Henry Louis Gates Jr. had me all gassed up. For the cost of a pair of “tennis shoes” I could know what corners of the earth my nearest ancestors were from. It seemed like a good idea. I had no itinerary, but was looking to start my world travels soon. What if this test could help me connect with people in other parts of the world? I might even do something Alex Haley-esque and discover what tribe my great-great-great-grand father’s father came from in Senegambia. At least I wouldn’t be like Oprah, walking around Africa thinking I was Zulu. I still had stains on my memory from being called the Puerto Rican boy in elementary school. This test would liberate me from that misnomer. I had heard my great grandmother or somebody like that was Native American. Maybe I’d be able to think back in time and make of those kids refer to me as the Lenni Lenape boy. It had been six weeks since I posted the saliva coated cue-tip, along with a check for $250. On the 43rd day my results arrived. I was poised for a Maury Povich moment. I took some ujjayi breaths, popped open the envelope and then collapsed to the floor. That revelation forced me to reflect on my conception of my own ethnicity as a youth. It would also make me more keenly aware of others' perception of my ethnic composition in my future travels.
It took me until the age of 17 to realize that African-Americans were a minority in the United States. I had to have known that fact on an intellectual level, but on a practical level all I knew were Black people. Growing up I had never had a conversation with a White person, save for a handful of clergy, educators, and health care professionals. For my first decade of schooling I didn’t have a White classmate. Though my youth was experienced on an island of ethnic homogeneity, it wasn’t monochromatic. I grew up around my mother and uncle: twins, but with complexions Crayola shades apart. My own complexion and “good” hair helped me to earn that title of the Puerto Rican boy. My 3rd grade response was to have the academic performance of a 58 year old West Virginian monoglot in Spanish class. I’d sabotage geography too. Puerto Rico— oh you’re talking about that country next to Spain. I had had no experience with Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was different, so I must have been different. I was an anomaly within my own community. In third grade it was an embarrassment. By fourth grade, however, it’d become an asset.
We were on a class trip to the Franklin Institute. We’d taken a break from our parochial school attire. Inhibitions relaxed with the casual dress. Our class, and other schools on educational day trips, were sitting in the darkness of the Tuttleman theater. My was neck strained as my head followed bulgy reptiles across the domed screen. I was nestled between two classmates: the “prettiest” girl and the tomboy. My ears were whispered into. My hands were caressed. Would this be my first puppy love triangle? I could chose the girl on my left or the girl on my right. In other words, I could choose “salt” or “pepper”. At least that’s what the “salt” girl told me. After the sea turtle documentary we lunched in the cafeteria (a preliminary pre-date). Her argument— salt is better than pepper. Her props— a white salt shaker, a black pepper shaker, and french fries. She opined that though salt & pepper both had flavor, the fries would be bland with just pepper but savory with just salt. My choice was an either or not an and. She flicked away a fry she had doused with pepper and with Adina Howard swag led an oily hot salty fry to my lips (maybe she’d been listening to too much Salt-N-Pepa). Who wouldn’t choose “salt” over “pepper”? She was the light-skin girl with the good hair.
As an adult I’ve travelled well beyond the island of my youth (though I’ve yet to visit P.R., maybe it will claim me still), and I’ve gained more reassurance as to my own Black-ishness. As any traveler can attest, a common question posed is Where are you from? In Asia, my interlocutors would often answer their own question: Africa?! (in a rising intonation). I found that many of my melanin possessing compatriots would shriek at such conjecture. Maybe you have as well, but for me I’ve always felt comfort to know that despite that DNA test, my features associated me with the continent. In East Asia I’ve had other Black acquaintances vent to me about how people moved away from them on public transportation. Didn’t I hate it when that happened? With relief and feigned empathy I would say No. The girl on the subway didn’t change seats when I sat down, nor did the middle aged lady on the bus. Mothers didn’t clutch their children tight like pearls when I walked by. My hair, however, remained a focal point. In Korea it was “bomb hair”; in Philly it was “that good stuff.” Maybe these were other positive manifestations of the Puerto Rican boy. I was connected with my own people, and digestible enough to other communities as to not evoke base xenophobic reflexes. I could relate to the self-assurance of the salt girl, but still had a tinge of guilt because my struggle was more diluted, as were my complexion and genealogy.
My appearance has given me an ability to maneuver stealthily in and out of different cultures. In the absence of linguistic independence, being able to blend in can deflect unwanted attention. On a recent visit to Rio I could squeeze by as a mute carioca. In Addis Ababa I was more of the farenji but was still thought of to be at least partially Ethiopian. Even in my native West Philly, I was once asked if I was mixed with Chinese. With all my journeys up to this point, I like to think I've become more grounded in my identity and less impressionable by categorical percentages from proprietary databases. In my post “salt” and “pepper” era, I feel grounded as a Black man, and as Peter Tosh sings, “no matter where you come from, as long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African”.