New York City, 1987. Two college kids met and fell in that so devoted, so decided, let's do life together type of love. They claimed their daughter and spoke her name. Africali:
Africa- honoring his ancestral continent.
Cali, Colombia- honoring her family's home.
Eventually, she came, and Africali she was. Wrapped up in caramel harmony, her dad wrote. She carried her Latina mother's Colombia and her Black father's Africa and the mixed-up blood flowing through her perfectly human veins was so adored by Black and Latina family, alike.
My name is Jasmin Africali. Jasmin Africali Quiñones Eatman. And those were my parents that you were just reading about. Timothy Eatman and Janet Quiñones (before she became Janet Quiñones Eatman. No, the Quiñones didn't go anywhere). And, it’s a lovely story, isn't it? Especially when it ends with the brown baby girl taking on the lifetime of responsibility that comes with holding both of those backgrounds down. The true definition of living in color- lots of color. It's fun, it's curious; it's different, but really,
Fast forward 18 years, and Africali found herself in college. She chose a special place, and that mixed-up load did not get any lighter. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are treasures. I'm blessed to call one of them (the number one of them all, I'll add) my own. They are safe spaces, where Black minds come together and respect one another as developing giants in every imaginable field. I am so grateful for the opportunity to live and learn in this environment every day. I would not want to be anywhere else.
That’s the truth- but, like me, the truth has more than one side.
As a biracial woman, pieces of myself weaken as my knowledge of and pride in my African American heritage expands. I am proud to belong to a community of strong Black brothers and sisters; but, too often, I find that my Latina identity is not fully authenticated by my HBCU.
My very first school was a dual-language day care. I learned and played in both of my languages. Spanish and English were equal in this space, and my learning one did not negate the importance of learning the other. At home, my mother spoke with me in Spanish. She unapologetically took the opportunity to share her language with me, and protected this precious piece of our shared heritage. It didn't matter that I had some sort of halfway claim to that heritage; my parents’ love has always celebrated every piece of me. I grew to learn that both of my languages were not equal in the American public school system, however, and expertly concealed my fluency in Spanish. In middle school, armed with a brand new flip phone, I shot the quick "bye Ma, love you too" after she called to say, Que Dios la bendiga, mamita. I wasn't sure why I got the confused looks from my Black friends when my Spanish slipped out, but it wasn't worth isolation. English looked better with my perceived blackness, so English it was. As every child does, I struggled to figure myself out. I was comfortable being easily understood by whoever would give it a try.
Eventually, I became a proud middle school survivor, and my family's move from Michigan to New York landed me into a private, predominantly White high school. Predominantly white is actually an understatement and, I'll tell you, I was a mess. Academically, I did very well, but I couldn't quite get a hold of my identity when no one would talk about why I had to learn in a space where there was no one for me to relate to or even to identify with. To my white friends in Sperrys, polos, and Escalades, I was the Black girl whose picture was on the website pretty often, who seemed kind of quiet, and who was by herself a whole lot. Few were concerned about who I really was, so there was nothing to explain. I did not have a chance to verbalize my multiracial identity because no one cared to know, and after a while, honestly, I didn't really remember.
The year before I left this high school, I took an advanced placement Spanish course. I was in the 9th grade, in a room full of 12th graders, and no one paid much attention to me. None of the class material was too difficult (except being forced to use the personal pronoun vosotros: the bane of my existence and that of every other Spanish speaker who is not from Spain and forced to take a Spanish course in this country). Armed with invisibility, I decided to be myself. My classmates began to realize that I had something that they wanted, a good grade, and my difference turned into what they considered to be valuable. Although I knew they just wanted me for help, I felt validated by this new visibility. They saw me, and they appreciated me for what I had to offer. For the first time in a long time, in a lonely place, I showed myself completely; and, my goodness, I was proud.
My experience in one Spanish class at the end of the school day, however, did not help to heal the confusion and frustration that I felt as one of two students of color in my class and one of eight students of color in the entire high school. Eventually, I became really tired of the slick "congratulations, it's Black History Month!" comments, the confederate flag debates, and the endless stream of offensive questions. Eventually, I took my classmates' temporary interest in me for what it was- manipulation and insincerity.
So, eventually, I left.
I moved to a predominantly Black and Latino high school right around the corner from a bodega, next to a funeral home, and across the street from a bus stop. I walked through a metal detector every morning as security officers in latex gloves searched my backpack, and sometimes, when I looked especially threatening, they pulled out the metal detector wands. I was about as far away from green lawns and big endowments as I could possibly get, but I saw myself all around me, and it was beautiful. At first, I experienced as much social anxiety as is expected for a 10th grader, but in general, I was accepted as the new girl. Over time, my classmates embraced me in their social circles. I turned on my self-surveillance and kicked it into overdrive.
Alright, Jasmin, they like you and they identify with you now. You need them. Don't mess this up.
My newly accepted and openly perceived blackness was a new project, and I was determined to make it work. I flowed in and out of Ebonics with my classmates and switched on the King's English with my teachers. I bought some good jeans, refined my gum-popping skills, hung out with my friends at the mall, scored invitations to birthday parties and cookouts- your girl was making some serious progress. Then- Spanish class happened.
Two years of a foreign language were required for graduation. I chose Spanish so that I could try to squeeze a study hall out of a class period (no shame in the game), but things turned out to be a bit more complicated. Generally, we received a worksheet at the beginning of class, and our only job was to finish it. My Puerto Rican and Dominican classmates and I finished them in about 10 minutes. Afterwards, we set up shop in the back of the classroom, acting up as high schoolers do. One day, the teacher completely called me out, saying, "Don't you see your friends need help? Why don't you help them out?" gesturing towards the Black students in the class. In one instant, the dynamic between my peers and I shifted completely, and word spread. I was different, again, and the distance grew. Many of my friends who I used to hang out with no longer paused for a "hey, girl" in the hallway, passive aggressive questions of my difference began to emerge more frequently:
Can you even speak Spanish?
Why is your sister lightskinned and you're not?
My hair used to be long like that but I didn't like it anymore. You know how to do it?
I dodged verbal bullets, did what I had to do to graduate, kept a couple of good friends from that school, and began to think about the next step. My decision to attend an HBCU (an acronym for Historically Black Colleges and Universities) was in serious conflict with the one PWI (Predominantly White Institution) that I took into serious consideration- The University of California, Los Angeles. Before graduating from high school, I attended their admitted student's day and had a chance to interact with some students there. Would a PWI allow me to connect with the Latino community, more than an HBCU might? I began to connect with my Latino friends at my high school, and thought about what it would mean to attend an HBCU. At that point, my Black peers did not consider me a fully qualified fellow Black person or trustworthy friend because of my connection with Latinos, anyway. I feared, however, that I would detach not only from my blackness but also from my Latino roots if I chose to attend a PWI simply because Brown people are the minority in those spaces. As a biracial student choosing between an HBCU and PWI, I felt that complete or at least partial isolation was inevitable.
I chose my HBCU because I wanted an environment that would support me in understanding how history plays a part in the continuous construction of my self-image. Conversations around the importance of recognizing the African Diaspora as a global network provided powerful clarity. I felt rooted in a larger community that embraced both parts of me- Latina and African American- parts that society had worked so hard to separate. Conversations with my peers, however, were more difficult. Through a new understanding of my position in the Diaspora, I no longer felt comfortable identifying as Black.
Oh, so you don't think you're Black?
I’ve heard it all, and, yes, I felt confident in my existence as an Afro-Latina. While I found myself in difficult conversations regarding my refusal to identify as Black, I was happy with my choice to define my background holistically.
I would say, however, that there is a deep disconnect between students of color who identify as multiracial within the HBCU environment. Too often, the Black community presents an ethnicity drop-down menu and expects that multiracial individuals will choose a single identity. What happens when our only option is to select “other?” Do we still count? Black history is beautiful, and the Diaspora is beautiful, but we must be brave in acknowledging that every single Brown person has a personal history and unique story. Multiracial identity is not anti-blackness; it is a celebration of all that black-ness and brown-ness is. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have unimaginable treasures of diversity within our student bodies, and for many multiracial students, the HBCU experience is a chance to find our fit within the Black community. Do we intentionally celebrate the opportunity to recognize how beautiful our differences are? Do we encourage our multiracial brothers and sisters to take pride in the breadth of the Diaspora and identify themselves within it? Self-acceptance is a process and it is not unidimensional. As an Afro-Latina who does not self-identify as Black, I am not ashamed, I am not confused, I am not ignorant, I am not "sleep," I am not indifferent, I am not angry, I am not afraid.
I am me; Africali, and she is enough.