Literature 11-6-2018

My Blackness. (Still) Unfinished.

Writer, educator, activist and author of the novels See No Color and the latest Dream Country, Shannon Gibney, writes a personal narrative of blackness and its performances and liminality through multiple timelines providing several stunning glimpses at a project both unfinished and ever present.

1Image courtesy Shannon Gibney.

All my life, I have not only been Black, but more so, Not Black Enough.

Before I was born, my white mother knew that the result of coupling with A Black Man could only lead to the kind of contamination her already socially-disgraced body had come to accept: A tiny, yellow infant she wouldn’t be allowed to hold, much less keep, known as An Adoptable Black Infant.

Being Black but Not Black Enough in this context was certainly an advantage, as it made me attractive to a stable, healthy, loving white family, who knew my contamination was beautiful. Not to mention contained. I would be, perhaps, Blackest in their home, simultaneously loved and erased in the meeting and contrast between white and black. Unknown, but known intimately.

As a child, I would insist I was Brown, Not Black to anyone who inquired, or did not, but looked at me curiously, the disturbing narrative thread of my obvious Blackness beside my family’s decided lack thereof hanging, hanging, hanging…This continued into early adolescence, when The Black Kids in my middle school would relentlessly throw my Blackness back at me, every time I tried to delicately set it down, or hide it, or throw it in the garbage. Oreo and Afro and Ugly were the language of their demands, while shame was its effect.

Not Black Enough.

She Think She White.

She All Mixed Up.

I Am Not. Black.


How to destroy this contamination which was everywhere and nowhere, I wondered without wondering, crouching in the bathroom stall between classes. Hiding from my own body and its reflection, obviously unsuccessfully. Mitigating my Blackness, which they said was tainted not only by its obvious whiteness, but also its after-effects: Standard White English, an affinity for the trappings of middle class objects and expression, disdain for the messy excess of Brown. The fact that I loved school and to read and learn were also proof of my allegiance to whiteness…which made me loathe Blackness all the more.

Then, Baldwin: It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. A voice from the wreckage and the past-life of what Black and Not Black Enough had meant, and still mean, a voice in books my (white) father fed me. To encounter him first at 16 was to witness my heretofore solar system of Blackness expand into the space of galaxies, parallel dimensions, even whole universes. Black was time, not just space suddenly, and I began to breathe.

Years and minutes and days passed, traversing various timelines of Blackness, in which I was still the tragic mulatta protagonist, in which I was grown, and called myself Mixed Black, and many people—especially those I loved—listened. In which I was decidedly Black And… And Not Black Enough began to recede into the edge of its own event horizon.

When I encountered Africa in my 20s and 30s, I became further contaminated by the instability of Blackness, even at times becoming a white woman walking the streets of Accra and Lome and Monrovia, my body trembling at the discursive violence of the histories it was forced to carry simultaneously. But I had effectively been training to carry this weight my entire life up to that point, being the perpetually awkward chair that never really fits the design of anyone’s house, but which is always squeezed in somewhere. In some cultural landscapes, I discovered, Not Black Enough was another way to say Illegible Blackness, But Like History, Always Present.

Which brings me to my children. Blackness Reconfigured. Blackness Reimagined. Children of Not Black Enough and the descendents of slaves and white folks and Choctaw, children of Lofa County, Liberia. Children living the afterlife of the Middle Passage. Children who bypassed the Middle Passage by way of This New African Blackness. Children of empire in decay. Children with white grandparents and white aunts and uncles with no genetic likeness, whose mother’s story is just a word, flickering in their fading consciousness before sleep: Unfinished. Children who feel no need to reconcile this business of untethered beginnings, middles, and even endings, but to linger in them—shout in them even—indefinitely. Blackness? They are the question. They are my question. Within the space of the ellipses…

This article was commissioned and developed by Mn Artists guest editor Chaun Webster as part of the series Blackness and the Not-Yet-Finished.

Shannon Gibney

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples’ Literature. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where she teaches critical and creative writing, journalism, and African Diasporic topics. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her critically-acclaimed new novel, Dream Country, is about more than five …   read more