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In James Baldwin’s short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” the narrator, an expatriate, describes being a person of color in Paris and the United States. He says, “I had to get back here, get to a place where people are too busy with their own lives, their private lives, to make fantasies about mine, to set up walls around mine.” While the narrator wants to remain in a different country, I didn’t have the same desire. When my family and I moved abroad I initially wanted to “get back” to the United States. I am a third culture kid––a person who, according to sociologist Ruth Useem, spends a significant part of their life in a foreign country. A third culture kid, or TCK, grows up outside of the first culture of their parents in the second culture of their adopted country. They interact with a third culture of expatriates and other individuals from their home country and develop an individual sense of culture that mixes the first and second. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the period I lived abroad would be integral in my journey of blackness.
In 2005, at the age of eleven, I moved with my family to South Africa. Though we emigrated to do missionary work, our time there didn’t match normal conceptions of Christian missionary life. We planted our roots in middle-class suburbia near the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg. Living within that environment of race and class privilege had an enormous impact on me. Though my melanin skin placed me in black South African majority culture, my black American ethnicity made me feel somewhat like an outsider. Sometimes I’d be addressed in Zulu, one of the main languages of the black majority. When I replied in English that I couldn’t understand, I would receive a look of shock, confusion, and even disgust.
My access to black majority culture was doubly-restricted in the two suburban communities I lived in. Northcliff was first, with its high walls, security dogs, electric and razor-wire fences and private security. Parkhurst came five years after, with its hipster coffee shops, dog parks, fashion boutiques, and trendy restaurants. These majority-white neighborhoods had an unconscious effect on me. I began to associate crime and poverty with black South Africans. I perceived whiteness in much of the same way it has always been portrayed: valuable, superior, safe. Blackness was cheap, chaotic, and dangerous. My environment of white class and racial privilege caused me to internalize this view of reality.
What sparked a change in my journey of blackness was watching the film Malcolm X. I remember watching the film alone in my bedroom. It ended with scenes of black children standing up from their classroom seats and declaring, I am Malcolm X! Subconsciously I was saying these words too. I felt a new sense of blackness within me that I’d long suppressed. In that moment, a raging self-pride consumed me. The film caused me to develop a newfound interest and appreciation for black history, thought and culture. I immersed myself in the literary works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin, and devoured YouTube speeches and talks by intellectuals like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Dr. Cornel West. It was as if my mind and soul had struck a well of consciousness in a desert of Self. I began to reassess my relationship with white South African culture and start a deeper exploration of black culture in order to shape my identity as a black American and a third culture kid.
In the midst of this intense period of self-discovery and racial awakening, I returned to America for college. After nine years abroad, I had to adjust to the new reality of being a racial minority. In the weeks before my departure for college, my father gave me the talk most black fathers give their sons: what it means to be a black male in America. He warned me that I would encounter ignorance from people whose worldview didn’t extend past their own town limit. That I had to be careful in my interactions with men with badges whose perceptions of young black men were distorted by generations of misconceptions.
But what he stressed the most was that I find a community of individuals whose race resembled mine so that any sense of otherness I had could be erased. As he spoke, his words blended into the advice my late grandfather had given him when he entered college: When you get to school, make sure you find a brother who knows where to get a good haircut, and another who knows which parts of town are safe at night for black folks and which ones aren’t. I left South Africa armed with the wisdom of two generations. And yet, neither that, nor my third culture identity, could prepare me for the social climate that awaited 3000 miles across the sea.
I entered into a maelstrom. That summer of 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown, the intersecting issues of police brutality, race and the criminal justice system forced their way into my mind. I spent part of that summer at a family friend’s house in Western Massachusetts. As one of my host’s drove me through the woods to their place, she said, Our neighbors are good folks, but just be careful. With what’s been going on in Ferguson, I don’t want anything happening to you. The realization that I could have been a Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice helped me recognize that embracing my blackness as a part of my third culture identity was not just a means of reclaiming my power as a descendant of the African continent; it was a means of mental and even physical survival.
Today, my feeling of what critical theorist Homi Bhabha calls “unhomely”––the inability to distinguish home from world––or, in my case, the inability to personally define where or what “home” is, has dissipated. My sense of national belonging is firmly rooted in the United States. I choose to belong to a community of others who prevail despite daily encounters with institutionalized racism. In their struggles and triumphs, I find my “home.” In my journey of blackness, I’m trying understand what it means to be black in a largely white homogenous culture. I grapple with the fact that my blackness is complicated by my privilege as a middle-class male. At the same time, I constantly seek spaces of co-existence and reconciliation that look beyond skin color. Moreover, I seek to understand what it means to be a black third culture kid. While it might take me years to find out, I’m reminded of my father who emigrated from England to Long Island, New York in the 1970s. He successfully crafted a black identity that merged British and American culture. If he could do it, perhaps I can also.
Jonathon Rowe ’18