I’ve discovered that, just as there are five stages of grief, there are five stages of being an “Oreo”. Hearing how I was “white on the inside” brought with it my own experience of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. It’s funny to think about it now. It was less so funny then.
No factor exposed my “coconut complex” more than my taste in music. My parents were Baptist missionaries to New York City. After homeschooling me in the security of their second floor apartment with their church below, I was to enter a mainstream school, a good one in District 29. I entered the holy spawn of holy people. Not of Queens. Not of New York. Like a lamb heading into the Valley of the Shadow, I was to enter. And I was out of place.
I was teased about everything. The length of my pants. (“High waters!”) My shoes. (“Air Moses!”) Why I wouldn’t play “booty tag” (“Does your mama know you’re gay!”). Why I didn’t have cable. Everything. There was no attack one could levee on a 4th grader that did not apply to me and my new friends did not cease to levee them at me.
One of the most consistent attacks I faced involved music. Simply said, I just didn’t know any songs beyond the Hymns of the Faith. This was the era of Dru Hill and Usher and the Spice Girls. My classmates quizzed me with equal parts ridicule and amazement on who was dominating the charts. Of course, it was hilarious when I could only stammer a brand of chocolate candies when demanding that I “spell Eminem.”
“You should let your kids listen to music,” one student, Chutney, yelled to my father during a field day to Burger King. He was insulted. I was embarrassed. Naturally, I was peculiar and that’s the way the father would have wanted it to be because that’s how Jesus Christ wanted it to be.
In her own bratty way, Chutney was more prophetic than she needed to be. Music was strangely taboo in my brand of Christianity. As we learned during many a Sunday School lesson, Music originated from Lucifer. His job in Heaven was to make music. When he was banished from earth, Satan, as he is called now, didn’t forget to leave his day job. Satan used music to? our minds, corrupt our passions.
I didn’t listen to rap music. The first rap song I heard was the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And I loved that song. Still, at no point did I realize that I was listening to a rapper, Will Smith, performing what was a rap song.
By this point in my life, I’m mostly beyond the confusions that plagued me as a kid. If you insist on still referring to me as an Oreo, I’m a well-adjusted one. My tastes, my preferences, my desires are all solidly my own, the product of being from New York City. More than just liking being black, I like being myself. And being black is a part of what feel really lucky about.
While I was definitely teased more than the average kid at P.S. 176 in South Queens, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I was teased no more maliciously than anyone else. I’ve forgiven Chutney and the kids who tormented me. Oreo or not, each of us gets targeted and I was an easy target. In some ways, it would have been irresponsible for kids not to tease me. I was weird. Weird kids get teased.
There’s an allure, for blacks like me that grew independent of the hip hop culture of my generation. That our understanding of music was forged through an understanding of history or literature or any of the other areas blacks have grown to thrive on.
But to craft this image, independent of Hip Hop, its legacy, is an identity based on convenience and comfort. Not honesty. To be a black man in the 21st century and not engage the role Hip Hop has done in crafting society’s perception of me is, at best, naive.
I created a black identity largely free of the influence of Hip Hop. I’ve had full iPods with Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation as its only hiphop album or if Coldplay’s Chris Martin did a collaboration with Kanye or Jay-Z. And, by and large, I was okay with that. In my more selfish moments, I’d consider this a credit to me. I didn’t have to preach the gospel of “real hip hop” or Common or Christian hip hop for the sensitive guy who secretly loves Coldplay.
I’d grown comfortable living a black experience that is authentic and meaningful. But is it at its most fulfilled? In my haste to move beyond the stereotypes, I fear I’ve isolated my exposure to elements of African American life that were never designed to define my black experience, but challenge it, correct it and ultimately enhance it.
For each of us, our journey of self-discovery requires an honest interaction with the forces that define our own perceptions and people’s perceptions of ourselves. For me, I do that through music. To love New York City and to ignore hip hop’s role in shaping it is silly. To love being black and ignore hip hop’s role in communicating our culture to America is silly. Not listening to hip hop isn’t an option. Not because that’s what makes me black. It’s what makes me a stronger version of myself.
The best part of listening to hip hop at 24 is the same reason why it’s awesome to listen to electronic music at 24 or country music at 24 or the Les Miserables soundtrack at 24. I’ve learned not to care about the playlists on my iPod, as evidence of some sort of identity I’m required to have by someone I’d never met before. The hangups of being young and black or young and being in New York have faded, having entered my final stage of Oreoness, acceptance. This acceptance brought its own, pleasantly unexpected conclusion: an understanding that hip hop was never meant to define me. But to guide me in my own understanding of myself, my values and my passions.