When Barack Obama arrived on the national political stage and emerged as a presidential contender, more than one observer asked whether the young, biracial, Ivy League-educated U.S. senator was black enough to be the first African-American president. And this kind of authenticity challenge isn’t new: Many other black Americans—upwardly mobile and highly educated—are sometimes seen as “not black enough.” There’s a sense that to be black, one must fit into a narrow box of stereotypes rather than embrace the many-faceted experiences and identities of black people.
So what does it mean to be black—and to be black enough?
These, ostensibly, are the questions that former TV host and news anchor Donna Davis poses in her debut nonfiction book, Confessions of a Peppermint Pattie: Why I Really Am Black Enough Already, Y’All. This journey begins when Davis’ 14-year-old son tells her that she is “not a real black person” but “so white until you’re not even an Oreo anymore.” He calls her a “York Peppermint Pattie.”
A more relevant title, however, given Davis’ treatment of the material, would be Confessions of a Peppermint Pattie: My Conflicted Relationship With Blackness and Realization That I Am a Whiteblack Girl. “Whiteblack” is the term Davis employs to talk about black women like herself who are more “culturally white” than black. Through a host of anecdotes about family, friends and self, in the first three chapters she amusingly details her relationship with some common indicators of blackness, checking to see whether she can check the black “box”: Ratchet, no; language, no. Skin color, yes; hair, yes.
Davis’ strength is her voice: colloquial, breezy and entertaining. Confessions of a Peppermint Pattie is like the anecdotes your mama and friends would tell on the front porch, the banter in the hair salon on a Sunday afternoon. But instead of reckoning deeply with stereotypes to push past them to a deeper truth, Davis begins by accepting society’s stereotypical definitions of “blackness” and “whiteness” throughout these first three chapters.
One wishes that she would write about why these stereotypes exist and why they are so reductive. That blackness isn’t just being “ratchet,” having “12 kids out of wedlock,” speaking “Ebonics,” being broke and drinking Crown Royal. That whiteness isn’t just speaking properly, having money and loving a certain kind of music or liquor. But then, her agenda is not to explode the stereotype. It is to prove that she can fit into society’s perception of blackness, that she is “black enough” by other people’s preconceived standards, rather than rethink what blackness means.
But in Chapter 4, “Peppermint Patties and the End of Bad Hair Days,” Davis’ obligatory section on the challenges of black hair, the book begins to sing. Here she digs into a deeper level of reflection on the complexity of black identity, detailing her life’s journey of pressing combs, perms, Jheri curls and, eventually, her perfect weave of Indian hair, which now makes her a “Whiteblack Indian girl.” With the long fall of hair attached to her head, Davis observes, she was considered more beautiful and received more attention. “It took me a minute to wrap my mind around the notion that black girls could be viewed as these exotic, goddess-like creatures all because of their hair.”
In a later chapter titled “Black Really IS the New Black,” Davis delves into the politics of skin color—especially as it relates to masculinity and femininity. Black female attributes—luscious lips and booties—are seen as desirable only when adopted by white women, she notes: Kim Kardashian, anyone? And while black men are seen as attractive whether light- or dark-skinned, dark-skinned women have not been seen as attractive.
Indeed, Davis has always so feared getting darker than her medium complexion that she has avoided the beach and all outdoor activities—donning hat, umbrella and long sleeves when she must venture out underneath the sun. She justifies this as not her own vanity but, rather, a result of the demands of her workplace: She cannot go on vacation and return to television looking “five shades darker.” Such is the fine line of being told to “be Black but not too Black” that Davis reports she has experienced throughout her career.
This dichotomy becomes the central tension of her book. And she moves gradually toward acknowledging the beautiful multiplicity of her black identity. “Black people,” she writes, “like all others have a variety of experiences that contribute to the tapestry of who we are.
“So what do I have to do,” she asks at one point, “to PROVE I’m black?”
If you ask me, you don’t have to do anything more than simply love the fact that you are black. There’s no need to call yourself a Whiteblack girl, despite the music you listen to, the grade of your hair, the shade of your skin or any other cultural codifier. As Audre Lorde has said, you don’t define yourself for others—you define yourself for yourself.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.