Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The International Language of Black Folks

I grew up in an impoverished, semi-rural town in Western Pennsylvania, an area where there are almost no black families. In fact, my father's family was the first black family to settle in our town, shortly after the dawn of the 20th Century. (Perhaps this was training for living in Berlin now, where I welcome the infrequent sight of another black face.) Today, as it was when I was a child, the population in my home town is about 8,000 people with less than 1 percent of them being black.

While living in Pennsylvania, I spent my early years bubbling with excitement at the sight of another black person, whether in real life or in television. I think many blacks who have lived in white communities know this feeling. It's sort of the feeling I get upon seeing another black person on a ski slope. (I usually jab my husband in the ribs, point and exclaim, "BLACK PEOPLE!")

I was exposed to The Language when I left Pennsylvania to attend college in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a robust black population. But my university community did not. I attended a white, elitist university that was over-populated by wealthy white kids with expensive cars and big bank accounts. Black students tended to be rich as well or they were athletes or immigrants. I was none of these. Truly out of place, I found one cure to my social isolation was to learn to speak The Language, the silent language of blacks living in the minority among a white majority. Walking across campus, other black students would smile at me. Some would nod. And people who were fluent in this language of proud acknowledgment actually said "hello." There were always the chilly few, however, who refused to speak the language. I'm sure they had their reasons.

Traveling in South America, I found that black South Americans knew this language, even if we didn't share a spoken language. What a wonderful feeling of belonging!

[Side note: When I was older, I locked my hair. I found that within the locked hair community, there was a whole new dialect of acknowledgment (pidgeon? creole?). Like the "high" form of The Language, I quickly embraced the dialect. I miss it now that I've cut off my locks.]

Today I'm even older still, and living in Berlin. After one month here, my spoken German is hardly recognizable as anything more than gibberish with an occasional gutteral "r". That will change, of course. But finding that my beloved language of mutual blackness is alive and strong in Europe emboldened me and gave me a familiar place in Berlin society.

Overall, I have found Berliners to be wholly welcoming of me and my six-foot-tall-natural-hair-black-womanness. (I reserve comment on young fascists that I've seen but not engaged.)

When I walk into a restaurant or cafe, I am someone special. I feel as though my very presence puts an imprimatur of coolness on the establishment as well as on my German-born husband. Admittedly, this is a form of tokenism, but I will not shun being cloaked in a presumption of fashionability and trendiness. (I'll let you in on a secret: I am actually a hopeless nerd -- a black nerd, no less. Second secret: Black nerds have their own special language of recognition. Don't blow the charade fellow black nerds!)

Sum total to date: Here in Berlin, being a celebrity is not something that only lives in my head. Other people have the same misperception of me.

Conclusion: Uncertain. Right now I am enjoying what may simply be the Obama Effect. Europeans like Obama (so far at least) + I resemble Obama in color = Europeans should like me. I think Ronald Reagan called it the "trickle down" effect.

In the end, I am happy to be in Berlin and overjoyed to be able to speak the silent language of blacks from the diaspora.

Plus it's springtime.