When I was a little girl, everything that impressed me was black. First there was the music. My parents would take me to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre which was an open air entertainment venue on 16th Street in Washington D.C. where I grew up. Two of the most memorable performances I saw there were Johnny Mathis who I thought was the handsomest man in the world and Dianna Ross who has been my heroine for years. By the time I was a pre-teen there was H.Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Later that summer, Tommie Smith and John Carlos would raise their fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics and I knew clearly where I belonged- straight hair and slanted eyes be damned!
In 1968 when I was 12 the District of Columbia exploded in riots at the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I woke up to find the National Guard in front of my house. “Why are they here?” I asked my mother and she answered that they were protecting us. I wondered from whom and it wasn’t until later that year my race and ethnicity became an issue for me.
The question I got all the time was “You aren’t black are you?” I would staunchly say that I was. “You talk white though,” both my friends and enemies would say. “You don’t even know how to dance,” was the worst condemnation. It was true, I didn’t know how to dance and I had little rhythm” but these were not things that should keep me from saying that I was African American.
It was true, I was not born in the United States. I was born in a British colony which ultimately became emancipated, Guyana, but to me that didn’t matter. In my soul I was “Black” and it didn’t matter to me that some people thought the texture of my hair and the slant of my eyes would disqualify me. I was a Black person.
By the time I was 16 Angela Davis became my new heroine and I wished I could grow my hair like hers but at best I got frizzy locks. By the time I entered college and tried to become a member of the Black student union, there were actually people who felt that I should not be there. I was saddened and left the group, which I was never allowed to become a member. Because I already felt unwelcome, I did not push the issue. It was a club, and I was not wanted by some members.
After college, when I went into television news the question of my race became more important than my ability to report the news. “We don’t know if you… are what we are looking for in this market.” I was hired at my first television job amidst protests that I really was n’t black and questions as to whether the black community would like me. The answer to that question was that lots of people liked me.
Adding to the racial confusion that bothered some people, was my very Anglo-Saxon German first and last name which was Ingrid Bernadette VonDerPool, before I changed it to Brianna Clark.
When I was accepted to law school at the University of Washington School of Law, I had chosen African American as my racial designation. At the same time I was applying for law school I was also divorcing my first husband who was opposed to me attending law school because he thought I would not be able to make dinner for the family. Naturally, as you can imagine the divorce was timely. But when, my then husband filed a lawsuit against the University of Washington School of Law demanding that they rescind my admission because I had lied on my application, I was literally floored. He claimed that I was not black. He said I was a dark skinned Asian. Fortunately, the University of Washington batted his law suit away and said that whatever my racial background, I was clearly not white and my admission did not hinge on my race. Bravo! University of Washington School of Law.
Imagine my surprise, however when I joined the Black Association of Law Students and one of my classmates suggested that I joined the Asian American Law Association. I was stunned. For a moment, I thought he was kidding and then I realized that he was serious. “Me?” I asked him, “I’m black.”
“But you are also Asian.”
“I don’t relate to myself as Asian,” I countered and he looked at me as if I had made a terrible mistake.
Today I am still surprised when people ask “You are Filipino, right?”
“No,” I’m black,” I reply and hope they don’t ask further stupid questions. Sometimes they do, other times they don’t. The funny thing is no Asian people ask me if I’m Asian. In fact I had an Asian contractor when I was remodeling my condo. I said to him one day that I was part Asian. He said, “No, you like Michael Jackson.” Also, to date no Indian person – neither American Indian or otherwise have ever come up to me and ask “What tribe are you from?” Nope, its never happened.
In these days when race is the topic on every one’s lips and it could be deadly to be black at the wrong time and place, my heart will never change and neither will the color of my skin. I am Black.
Oh, by the way the first picture is of my grandfather who was half Black and half White. Despite his sandy blonde hair and blue eyes he was very clear that he was Black.
Brianna S. Clark
The Addict Writes