Black Latina summer braids, plaited in three…
There are next to no places of comfort, of fullness, of belonging, for a smart, powerful, free Black Latina. Every summer my two children, partner and I luxuriously escape the outrageous prices of New York summer camps. The past few years we’ve been going to my parents’ native Dominican Republic where (nonetheless the recent media obsession about dying and the one-note Dominican Haitian de-nationalization discourse) we get to be a Black family unpreoccupied by some of the United States-based fears of state and gun violence. And still, whether at the beach, in a lecture hall, or in a conference…in a chinchorro, a colmado (bodega) or the street, Black Latinas like me are plaited in three.
On a beautiful bright summer evening, I gave in to the Black Caribbean women walking the beach looking to make a living by braiding [white tourist’s/not my] hair. Three hours later, I threw in the towel and released the pins and needles stabbing at my head. Letting the braids go meant I had “wasted” $700 pesos (US $14) as much as it meant a two weeks' wage for the Black Haitian woman. It was not a new experience: back in college in the 1990s, I had lamented “wasting” one hundred bartered dollars I barely had on 72-hour braided extensions that my tender scalp couldn’t handle but my A Different World Black (African American version 2.0) mind terribly fought to keep. Braids are beautiful and have historical import. But although intricate braids were used as a subversive tool of marronage to hide escape routes during African enslavement, this encounter among Black Caribbean women like and unlike me, could only tame me in three: to outline strands and zigzag them against each other into a braid that reconciled a Blackness that was not quite right.
“You look American but your daughter looks Dominican,” the Caribbean Black woman who tried to put my unexpected kinks into braids claimed. She had gasped when my daughter said “Mami.” “Is that your daughter?” she insisted, in awe. And then she told me I was “negra pero bonita” [black but pretty]. Thought I might be Colombian. I said no. Told her I was from her island. “Haitian?” Her friend, co-worker proposed “Creole?” I said no. “We’re all the same,” I said, a pitiful humanist imperialist, privileged for sure, appeal. “American,” she again said. I looked "American.” Because maybe “Americanness,” as in the United States, is the way to make sense of me. I said no. I tried the challenge: “Why, because Black can’t be from here?” She argued for the beauty in Black American. But look at me here, in all my privileges (you know, the ones that fall under intersectionality—class, ivy-league education, NY, U.S., dollars, home-owner, vacationer, tourist, money in my pocket, tall, bilingual) challenging a Black Haitian woman worker about the possibilities of my, of our, Black womanhood. This Black kinky-haired woman with hair as tight as hers, with money and sitting at a restaurant…I must be extraterrestrial; or at least definitely not real.
Not real and not right either, as the un-credible driver of a newish charcoal Ford Escape; one of those Dominican cars that look fly on the outside but may be one kilometer closer to dying. I was driving with my light-skinned partner who in DR camouflages into whiteness and our in-between skin color kids on the back seat. Driving through Cabrera, the turquoise Atlantic Ocean on the right side on a bright summer day, we unexpectedly came to a military checkpoint. I stopped the car and waited as an officer—a dark mocha color skinned man the beauties of which this two-nation island can only fathom—approached, rifle in hand. I lowered the window. He took a look at me and perplexed claimed in celebration and with a smile: “O, pero es casi de mi color la jefa.” [Oh, but the boss is almost the same color as me.] I stayed silent, a second of stillness for him to look next to me and behind me. He asked “De donde son ustedes?” [Where are you from?] but followed with a leading question that gave no room for the truth “de aquí?” [from here?]. I hesitated in the vastness of the truth and errors of the answer: “De aqui” [From here], I nod. “Pase” [Proceed] he says. Cars ahead and behind me are all being stopped. I pulled away.
“Pero es casi de mi color la jefa” lingers as both truth and lie. The hair braider, military
officer, and me: unequally socially positioned beings stitched into a Blackness that does not allow doubts. The three of us fused and invisibilized into a Blackness that makes our radically different experiences indistinguishable to the world and sometimes to each other. You see, in a month in Dominican Republic I can be intimated a domestic worker, a nanny, a “chapeadora” (Dominican for sex worker), a police officer. Old White dudes at the beach looking me up and down making sexual innuendos have me desperately looking for my badges of “honor”—“Harvard”, “Ph.D.”, “Doctora”—to show them…or to show myself. I can’t defend myself from the ways in which, in Black, a modest bikini unclothes my professional “pedigree” and my middle-class privileges to sex work. Because from a Black chapeadora, to a Black police officer, to a Black “American,” to a “where did you learn Spanish,” to racial objectivity in academia, none of them get me right.
The encounters with the braider and the officer are but two of daily, consistent negotiations in Blackness. While most non-Black Latinx/a/o and non-Black colleagues are oblivious to a world where Blackness is everpresent (because they don’t live it or because they knowingly or blindly keep their distance from it), I am often tasked with finding ways to translate and make credible these knowledges in my scholarship.
To define a Black Latina epistemology is to recognize the sources of our experience, the *racial* ontological inevitabilities within which our bodies are read, placed and experienced across locations. Versions of race being so complex dominate against the simplicity of my/our experience(s) of being Black in Puerto Rico, in the Dominican Republic, in the United States, and in every other place I’ve ever been to. This Blackness gets fixed in place, situated for particular realities and context that veils its multiplicity. But that Blackness, make no mistake, is never negated. The comedian Paul Mooney claimed (in more provocative ways than I ever could) that everybody wants to be Black but nobody wants to be Black. The truth Mooney insinuates is that some of us can’t choose not to be Black; that we are fixed and plaited.
Black Latinas Know Collective offers a different lens; a corrective. Over the years, I’ve often sat with some members of BLCK, as with other Black women, having quiet conversations away from the official tables and panels that constitute the main stages where scholars talk about race, to talk about these experiences. We speak about being Black in confidence: about the developmentally late experiences of romantic love; about our hair; about White and mestizo Latina/x/os claiming “Afro-Latinidad”or saying race is complex; about naming colonization without race; about emphasizing that class matters more than race, or claiming we are not like the U.S. when it comes to race, or spewing about “race” and “racialization” without bodies, about Blackness or whiteness hardly ever being uttered, about acknowledging their/our own role “in the whole setup,” or simply not saying anything. BLKC reflects all and more of these burning concerns. Our experiences are multivalent, different, KNOWing that however we experience race, Blackness has to be negotiated.
Let’s be clear. Yes, I have it easy. I live in a bounty of privileges unlikely for Black women: academic non-teaching summers in a tenured job, surfing, writing, with my kids in an enriching camp. And yet, these advantages never release me from the experience of Blackness. Instead, they make me unreal…such is the hardness and durability of Black, such are the interstellar leaps required of a Black Latina scholar. Even when I desperately try to undo them, my kinky braids get plaited in three...