liking it. (Well, mostly.) Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But I knew I was welcome, without qualifiers.

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Howard taught me my black is beautiful while Washington, D.C., taught me the black community is beautiful.

D.C. was the first place I experienced black culture holistically. Back in Jersey I needed to be in certain spaces to find it. D.C. is steeped in black culture and people who perpetuate it. There may be some more cream than before but I was perplexed my freshman year (2011) when my English professor proclaimed that “D.C. used to be Chocolate City.”

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Past tense?! From my perspective D.C. was the first place I saw the beauty and abundance of black people. D.C. and Howard showed me all the diversity there was amongst my people. Whether it was meeting another person from a different Jersey suburb (there were many) or meeting someone born and raised Uptown, I was shown on a daily basis that we were not a monolithic people, and it was amazing.

The warm energy from being around D.C. folks is intoxicating. I have never felt so loved because I am a black woman until I moved here. A lot of that energy comes from men, which can obviously be annoying or even inappropriate at times, but other times hearing a simple “Have a blessed day, Queen!” always brightens up my day. Even D.C. hair culture oozes Black Love. From pink wigs to blonde locs every type of hairstyle is accepted here and it makes me feel free.

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I own a magazine for black-owned businesses called Our Black Book, where we tell the stories of black businesses and their owners. Not a week goes by now that I am not asked for a recommendation on where to eat, where to buy gifts or where to get your nails done because people know, that I seek to support black people, especially in the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia). Our Black Book has allowed me to experience the District in a whole new light and find even more reasons to keep loving and fighting for my people.

These days, instead proving how black I am, I am sought out for how Black I am.

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