Proving My Blackness

Proving My Blackness

The New York Times Magazine

Mat Johnson

I grew up a black boy who looked like a white one. My parents divorced when I was 4, and I was raised mostly by my black mom, in a black neighborhood of Philadelphia, during the Black Power movement. I put my dashiki on one arm at a time like every other black boy, but I was haunted by the moments I’d be out with my mother and other black people would look at me as if I were a cuckoo egg accidentally dropped in their nest. The contrast between “blackness” and how I looked was so stark that I often found myself sifting through archaic, pre-20th-century African-American racial definitions to find a word that fit me. Mulatto, 50 percent African. Quadroon, 25 percent African. Octoroon, 12.5 percent African. The next stop down, at 6.25 percent African, was mustefino. I’d never heard anyone call himself mustefino, and I didn’t want to personally relaunch that brand.

Some people wondered why, in a society that represses black people, I would even want to be black. But I never wanted to be black. I was black. What I wanted was to retain my connection to my heritage, my community, my family. To my mom. And I wanted proof. So last summer, after exhausting my attempt at amateur genealogy, I spit into a test tube for a DNA test. Only then did I realize, in a panic, that my life of racial ambiguity would soon be over…

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