I enjoy Washington D.C., but I hate the drive to Washington D.C. And my trip this weekend was no different. I rented a car, packed up myself and Momma Coleman and we made our way to Chocolate City, not for the Broccoli City Fest as everyone assumed but to visit family and friends.
On our trip, my mom was set to help my cousin with some finishing decorating touches to his home and I was headed to my good friend’s kid’s birthday party. It was an afternoon filled with joy and energetic kids. She pulled out all the stops for an amazing basketball themed party that included medals and competitions. I thoroughly enjoyed being the solo auntie who didn’t have to be responsible for anyone or anything just making my way around and enjoying the atmosphere.
When it was time to sing happy birthday, there was the usual chaos of getting everyone together and keeping tiny people still while they wait for the candles to be lit. And then there was the discussion over whether to sing the original happy birthday or the “black” happy birthday.
As always, these larger themes always encroach into my thoughts and the idea of the “black” happy birthday tickled me so. If you’re not aware, it’s the Stevie Wonder version that he created in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and to know black people is to know that we’ve adopted that as our own birthday song.
On many occasions, I’ve found myself in the debate over whether or not we as Black Americans or African-Americans, have a culture. So many have taken swabs of DNA and sent them away to far away labs to learn where they are “really” from and I guess to me it’s never felt that important because of moments exactly like singing the black happy birthday. Sure, I think it’s so cool that my friend’s husband is Haitian and that they make spicy dishes, speak French, and dance until the wee hours of the morning. But I’ve learned not to envy other cultures so to speak, because, well, I believe I also have my own.
Yes, being black in America is hella convoluted. I mean there is so much pain, history, death, triumph, oppression, you name it intertwined into our stories. But the reality is, yes, we came from Africa and I embrace and love that and hope to visit someday. But it doesn’t take away from the amazing traditions and customs that I feel like we have developed all on our own. Or the ones we thought we developed on our own only to find out they tie back to our rich legacy and ancestry in Africa like hair braiding and the way we move our hips to the drums.
But there are these very black American experiences that make my heart smile like the black happy birthday. Like block parties and cookouts and playing double dutch between two parked cars and manhunt and suicide and boppin’ and line dancing. Even the black church, which people are at times rightfully conflicted about because of Christianity being used to keep black people enslaved. But the black church became a pillar of communities. They stood on the frontlines in the fight for freedom and equality. They were black-owned and helped educate and train black folks. Provide for the community, etc.
All these things are yes, a melting pot of our experience. There’s a little bit of everything from our African roots to our European oppressors mixed up in there, but it’s ours. I own that. I value that. And I never want to feel like racism and bigotry and hate took something from me that was never there’s to give.
I may not know which African country my people came from. But I know that I’m black like them. That their blood runs through my veins. That my heart beats at a pace likely in sync and rhythm with theirs. I know that I am my brothers and sisters in the Caribbean. The only difference is where we all were dropped off. I know my mom and them. I know they grew up in North Philly and ran home during gang wars and saw the Nation of Islam save black men and women from the streets. I know my grandmother Irene Ward grew up on a farm on the eastern shore and that the great depression had no real effect on poor people. I know she came to Philadelphia with her two brothers, hoping to make a better life here and had her children here. I know we drove up and down i95 during summers and wondered why all our cousins seemed to talk so funny (read country).
That is my history. That’s my story. There’s more to learn too, I’m sure. More to understand. But I’m thankful for what I do know. We have a culture. We are the culture here and I would never want anyone to think that something that was meant to destroy could ever take away the magic of what it means to be black and have an experience unique to us.
I wondered if the white children that attended the party went home and said, “they sing happy birthday kind of funny.”
My heart smiled. And I always feel like it does when I make the pain in the neck trip to Washington, D.C.