My last year in college, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was everywhere. All we listened to, all we sang. The strains of it wafted on the wind across campus. As a Black girl from the hoods of Baltimore, I played Miseducation as much as anyone else. So much, that now, more than 20 years later, I can still sing/rap every note, every word.
Lauryn’s epic 1998 LP was groundbreaking, but the woman herself wasn’t new to me. I’d watched her on As the World Turns and in Sister Act II. I’d head-nodded along with her flow when she was a member of the Fugees. But there was something about Lauryn singing and being on her own that spoke to my young heart. Slender, dark, loc’d, full-lipped, rocking her Northern accent and what felt to me like matching aggression. Something about her beautiful Blackness that looked nothing like mine.
College is the time when kids go away just Black and come home BLACK. Before college, my concept of Blackness was home. West Baltimore. Relaxed hair teased into up-dos tall enough to look Jesus in the eye. Gold teeth. Neon colors. Club music and church choir. I didn’t have to think about Blackness. Black is all I’d ever known. It came in a package I understood. The steady rock and rhythm of my years. Emphasis on the “American” in African American. Yes, I knew that there were Black people elsewhere, but wasn’t their Black just like mine?
The first people I met on campus weren’t my kinda Black folks. I didn’t come from money; they did. I had a single mother who sometimes worked three jobs. We thrived because of the support and energy of our extended family. All of my friends at home were like me — not fortunate in the finances department. I went to college on scholarship and prayer. That first weekend introduced me to Prince George’s County, honey. To the Silver Spoon Blacks. I approached them with sunny hellos, and they paid me dust.
These PG County women, my then-classmates, wouldn’t admit to it now because the years have dulled the sharpness of the shade, and adulthood has made us friendly, but they judged me. Or, at least, I felt they did. I saw their noses turn up, as if I reeked of the hood. Apparently, the purples, oranges, reds, greens, fuchsias, and fluorescents popular with my crew back home were faux pas to folks who hailed from towns less than an hour away from mine.
How did my city mouse ass become the country mouse?
In the midst of this rejection, I found solace in Lauryn Hill. Lauryn was different from me and also everything I was. Black. Young. Full of love scorned and unfulfilled. Angry. Soft. Defiant, but longing. Her music pulled from our collective Black Americanness, but was full of the rhythms of the Caribbean. I’d never thought of us that way before.
I mean, it’s not like I’d never heard of Bob Marley or reggae, but the idea that Black folks lived all over and were Black all over was just an amorphous idea in the back of my head. In my mind, we all went from the shores of Africa right to the shores of the American South, and that’s where we stopped. Yeah, the Great Migration, but again, vague. My people had only traveled a few states up the East Coast and never even made it past the Mason-Dixon Line. We couldn’t be anywhere that wasn’t South.
As a born and bred Baltimorean, I still consider myself a Southern woman. I was raised in the bosom of a South Carolina household. My grandparents – who are yet living at 100 and 96, bless them — never left the Carolinas behind, and my little life marinated in the crab, tomato, and rice-filled stew they made of a family. Even my accent isn’t quite the same as others from Baltimore. The lilt of Bishopville sneaks through the twang of Southwest Baltimore.
While I did make women friends in college — one of whom is still among my best friends to this day, I felt alone on campus. Somehow, my big hair + big mouth + big color = whore and boyfriend stealer to the Black girl majority. They called me what I came to know as the ultimate insult: a “bamma.” Countrified. In turn, I called them the “Gray Ladies” because, for some reason, gray sweatpants and matching New Balance sneakers seemed to be all the rage among them.
Somehow, in my Baltimore, I had become the outsider. But defiance has always been my lot and my strength. So I held my shellacked hair high, rolled back my purple-clad shoulders, and acted like I didn’t feel like the poor relation, the country cousin to the folks from the affluent suburbs. How did my city mouse ass become the country mouse?
There is no one way to be Black. And when Lauryn doo-wopped and hip-hopped her way into my consciousness, she reinforced the lesson.
The closest friend I made across the Silver Spoon line was a dude (we’ll call him Marcus) — and that sure didn’t help my cause with the girls who claimed I dressed up only to entice away the guys, who by rights belonged to them. In hindsight, I have to admit, I get it. There was the time Marcus streaked down the hallway outside my dorm room at 3 AM, stark naked and screaming his head off. But there was no sex involved! We’d been playing Strip Blackjack, and he’d lost a million times. Okay, I don’t think Strip Blackjack is a thing, and it still isn’t great for a taken dude to be naked in front of a girl who isn’t his girlfriend under any circumstances, but still. No sex!
After a while, my burgeoning friendship with Marcus — filled with sexual tension on his side, mind you — couldn’t stand any longer, and the Gray Ladies had to deal with me.
I remember being cornered in the dormitory lobby, where we all gathered to watch TV, have Spades tournaments, and shoot the shit. A group of the PG girls — they were too bourgie to be called a gang — surrounded me, accusing me of sleeping with Marcus. His girlfriend stood front and center, trembling with rage and humiliation, flanked by her entourage, all wearing gray sweats and unkempt hair, snarling at the Baltimorean with the shiny French roll. Saying, “Your man wouldn’t be looking my way if you combed your damn hair and put some lipstick on” probably wasn’t the best response. But it made them back off, and I lived to snark another day.
I didn’t know it then, but the Gray Ladies and the rest of the bourgie folks taught me an important lesson. There is no one way to be Black. And when Lauryn doo-wopped and hip-hopped her way into my consciousness, she reinforced the lesson.
Since college, I’ve met more people. I’ve traveled. I’ve seen the rainbow of Black with my own eyes, danced it with my own hips, and heard the music of it with my own ears. I am river baptized into a faith tradition that made the ghoulish trip of the Middle Passage and survived the Maafa with my ancestors. Twenty plus years later, my Black doesn’t look like it did in 1998. My hood honey aesthetic has been mixed with the neo-soul hotep hippiness I discovered in college. Dashikis and stretch jeans. Wild afro and fake lashes. Incense and rhinestoned nails. Twerking and altars. Church choir replaced by Orisha oriki. Erykah Badu and Club music. My Black is evolution, and like Lauryn sang, everything is everything.