Orgullosamente Negra, Orgullosamente Yo.
"Who do people say that I am?...Who do you say I am?", Jesus asked his disciples one day. Some told him what folks were saying on the grapevine. One disciple, affectionately called "The Rock" (way before Dwayne Johnson btw), said to him: "You are the Christ."
There is nothing inherently wrong with labels; with being named by others based on their perception of who you are and how you present. I'll say it again: LABELS ARE NOT BAD.
In my town, I'm labeled as "Bailoterapia Teacher"... which is totally accurate since I teach dancercise classes almost every day. This week, I was even invited to teach a class to my coworkers at the hospital!
We as humans are wired to create categories to make sense of the world we find ourselves in. When I was moving out of my house in Houston to prepare for my move to Ecuador, I organized my items semi-methodically (keyword: semi). It should be no surprise, then, to see how we also do this with our relationships and social interactions with one another. It's orderly. It's safe. It's comfortable.
History largely informs the way we label one another; the history of the United States, for example, has always had a racialized socio-economic structure and, as a result, hierarchy (aka caste system). One of the first labels we USAmericans receive (and give) whether we are fully cognizant or not of its meaning is our perceived racial category. I say "perceived" because there is an undeniable type of look associated with each racial category, whether you are willing to admit it or not. And with this hierachy comes pretty grim results in our society.
Por ejemplo, It is not by accident that the racial wealth gap is so ridiculous, it's almost unbelievable. Just look at it:
I know am perceived as Black lonnnnnnnnng before people every find out the entirety of my ethnic background (long story, no time). Yes, here in Ecuador too. It comes through where people assume my family is from ("Eres de Esmeraldas? Colombia? Venezuela?"… all locations with significantly higher Black populations than most parts of Ecuador). My Dad was once called a “guacho” by one of our taxi drivers, which is a term used to reference Black Colombians, with a derogatory connotation.
It may grind your gears if and when it happens to you. Indeed, it bothers me that my appearance flattens out my beautiful heritage. But I do not wholly reject the label of Black either, because it gives me the lens that I need to navigate a world (yep, not just the USA) that continues to be very committed to the darkness of anti-blackness in various ways. While my skin color and hair texture associates me with a very unique history as a child of the African diaspora, this label also helps me to protect myself against people who do not see Blackness as fully woman nor fully human.
Yes, in 2019.
But being identified by the world by my appearance and self-identifying as Black by my historical legacy also connects me to a group of people with whom I am very proud to be associated. It is possible to recognize the realities of society, yet embrace the power of a collective identity.
Ser Negra es belleza.
Some people say that our labels divide us; I believe they have the power — when fueled by love instead of fear — to foster stronger, more genuine bonds of relationship as opposed to a vague sense of unity just because the idea of it sounds nice.
I'm always proud of my last name, because it keeps me tied me in love to these four very special people. #BenjiClan
I should also note while Jesus was talking to his disciples, he ended the encounter by instructing them to never call him “The Christ” in public. I imagine that because he was planning to die for our sins, he had a specific plan that required people not learning of his full identity, his full story, until the moment was right for the purpose he intended. So it is likely that many people in the public eye still saw him as just a prophet, or a reincarnation of past Israelite heavy-hitters like Elijah and Jeremiah. Though these labels weren’t completely correct, Jesus accepted the misnomers because he knew it was better to honor his purpose than to make sure everyone around him got his identity 100% right. He knew who he was, and that was all that ultimately mattered.
I am currently reading a book by Jhumpa Lahiri called “The Namesake”, which follows an boy through manhood as a first-generation US American of Eastern Indian parentage. He struggles with identity throughout the whole story, even down to the fact that he is named — labeled — after a Russian writer. I don’t want to spoil the entire plot, but at the intersection of Bengali cultural norms, Hindu beliefs and American traditions, he learns he has a second name, and although he tries to invent himself under this newfound title, his first name still follows him and he is forced to reckon his historical identity with his present self. I am not sure where the story will end up, but I deeply hope that like Jesus’ story, he can find a way to uncover his truest self and purpose while honoring the identities from which he has come.
Since moving to Ecuador, I am more confused than ever about the trickiness of what it means to be Black in this world. More often than not, even as a person with roots in Latin America, I only see myself through the lens of US American culture. But I am more secure than ever before about who I am, the groups with which I choose to associate, and whose positive characteristics I choose to reflect (Hey Jesus). I embrace these labels, which means I often have to wrestle with how the world perceives me and how I perceive myself.
The world may never get it 100% correct, but that won't stop me from knowing the fulness of who I am. I also recognize that I can only fully reveal my complete, complicated story to those who I trust will treat it with care and love. What the world meant for evil, God is turning around for my good and His glory.
Labels are a tool that help me towards achieving my purpose: to speak truth and bring light into dark places; to help others experience freedom in love through radical honesty; to be a peacemaker with God, with others, and most importantly, within myself.
Happy Black History Month!