Arts & Culture / Education / Op-Ed

A Maywoodian Inside the Ivy League: To Foreign Blacks I Was ‘Just Black’

Kerry James Marshall.jpg

“Black Painting,” by Kerry James Marshall. The work, completed in 2003 and made of black acrylic paint on black fiberglass, depicts the ominous moments before the assassination of Maywood-born Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his West Side apartment on Dec. 4, 1969. | Photo of art via Blanton Museum || Below: Marquan Jones by Marquan Jones 

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016 || By Marquan Jones || OPINION 

Having completed the pre-freshman summer program at Cornell University, I have become well acquainted with the campus, faculty and the workload. I’ve also realized how much I am not acquainted with myself.

When talking to my future classmates about identity and our origins, they were quick to reply: “I’m from Ghana!” “I’m from Nigeria!” “I’m from the Caribbean!”

When it was my turn to speak, an unfamiliar feeling of fear and hopelessness overcame me. I exclaimed, “I’m from Chicago.” A look of disbelief covered their melanin-covered faces like the moon covers the sun during an eclipse.

“No seriously Marquan, where are you really from?”

I repeatedly answered Chicago and told them that I was an nth generation American, so far down the line of my genealogy tree that I couldn’t even tell them.

Just when I thought the interrogation was over and it couldn’t get worse, one person in the group commented, “Oh, so you’re JUST BLACK.” The phase struck me like a dagger. My identity, which I believed to be secure, became fragile. I became exasperated and defensive.

“What the hell do you mean just black?”

When the police pulls you over are you not just as black as I am? As if Donald Trump hates either of us any less than the other.

As time went by, I had a period of introspection as I tried to rationalize what had just happened.

“I’m light skinned. I have to be mixed with something right? I mean my great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee. I think ….” “Come on let’s be honest, we all know why most of my family is light skinned, but it would be politically incorrect to say why.”

I realized how much subconscious animosity natives to Africa and other foreign, predominantly black, lands and American blacks have against one another. The media is such a powerful platform. Africans come to America believing that black Americans are lazy thugs. When black Americans meet Africans, we think that they’re poor peasants from the commercials, carrying pales of water on their heads.

That’s all that I saw growing up on television. “For twenty-five cents a day you can adopt a hungry African toddler.” It became a familiar jingle like, “twinkle twinkle little star” or any other lullaby. I believed this was the norm.

After this altercation, I found myself day-dreaming in class unable to concentrate on my professor, whose words seemed escape me. I continuously asked myself who I am in hopes that my own subconscious would give me an answer. I looked to those who came before me and realized my identity is the sum of all of my ancestor’s experiences.

My culture is the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, when black men owned a suit and poets spoke to the cadence of Jazz music. Poets like Langston Hughes, who I’ve idolized my whole life and adored, because he spoke out on the ills of society and what it means to be a black man in America.

My culture is the civil rights movement, where men and women conducted sit-ins; butts glued to the chair with a blank stare daydreaming of equality while racist white men cursed and spat at them and sprayed them with water hoses.

My culture is Fred Hampton and Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther party. Afros picked out, clinched fists raised to the sky, holding the heartbeat of black solidarity in one hand and a weapon in the other, because they felt we had to fight fire with fire and could no longer turn the other cheek to our oppressors.

My culture is Hip-Hop culture — baggy jeans and starter jackets with titled baseball caps, beatboxing and Adidas jogging suits with b-boys dancing, and freestyle cyphers on corners in the neighborhood with young men sporting high-top haircuts. My culture is Hip-Hop culture transcended to the level of tight skinny jeans, dreadlocks and auto tune.

So I come to the conclusion that, although I can’t claim an African tribe, my blackness still blossomed from the bosom of the motherland. I just have to read books to close the gap (because our school system only teaches three-fifths of our history).

Our black is still beautiful.

Don’t let them pit us against each other. I refuse to be alienated by society and by my brothers and sisters. We are powerful. They fear us, because they know we’re stronger together. What’s a clinched fist without a thumb? VFP

Marquan Jones is a graduate of Proviso Math and Science Academy and incoming freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He’s among the first Proviso students to attend an Ivy League institution. He starts classes this fall. 

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3 thoughts on “A Maywoodian Inside the Ivy League: To Foreign Blacks I Was ‘Just Black’

  1. Wow! This essay is so cogently rendered. You have a very powerful and compelling voice, Marquan. I am really proud of you. Your future shines so wonderfully bright, and I can’t wait to see what all it entails.

  2. What a well-written article and sharing of person experience Marquan. Your article poses a very thought provoking question on being black…and only black. For certain, our black is more than just the name for a Crayola color in a box. Not being privy to this historical piece of our lineage–I believe—has stagnated and stifled many aspects of what lives great(er) within our people. Now, more than ever before, I feel inspired to trace my roots. I am interested and think it quite significant to know more about my ancestry. Thanks for this marvelous view of perspective. Thank you for being a thumb to the fist Marquan.

  3. I really enjoyed the article! I wish you all the best Marquan as an Ivy League student. Make the Proviso Township community proud!

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