Shortly after I entered the world via Detroit’s now-shuttered Grace Hospital one summer day in 1981, I set upon what was an unmistakably black-ass upbringing in one of America’s chocolatiest cities.
That which we refer to as “black people shit” as an adult was simply childhood by default: a quarter for a baggie of assorted candies. High-top fades and loud rayon shirts. “You can ride your bike from this block to that block, but don’t dare cross 7 Mile by yourself.” Pastors chewing up your whole Sunday morning to make a point they never really had. “Red” flavored Kool-Aid with buckets of sugar. Kente cloth-rocking teachers who smelled of incense teaching you stuff the winners didn’t write in their textbooks. Blackity-black shit.
Despite an intrinsic understanding of the blackness all around me, I still allowed someone’s idiot kid or two to convince me at a very young age that with my fair skin, hazel eyes and then-reddish-blonde hair, I wasn’t actually black. My doubts regarding my own ethnicity didn’t even make it to puberty; what did endure was my father’s (mis)treatment of my nascent black identity.
When my parents divorced in the mid-1980s, my father retained primary custody of my younger sister and me. We saw our mama several times a week, every week. But I lived under my dad’s roof, and he was my personal superhero, so he played the most pivotal role in my developing identity.
He grew up in rural Louisiana, the youngest of five siblings to an educator mother and a father who passed away when he was 10. The Seiberts were dumb poor, so he had to pick cotton as a boy in lieu of attending school from time to time. When he was very young, he and his family were forced to reside in former slave quarters for periods of time. As a teenager, he participated in protests for the right to share a lunch counter with white folks.
Despite all of that, he had no interest in fostering his children’s black identity for reasons that still elude me. He didn’t really talk about race at all. I asked him, “what are we?” He responded, “You’re human.” I asked him, “Does racism still exist like it did when you were a kid?” He responded, “A little bit.” When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, he got aggravated with me for wearing a “Black at Michigan” T-shirt because he figured that stating the obvious was an unnecessary political statement that could harm my chances of getting into the business school.
Even as an adult, I’m reticent to ask him why he didn’t raise us to be black and proud, perhaps because I fear whatever answer he’d give. My dad was an MBA graduate from Clark Atlanta University who retired from General Motors after more than 45 years (during which he also obtained his law degree), so I surmise that it had to do with feeling that he had to mute his own blackness in order to succeed. Which is certainly not unique to professional black men of his generation.
The waters of my identity were muddied even further by the fact that my mother was the last black woman I ever saw him with. He married my current stepmother, a blonde white woman, in 1990; with her, I spent a lot of time in the primarily white suburbs of Oakland County. We spent Christmases at her family’s home outside of Grand Rapids—hours from Detroit—where there was a pool table, hot tub, a huge flat-screen television and other amenities I’d never see at my grandmama’s westside Detroit crib.
My stepmother inadvertently criticized aspects of my blackness: I understood code-switching well before I knew what it was called, but she tried to convince me that my black vernacular was a sign of ignorance and often corrected my language. She wore a “One Race: Human” T-shirt and was possessed of an All Lives Matter mindset.
Thing is, I wanted that T-shirt. I didn’t yet understand the concept of white supremacy, so I also didn’t understand the toxicity of the shirt’s message. I was all about togetherness and United Colors of Benetton ads and shit. I was Carlton in the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when he and Will were pulled over by the white cops: I believed most white folks were generally well-meaning, even when it came at our detriment.
I went away to Michigan with a still-tenuous black identity. Sure, black lives mattered, but I gave white people too many excuses. My closest friends were black, but I still laughed off the drunk white girl who pointed at the black fist pick coming out of my afro, yelling “PEACE, BROTHA!” while throwing up her alabaster power fist. The seeds of my current black identity were planted after my freshman year, especially when I joined H.E.A.D.S., an organization that supports and encourages black male achievement. Every Monday, we met and shared, among other things, our endurance of whiteness that ranged from innocuous to threatening.
These conversations and connections helped contextualize certain experiences: The numerous times my vehicle was followed and pulled over by the police. The white dude who told me to “get back south of 8 Mile with that” when he heard me swearing with my friends as a teenager. The university’s public safety office banning me from an entire dormitory under threat of arrest because two white girls told them I threatened to blow their heads off with a shotgun through entirely fabricated AOL Instant Messenger conversations.
It was also a politically fertile period for the university: the 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger United States Supreme Court case involving affirmative action admissions policies put a national spotlight on the university. The school’s small black population frequently marched and protested over the myriad micro- and macroaggressions we endured on campus.
When I entered my 20s and moved to Chicago, gone was the uncertain black kid who went away to college; in his place was a black man who was increasingly pissed the fuck off.
It took age, education and a spectrum of experiences for my blackness to evolve to what it is now. I look back on how naïve I was, not with disgust but with appreciation that I’ve come so far.
I believe my father’s black identity has evolved as well: As he approaches 70, he talks about white people in ways that he never came close to in my childhood—be it the old-boy network he had to navigate for decades at his job or complaining about Donald Trump and all the Republicans he’d happily usher to an island and bomb the shit out of.
He’s now the angriest black man I know, and I see a future version of myself in him. If that’s how my blackness will continue to evolve, that’s fine by me.