Race and the Truth Behind the Ugly Duckling

When I was growing up in Washington, D.C. in the '80s, identity — blackness — was a smorgasbord. Through eighth grade I went to mostly Black public schools. My mother, an artist, started an afrocentric greeting card line. My father pastored a Black church in Northeast, and beginning when I was nine years old we forged new traditions, observing Martin Luther King Day by gathering with another Black church in a service that included Lift Every Voice and Sing and old Negro spirituals.

Against all of that positivity, though, flowed countercurrents.

Some were external.

As a Black pre-teen, I felt bombarded by evidence of society’s skewed expectations. Strangers who met me would ask me what sport I played, even though my hobbies were drawing comic books, writing sword-and-sorcery stories and (in sixth grade) singing with a professional opera company. The Washington Post, the newspaper in a then mostly-Black city, started a new upscale weekend magazine that at first avoided image or mention of Black people unless it was highlighting Black misery. The emerging genre of gangsta rap made my race a topic of fascination; kids at my suburban day camp had questions when they found out I lived way down in D.C. — like, had I ever been shot?

Just as many countercurrents were internal.

Through the Black youth community ran an insidious narrative: If you were “really Black” you played basketball well, or at least football. You spoke a street vernacular. You had a ready command of the latest rap lyrics. Your Black bona fides got a boost if you struggled in school; do too well and you’d be accused of “acting White.”

So there were currents of positivity when it came to Black identity, and countercurrents of negativity. The negative countercurrents had their roots in false racial narratives about Black people — no matter that some of those narratives were now amplified in our own community. What would I believe? What would I internalize?

When I designed The Black Experience in America: The Course, I wanted to capture this dynamic of currents and countercurrents, because I still see it playing out in my children’s generation. My goal was to offer them tools to think critically about what it means to be Black, who gets to define Blackness and what it means to them. I placed internalized racism as the topic of Lesson 5 in the Double Consciousness cycle, because it’s very much a manifestation of that ongoing tension between being Black and American.

To make the lesson work, I needed a way to illustrate the somewhat complicated concept of internalized racism and its impact. As I pondered fables, stories and characters, I remembered the Ugly Duckling.

A YouTube search surfaced an old cartoon depicting the tale, and it was eerily perfect. A young swan falls in with a family of ducks, and is rejected for being different. The rejection makes the swam believe it’s ugly. It then tries and fails to find a family where it belongs — first among other birds, then a duck decoy. Only when the swan comes to an understanding of its true identity does it find peace and perspective.

In a sense, I believe we’re all on a similar journey to the little swan’s — and sometimes we have to repeat the journey several times in different stages of life.

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