From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

I’m Coming Out

To think that I denied hip-hop so that I wouldn’t lose my status as a member of the “popular” crowd in a high school full of gun-toting, dip-chewing, blue-eyeliner wearing children makes me sad. At the time, I was a die-hard U2 fan (still am today) and made bold declarations that hip-hop, this new music that was drawing attention to my blackness, would die. I thought that by rejecting the beats that I secretly danced to as I heard them seeping from my brother’s bedroom, I could prove that I was just as good as all the white kids that I went to school with in Marietta.

The problem was that my skin color (light and questionable as it is) and ability to follow an eight count better than most were stereotypes that they used to measure my suspected blackness. The more stereotypes they could check off their lists, the closer I would move from eating with the “in crowd” to moving to the “colored” table in the lunch room.

This music had to die. It was ruining my social life. It was 1985, and I was hoping and praying that it would all be over by the time I was a senior.

Things didn’t look good. In 1986, DJs started scratching my favorite Tears for Fears song, “Shout,” into the mix of popular hip-hop songs. I was doomed. I couldn’t hide the fact that this music started to move me. It started to excite me. I wanted to come out. I loved hip-hop! Should I out myself and show the world that I was a black girl posing in a white girl get-up, usually in the uniform of a cheerleading outfit? If I came out, I could lose everything: my white boyfriend, my popularity as “A team” cheerleader and my elusive position as “weird-looking” girl.

I wasn’t ready to come out yet, even though I was diggin’ the Salt and Pepa remix of “Push-It.” I knew every word.

Then, on top of everything, my younger brother became a huge break-dancer. He was in the papers and everything. We had the same last name. It was okay to ignore him in the halls at school, but I couldn’t ignore the headlines he was getting. High fives in the hall. Newspaper articles. People started to ask questions. Our “head cheerleader” asked me point blank, “Is that break-dancer your brother?” I sheepishly replied, “Maybe.”

Cut to 1987. I am a senior in high school and have been named “dance choreographer” with none other than the two other black girls on the cheerleading squad. I made sure to keep my contact with them to a minimum because otherwise everyone would look at me as, well . . . black. But the music of Dougie Fresh’s “The Show,” Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” and The Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” brought me closer to these women. We “snaked” and “wopped” our way to being one of the best cheerleading teams that year.

I bonded with these girls. We shared cultural traditions like dancing our dances, braiding one another’s hair and talking about things in our community that only a young black girl would know. I never confessed my “blackness” but hid behind “mixed” identity labels that kept me feeling safe. I will never forget the knowing looks in their eyes that told me if I wanted to come over to their side, they would be there with open arms. I loved them for that. They offered true friendship despite my self-denial. I refused them, hip-hop and blackness once again.

After high school I went to Europe and took a long look at myself. How I had passed throughout high school is still a mystery to me. I found that hip-hop was all over the world. I met Africans in Paris who encouraged me to love myself and the hip-hop inside of me. My grandfather was Algerian, and I connected with African people for the first time in my life. The “real” me was a black me. If people didn’t like me because I was African American, then they weren’t my friends. I released all of the images projected on me about how to measure blackness. I accepted the fact that as a black woman, I had more to offer my community and the world by being myself, than I had if I pretended I was someone else.

In Paris, I came out. I was a black American woman and a hip-hop fan. I would support my brother in his music tastes and embrace the beauty of my family and community. I would never answer a question about my race or ethnicity with uncertainty. I was part of a legacy that was rich and beautiful. I would never hide from that again.

Nicole Hodges Persley

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