Dreaming while Black

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When I was a kid, I would dream that I could be anything and everything all at once — but I think that’s just what kids do.

During my freshman year of college, I had an ethnic studies teacher who posed an interesting question to the class: “At what age did you realize you were Black?”

This question, seemingly harmless, was something I had never thought about before. I began to search for an age at which I actively had consciousness: Was I 6? I actually remember kindergarten pretty well — I could tell you the name of every kid in my class, what my table group was called (triangle squad represent) and the name of my kindergarten best friend. But alas, I don’t remember having the realization that I was Black. Maybe it was third grade. Or in middle school. Perhaps it was as soon as she said it. But after maybe 30 seconds of soul-searching, I had an answer ready for the class.

I’d always known. That’s not something you just wake up and realize. I saw my Black parents, all eight of my Black brothers and sisters — I mean, my God, I had seen a mirror. Her question was silly and privileged and was one that only a white-passing person of color could conjure. 

When the discussion question finally reached my part of the circle, you could hear the disdain in my answer, and again later that night in the intro paragraph of the essay I was forced to write about it. As I sat at the keyboard, though, the question kept replaying in my head: I had always known — so what was she really asking?

To help find an answer as I moved into the body paragraphs, I thought back to major milestones in my life that I could correlate directly to race (outside of my exaggerated 19-year-old self-awareness) and Barack Obama’s 2008 election quickly appeared in my mind. I was 10 when the first Black president in U.S. history was elected, and I remembered that the cheers poured out of my house, ringing out into the light of the next morning.

It felt like I did when I was dreaming: I could be anything and everything all at once, and here was proof. It was a good time to be a kid who dreamed about everything, especially a Black kid. My dreams were real and Black, and Obama was on TV to prove it. I mean, come on, I could be president!

Then I was 11 when Oscar Grant was killed 10 minutes away from my house. I was 15 when the Black Lives Matter movement was birthed into action from the memory of Trayvon Martin’s wrongful death. I was 16, 17, 18, when Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and countless others were victims of police violence and white supremacy, which continue to this day — at my ripe old age of 22. Suddenly, I didn’t want to dream anymore. It seemed like dreaming too big was futile. I just wanted to survive.

The age I had the realization of what it means to be Black in America is the proper form I think her question meant to take. I was subjected to America’s founding principle of white supremacy, and that my dreams were born in the dark and destined to remain in the blackness.

But dreaming while Black is an act of resistance, and I wasn’t alone. Black history itself is a tribute to the collective Black dream — whether it’s Black Lives Matter, taking a knee, the Civil Rights Movement — of being free from a system of oppression. These movements are evidence of the power of dreaming while Black, and the pursuit of abolition of racist and white supremacist laws and institutions is evidence of the continuous fight for Black liberation.

When I was a kid, I never committed to just one dream, and I didn’t see a reason why I should. One week I was a movie star; the next day I was taking Obama’s job; the day after that I was the greatest neurosurgeon this world had ever seen. I was living life, honey. But as I grew older, my experiences in academia and nonprofit work in my community began to give solid ground to a single dream.

In high school, I volunteered with several nonprofit organizations whose founders worked in legal fields, fighting environmental and judicial racism to assure restorative justice. To me, those goals sound like the dreams I left behind, and they’ve become something I’ve worked toward ever since.

But now, I don’t refer to it as my dream — it’s something I have to do. For me. For my family. For other Black kids like me who get caught in the tangle of the white supremacist structure that infects our laws and our justice system.

After I finished that paper, one thing was certain: I had always known I was Black. I think that’s what she was asking.

Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]