Why Carlton Banks Wasn’t The Issue: Black Identity Reflection

 
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“I have always been proud

to be black, never wanted to

be nothing else, loved everything about it”

The above quote is transcribed from the Tina Taught Me interlude featured on Solange’s album A Seat at The Table (2017).  As empowering as the above statement is to hear as a black man, I must admit that I cannot identify with it. Especially the part about always being proud to be black. Because well...I haven’t always been proud to be black.

BALTIMORE SHAPED HOW

I

SAW MYSELF AS A BLACK PERSON

I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland; a city with a population that is 63% African American (statisticalatlas.com). To add further socio-economic complexity, 22% of the population lives in poverty. With these two factors at play, it’s fair to say that the outlook on life for the average black poor or working class person like myself in Baltimore was often extremely limited. The only time I remember encountering a non-black person in real life was at school. There was the one white student in my high school and I had mostly white teachers. But for the most part my day to day experience was blackity black, black.

I was really conflicted growing up around this idea of what blackness represented. I didn’t know if I should be proud to be black or wish that I wasn’t.

From a young age I was exposed to bullying and in-group racial emotional abuse from my peers at school and in the neighborhoods I grew up in. This treatment led me to feel that who I was authentically was somehow not black or not black enough. Some examples included other black kids questioning by “blackness” based on how I dressed, acted, spoke or by what hobbies and interests I had. For instance in middle school I was really into pop music and I still am ( I mean Britney Spears is a goddess!!). There was a phase where I shopped for clothes at the GAP (which was not the brand on trend in Baltimore at the time). Ultimately, I was a young insecure teenager just trying to find my way, but it felt like I had no room to grow.

Britney Spears, 1999

Britney Spears, 1999

It didn’t take long for me to assume that being black was not an ideal race to be in America. I learned this lesson in school and from the media. I have always been invested in my education and naturally I excelled academically because I took school very seriously. While at school I was often teased for being “smart” or for liking school so much or told that excelling academically meant that I wanted to be white. That bullying eventually created resentment within myself towards the black community. And even tho I always have identified as black, I felt like I was different then the black people who treated me so poorly. To add further context, my mom has never boarded a plane and I did not have the luxury of going on family vacations growing up so I was pretty unaware of how any other place was outside of Baltimore. Many of the members of my community were drug dealers, criminals or bullies. The news tended to also highlight negative images of black folks in my communities.

CARLTON BANKS SYNDROME

Growing up I would look to tv and film for examples of positive black role models. In the late nineties, I instantly connected to fictional character Carlton Banks from the sitcom “ The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. Carlton represented everything I wanted to be at the time. He was black but educated ,articulate, he had goals, he was well spoken and classy. I related to how Carlton often was misunderstood or how his blackness was often questioned by his cousin Will who grew up far from affluent Bel Air in west Philadelphia (born and raised (I know I’m not the only one who knows the these song verbatim. I wanted to be like Carlton and at the time I thought that was who I should want to be like. Carlton represented the “ideal black man” to me. Later I learned that, that perspective is so incorrect.


THE SHIFT: REPRESENTATION REALLY DOES MATTER

As I prepared for college, one of my main goals was to go to a predominantly white university. I told myself that I was ready for something “new” which at the time translated to “something white”. West Virginia University was my top college. Currently black/ african american students make up only 4.7% of the population (College Factual). WVU admitted me for the Spring semester instead of the Fall so I declined the offer and ended up at Towson University which is located right outside of Baltimore. TU’s black students makeup a little over 12% of the student population (College Factual).

Towson’s black community was pretty close knit but during my freshman year I broadened my horizons and made a couple of  white friends as well. While at college I learned that black people spanned a wide range of ways of being far beyond the small sample group that I experienced in my hometown. Now I was meeting black children from affluent families, I was meeting nerdy black people, from rural towns, Black people with diverse regional and international accents, black people obsessed with anime, gothic dressing black people with black nails, 1st generation immigrants from a myriad of african countries, I met black people who grew up in the church and those who grew up on the farm and everything black shade in between. My eyes began to open and I realized that it wasn’t that I hated black people or that I even hated being black, I just had not been exposed to the diversity within the black community as a whole. So this my friends is why the every so popular and honestly overly used phrase “ representation matters” really matters lol

WHERE AM I TODAY?

Today I am a proud black man. I have learned many lessons about the problematic ways that I used to think about myself as a black man and closed some of those cultural and historical gaps and replaced them with educated viewpoints. I understand that all black lives matter. I know that Michelle Obama is not better than Cardi B and that there is room for all of us. All of us matter and all forms of blackness are valid.I no longer allow others to police my blackness. There are still times when I am not 100% comfortable in all black spaces however that is a preference, not a judgement. I know that blackness cannot be defined by one characteristic, personality type or way of being. Blackness is broad and infinite.

I have had to grow into embracing and celebrating my black identity. It has been a process that has been informed by all forms of education including reading, meeting people and a whole lot of self reflection.

Relating to Carlton Banks was never the issue, wanting to be him, because he represented an ideal black man was an issue and I am glad that I can now sing “it’s not unusual to loved by anyone” in peace.


Lonnie Woods III