More than Coffee: My Life Between Black and White


When I learn about history, I see myself standing in Ghana with the bloody Atlantic washing at the backs of my feet, looking ahead at the white castles where my ancestors must have been taken. When I visit the castles, what will I feel? Guilt or grief? Vanilla or chocolate? Vanilla or chocolate? Since I have never met my black father or traced back that side of my history, are my roots forever snipped? Can I claim this story as my own? If I come from a white family that is comfortably middle class, does that mean I have white privilege? What if my ancestors owned slaves? Is this what race means? Having questions without any right answers and asking them anyway?

As I stand looking on at this marker of brutality, I will probably be thinking of coffee. And not just because I have a short attention span and I love coffee. See, coffee was part of my conception.

At least, that’s what my mother used to tell me. Coffee. That’s why she is clorox white and I am caramel brown. She drank a lot of it when she was pregnant with me, and this strong-scented mixture seeped through her uterus into the pores of my skin. That’s why waitresses always ask if we’re splitting the check when we go out to eat. And that’s why I run around this small white town looking like Mickey Mouse with my hair wrangled into two buns right on top of my head. Maybe that’s why I sit here now, writing this with heavily-sugared iced latte in hand, growing darker by the minute. Coffee.

Until it’s not. In the training-bra days, of course, I learn a different story, one with staircases and IHOPs and 2-year-old boys, a story more horror than fairy tale. But it might as well have been coffee. I am complete here. My grandparents and my mother and my brother and my stepfather and my cat and my dog and two parakeets and all the other random animals we own make a whole unit of laughter and support. We are vanilla and butter pecan and chocolate and rocky road and blueberry-banana. Meanwhile, my black friends and teachers and those in my religious and journalism communities fill a hole in my heart that I didn’t even know was there, so gone are the days when it was a success just to run a brush through my hair without breaking the handle.

I am Black. I prostrate with Malcolm to a Black Supreme Being. I sit on the throne with Ras Tafari and we laugh and laugh. I was there when Nikki Giovanni created a whole world with her sneeze. My eyes are open and flowing with tears for all the Emmetts and Trayvons and Sandras.

Yet when I close my eyes, I am standing in the shadow of white castles on the edge of history and all I can think is, coffee. Coffee and staircase and IHOP and a 2-year-old boy. My skin contains so many stories, so many non-stories, and no matter how long I stare at it, my chubby nose, my long forehead, I cannot determine which multitudes they hold.

And something feels missing when I watch Marvel’s Black Panther with my white family, though I am afraid to say it. I am afraid to want more, when I already have so much. But I am on a Ghanaian coast with my eyes closed and I want to open my eyes and share the salty air with my own Black reflection staring back at me, face decorated with tears. More than coffee, family, Black family, would reconcile the divide between past and present. Between chocolate and vanilla.

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