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Playing Spades

Written by Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown recalls her childhood journey to find a sense of belonging while caught between two cultures.

When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect. Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist. Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.

All my best, Ashley

Author

Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown is a speaker, writer and media producer providing inspired leadership on racial justice in America. She is The New York Times Bestselling author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness and the executive producer of web series The Next Question. 

  • I had to learn what it really means to love Blackness. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. 

    My parents’ home was a Black family’s home. Framed posters of Alvin Ailey dancers were suspended on the walls and the words of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and other Black authors occupied every inch of space on maple-colored bookshelves. On Saturday mornings, Luther Vandross crooned from our record player as we completed our chores. Afterward, as a reward, Mom and Dad twirled us around the family room, practicing the Cleveland hand dance. At the dinner table they stuffed us with stories of Black achievement and wondered aloud about the color barriers we would break when we got older . . . But however hard my parents worked to instill in me pride in being Black, their arms weren’t long enough to reach beyond the walls of our family. 

    My elementary school was predominately white. From pre- K all the way through eighth grade, I was always just one of a handful of Black students in my classes— but because I had attended that school longer than most of the teachers had worked there, I walked the hallways like I owned the place. Not that I didn’t notice differences between myself and the white girls in my classroom. I wondered why their ponytails swung side to side but mine bounced up and down. I wondered why all the characters in my school’s library books seemed obsessed with campfires and playing the guitar on a beach, and I also noticed that none of my teachers looked like me. 

    But rather than my race being the elephant in the room, it seemed instead to be my secret knowledge. I knew all about the world of my white teachers and peers, but they didn’t seem to know a thing about mine.

    Teachers never referenced television shows my family wouldn’t miss— A Different World; Sister, Sister; or Moesha. Our school praised the music of Amy Grant, DC Talk, and Michael W. Smith, but never mentioned gospel artists like Babbie Mason, Helen Baylor, Fred Hammond, and Kirk Franklin. Conversations that filled the air in my household never would’ve happened with my teachers. 

    For example, I remember one Christmas week- end when I was eleven or twelve, my family gathered in my grandmother’s home in Cleveland. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins sat around two tables— one for the adults, one for the kids— separated by a short open bookshelf filled with vintage bells my grandmother had collected over decades. From my folding chair at the kids’ table, I peered through the gaps in the shelves, trying to follow the adults’ conversation as my mom went toe- to- toe with the men sitting across from her.

    “I’m just not sure integration has actually helped Black Americans,” she said. Her hands danced in front of her as she continued the impassioned monologue, her afro nodding in agreement. 

    “Well, what was the alternative, Karen?” one of my uncles retorted. “Remaining in segregation?” 

    Her eyes flashed. She knew she had them. “Of course not. I’m just saying that segregation didn’t have to be followed with integration. Surely relegating us to the back of the bus could have stopped without us having to give up all the businesses that died because we started going to white folks. Think about all that we lost— the doctors’ and dentists’ offices, the grocery store owners and auto mechanics. I mean, could we have kept a great number of Black teachers if we had demanded equal funding for our schools rather than busing ourselves to theirs?”

    The debate continued, deep voices rising and falling, conceding and breaking away. Conversations like this were normal with this crew, but my white school was different. There, we weren’t supposed to question history. We were expected to learn the names of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., thank God that we could all share an integrated classroom now, and move on to another lesson with hearts of gratitude. 

    But we weren’t always grateful to be with the white kids. 

  • I think I was in the fourth grade when it first happened. My classmates and I were lining up to leave for gym class or perhaps art or music class. I was standing toward the back of the line when a short white boy, Zach, stood in front of me and mumbled something about monkeys and bananas, looking at no one in particular. 

    “What?” I responded, genuinely confused. I glanced at the bulletin boards around the room, searching for a good reason he would be talking about monkeys. 

    Zach turned all the way around to stare up into my eyes. “Nigger,” he said. 

    Everything stopped. The twelve kids in front of him disappeared as my eyes narrowed. My stomach lurched. I had always thought of myself as a nice kid, the kind who gets along with her classmates. But in this moment I had a feeling I was about to surprise myself.

    I don’t remember exactly what I retorted, but I do know that I wasn’t silent, and I know it was mean, because Zach never tried that shit again. 

    My parents never sat me down to tell me what I should do if a white person called me a nigger, and I was too young to know the history of that word at the time. But there was one thing I knew for sure. My anger was justified. And though I never got “The Talk” about the n–word, my parents did give me plenty of other examples about the ways a white person might try me. 

    Following my dad through the toy section of the party store, I picked up a little trinket that caught my attention. “Don’t even think about it,” he said, shooting me down before I could debate whether or not to ask him to buy it. I sighed, put the trinket back, and stuffed my hands in the pockets of my overalls, willing myself not to be tempted again. My father glanced back at me, but when he noticed my little fists bulging from my pockets, he stopped in the middle of the aisle and turned all the way around. “Don’t do that,” he said sternly. 

    Do what? I wondered to myself. I had long ago learned to tame my smart mouth with my dad. Was he now reading my mind? 

    “Don’t ever do that,” he repeated more softly this time, bending his six- foot- two frame toward me to let me know I wasn’t in trouble. But I was still confused. What had I done wrong? 

    “Even if you put it back on the shelf, Austin, you can’t touch store products and then put your hands in your pockets,” he explained as his large hands gently removed mine from their denim hid- ing place. “Someone might notice and assume you are trying to steal.” 

    I nodded. It took some time, but eventually I trained myself not to touch my pockets— and nowadays, my purse— when walking through store aisles.

  • Then there was the moment when my mom took me to the mall to buy my first CD. I spent far longer than I should have combing through the thin boxes, deciding between new releases from Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, Mariah Carey, Tevin Camp- bell, and SWV. I chose Mariah Carey’s Music Box, took it to the front of the line, and paid for it with the little cash I had. On our way out of the store, I tore into the plastic, opening the CD liner, where artists kept photos and lyrics. 

    “Whoa, Daughter,” my mother warned. I looked at her quizzically, wondering if I had shown too much excitement. Even the cashier paused for a moment, surprised by her sudden forcefulness. 

    “You never open an item in the store, and always have the receipt in your hand if you do,” my mother said. “You always want to be able to show someone you paid for your things.” It’s funny how in these little life lessons, I always knew that “someone” was white people. 

    My parents made sure I knew that at any moment when I wasn’t paying attention, when I was just being a person, everything could be interrupted. Be careful with white people was the message I received loud and clear. But strangely enough, it was being around Black kids that turned out to be harder for me . . . at first. 

    It happened when I was ten. My parents got divorced, and my little brother and I started spending summers in Cleveland with my mother. Cleveland was only two hours away from my home in Toledo, but the move from a mostly white setting into one that was all Black made our new neighborhood feel like a different planet. It was the first time I had ever walked into a public sphere where the major- ity of people looked like me. The culture shock was glorious and terrifying. 

    At first, I didn’t understand the culture I had landed in. I wasn’t prepared for the loudness, the playfulness. I didn’t know about dance competitions and talent shows, and I didn’t know there were more line dances than the Electric Slide. (The Tootsie Roll was a complete takeover that summer.) Kids and adults here cursed on a regular basis. There were no games reciting the books of the Bible at the day camp our mother enrolled us in; I had to learn to play Spades in this joint. 

    It was hard to keep up. When the popular song “Weak” by SWV came on the radio, our entire bus started singing it on the way to the community pool. I had never heard the song before, so I at- tempted to lip- synch the whole thing, praying that the girls around me would continue singing with their eyes closed instead of noticing me. I listened to the Black radio station all summer after that, trying to learn the popular songs. But no matter how hard I worked to pretend this new world made sense to me, there was so much I didn’t know. 

    I had no idea who Bobby Brown was, or why Whitney Houston shouldn’t marry him. And I didn’t know why the girls at day camp dared me to say “Candyman” five times in the bathroom mirror. On the fifth time, they all screamed, so I screamed, too. I had no idea what I was supposed to be afraid of. The only thing I feared was being discovered. 

  • Here in Cleveland, other Black children called me Oreo and were curious about why I “talked white.” I didn’t know what to say the first time someone told me that. Well, I only live here during the summers . . . I actually live in Toledo with my dad and go to a school that looks nothing like this neighborhood . . . All my teachers have been white and most of my classmates, too . . . So I guess that’s why I talk white? Kids didn’t have time for all that, and I wasn’t mature enough to question the question. But still, it hurt. I was working so hard to hide the culture of whiteness, only to discover that it was dripping from my body, pouring from my throat. All I wanted was to fit in, but everyone knew I was pretending. 

    It was draining— to the point where I sometimes feigned being sick. I would find a table as far from everyone as I could and put my head down. When a counselor came to check on me, I would squint as if the light was hurting my eyes and ex- plain that I just didn’t feel good. It wasn’t exactly a lie. I knew I would never fit into whiteness. That was okay. But the loss of Blackness? I didn’t know how to handle that. I was too white for Black people, and too Black for white people. I had a boy’s name and bad acne. It was terrible. 

    Then, just when I thought I’d never fit anywhere, Blackness created space for me. I finally found a friend. Her name was Tiffani. She lived four houses down from my mother. We were the same age, but that and being Black were about all we had in common. She was short and spunky, self- confident and playful. I was tall but quiet, working hard at blend- ing in. She was loud and cussed and taught me a few things about boys. She was everything I was not. She was everything I needed. 

    Whether she knew it or not, Tiffani became my teacher. She taught me about music and dances. She taught me about Ebonics and pop culture. She taught me about playing with neighborhood kids and running around outside until the streetlights came on. She danced with me. She played with me. And she vouched for me. She believed in my Blackness. And because she did, I could, too. To paraphrase the poet Ntozake Shange, there were no white girls in our hopscotch games. 

    Tiffani didn’t just teach me about Black culture. She also taught me that I could embrace new things about Blackness without being stripped of my identity. I learned how to do the Butterfly— I almost won a dance contest that year, I’ll have you know— but I also learned it was okay if I still preferred to read while everyone else played neighbor- hood kickball. I easily fell into Ebonics but never mastered the most popular slang, like You buggin or Let’s bounce; it always sounded funny escaping my throat. I didn’t see Candyman until I was grown. 

  • Tiffani was my bridge to understanding that Black is beautiful whether it looked nerdy like me or cool like her. I could choose what felt right for me without needing to be like everyone, or need- ing everyone to be like me. Black is not monolithic. Black is expansive, and I didn’t need the approval of whiteness in order to feel good in my skin; there was no whiteness available to offer an opinion. It was freedom. 

    I couldn’t hear it when I first landed in Cleveland, but Blackness had been screaming (rather harshly, I’d thought), “There is another way.”

    Another way of speaking, of thinking, of being that did not need white affirmation to be valuable. My way of speaking sounded like a hybrid of my white classmates and my Black parents, but that was not the only way to communicate. In fact, among the neighborhood kids, it wasn’t the most valuable way to communicate. There was more than what I knew or could learn from a textbook; more than what whiteness said was right. 

    Lesson learned. Summers in Cleveland weren’t the only change I experienced as a result of my parents’ divorce. Two years later, my dad remarried and my brother and I welcomed a new little sister into the world. Our family of five was creating new traditions, and on Sunday mornings we started going to church— a Black church in Toledo. Until this moment, all I knew of worship services were our school chapels on Friday afternoons. These usually consisted of [white] Christian contemporary songs, a passage read from our [white] illustrated Bibles, a [white] speaker sharing some sort of testimony, and finally accepting [white] Jesus as our Savior. 

    It was assumed by faculty, staff, and ultimately by most of the students that everything taking place in these chapel services applied to all bodies equally. I had no idea that when I walked into my dad’s new church, I would be meeting black Jesus. I fell in love. 

    On that first Sunday, as we wandered down a fluorescent- lit hallway toward the sanctuary, the air was filled with the smell of perfume. I didn’t know what to expect. Along the way congregation members welcomed us, the women in elaborate hats and dark stockings, the men in suits, ties, and snakeskin shoes. Everyone we passed greeted us with a warm good morning as if they already knew us.

    We waited a second at the wooden doors outside the sanctuary, because the people inside were in the middle of prayer. But soon, an “Amen” in unison filled the air, and the double doors swung open. Sunlight poured in from the stained glass windows lining the far wall. Pea green carpet stretched the length of the sanctuary. The organ had already started playing and everyone was standing on their feet, swaying the same direction. Hands clapped to the beat of the song. 

    I looked up into the choir stand, filled with brown faces like mine. The choir director moved her hands up and down in unison. Every member paid close attention to what she was doing. I later learned that this was because we rarely sang any song the same way twice. She wasn’t just conducting prewritten music; she created a new song for us every time. We rewarded her with shouts of “Sing, choir!” and our own melody of “Hallelujahs.” 

  • That day, I fell in love. I fell in love with the soaring voices and the songs that moved us to tears and then chased the blues away. I fell in love with peppermint- dealing church mothers and hymn- singing deacons. I fell in love with fiery preaching that moved so deep, it would undergird you and push you to your feet in praise. I fell in love with a Jesus who saw the poor and sick and hurting, a Jesus who had bigger plans for me than keeping me a virgin, a Jesus who loved and reveled in our Blackness.

    Sunday after Sunday, what grabbed my attention more than anything was the pastor. In sermons he preached, Jesus sounded like a Black person, dealing with familiar hardships of life— injustice, broken relationships, the pain of being called names. Pastor would read a passage of Scripture filled with thees and thous as beautiful as poetry.

    But then he would take the time to restate what happened to sound like the present day. He was incapable of standing still behind the pulpit— by the end of the service, he usually needed a face towel to wipe away the sweat from his forehead. But any given Sunday, the message was clear: God was with us.

    We were a family. Sometimes dysfunctional, for sure. But we were constantly reminded of our connection to one another. We referred to each other as brother and sister. As we grew closer, those titles changed to Auntie, Uncle, even Momma. 

    I had to wait till adulthood before I heard the name James Cone or read about Black liberation theology. But by the time I learned of Black Jesus and his liberating power, I knew I had already met him at ten years old, in a Baptist church where the Spirit moved us every week. There Jesus cared about my soul, but he also cared about the woman who didn’t have transportation or couldn’t pay the light or water bill. Jesus cared about the folks who were addicted to drugs or alcohol, who wanted to save their bodies from the poison and their hearts from pain. And for those whose families hurt us, or significant others had left us, or supervisors didn’t understand us— all these things were taken very seriously, but every Sunday we were also reminded that trouble don’t last always. Heartbreak and struggle weren’t the end of our story. We learned that God had some expectations for us, too, to resist sin and temptations of all kinds, but even these were offered contextualized— embodied, real in ways that the sermons from my school chapel services hadn’t been. 

    The Black church gave me the greatest sense of belonging I had ever experienced.

    There was still much to learn: speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, prophetic announcements and praise dances. (Not to mention, I hadn’t realized that you could be in such a large group and everyone could clap in time on the two and four. Like, everyone . . .) It was an adjustment, but none of this made me nervous or uncomfortable like I’d been in school or during those first weeks in Cleveland. I loved the Black church and she loved me. 

    Slowly, over time and in layers, Blackness had found me. It found me and it changed my life. 

    From the book I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. Copyright © 2018 by Austin Channing Brown. Published by Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.