By Guest Contributor Koko Jones; originally published at Koko Jones
Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry show this morning I wanted to join the conversation on Race and Identities. On the show there was a white woman who is raising two black children and a white woman who is the mother of two interracial children. It made my mind wander a bit as well as wonder a bit about my own duality and identities. There has been a theme this week with conversations about identity and labels (i.e.: B. Scott).
I grew up knowing I was a black child; I knew nothing else. All of my friends were black, my neighbors were black, my uncles, aunts, cousins were black, the only grandparents I knew were definitely black. We ate typical southern black cuisine in our house; neck bones & cabbage, collard greens with ham hocks, pig’s feet, fish and grits, the list goes on. The music we listened to and what I remember from childhood was all basically black music; from Mahalia Jackson to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Jimi Hendrix was considered a Rock God in our house.
However, my mother looked incredibly like a white woman despite the skin color of her father. My brothers and sisters; six of us in total all had relatively the same pigment of skin. It has been a bone of contention in our family for years; what are we really? I am a child of many ancestors. Some of those ancestors are black; some are white and some are Native American (Cherokee and Choctaw). I knew nothing of the culture of Native Americans growing up and knew nothing of the culture of white people. I was often teased as a child about my skin color and sometimes I still am by some of my closest friends in jest. Terms like “Light Bright” or “Injun Joe” have been used by some of good friends and I laugh at along with them.
So it’s natural for me to identify as “Black”. Not to give up my age but for context I will. I was born in 1959 and grew up during the civil rights movement of the 60s. My mother joined the fight to integrate the Englewood Public School system in the 60s, which I vaguely remember. While growing up in my little New Jersey suburb in Englewood, neighborhoods were segregated. Just over the town line from us in Teaneck there was a white neighborhood we called “Crackatown”. The houses were nicer; the streets were smoother and kept much better. It was those nicely-paved streets, excellent for bike riding, that attracted the kids from my neighborhood. One day a group of friends and I went riding in “Crackatown” when we were attacked with water balloons by a group of white kids. A water balloon hit me in my head and I went flying off my bike. That was followed by the hurling of racial slurs: “You niggas get out of our neighborhood!” That neighborhood has long since become integrated. But the memory still remains. It didn’t matter to them how light-skinned I was, I got the smack because I was still black.
Despite this, there were times when I first started to go to public school where I felt a strange awkwardness when my mother picked me up from school. I remember kids asking me, “Yo, is your mother white?” I would answer, “No, she’s black. She’s just really light-skinned.” It was if I had to prove somehow that I was totally black.
As the years went on it was well established that I was black, but in a certain way I always felt that perhaps I had to prove my blackness. Could this be the reason why I chose to play congas and African drums?
Yet and still, there was another search for my identity in terms of gender. As one who transitioned relatively late, I had to deal with (and still deal with) people questioning my gender as well. There are those inside and outside the trans community that sometimes question whether I am trans enough. After all, I play a very physical instrument: the drums. I play like I’m supposed to play. To me there is only one way to play the congas and that is the way that I was taught. I carry my instruments from the car to the venue without asking for any help from anyone. This is the way of the drum. Max Roach used to tell me, “Learn to carry your instrument.” It’s just a part of the learning process and the oneness of you and your instrument. It doesn’t make me more ‘butch’ or less ‘fem’. I’m just an artist doing my art, my craft that I have honed for 44 years.
In my years it has taken a lot of growth to accept myself the way I am without a ton of surgery or having the ability to transition early in life. It takes a lot to love your self when there are so many standards set for women in society. I believe myself to be a beautiful woman. But there are times when I feel eyes upon me. I often use the example of going into the ladies restroom in the Port Authority in New York and getting stares–or at least what I feel are stares. Sometimes I feel it so fiercely that I want to ask them, “Do you want to see my female realness card? Can I see yours?”
So the question is: What is “realness”? Is it being what the status quo believes or is it created by our own perceptions based upon our experiences?
Just the fact that someone feels like they don’t belong to any group for whatever reason, can be very traumatizing. I remember standing out in front of the legendary club, the Grapevine, in the early 80s and getting “read” by a trans woman there. She said to me, “You tryin’ to be a woman with that face?” Of course, I was questioning at that time and I hadn’t truly started my transition. But the fact remains that there are still those in our community that judge one another based solely on looks.
Being judged on several levels is a tough thing to take at times. I have lost jobs; no I have lost a career based upon judgment and looks. It is only through my resilience and tenacity that I still continue to pursue my music career. Just a couple of years back I lost a really good job with a band that I worked with on a pretty regular basis. I will never forget those emails and the letter that was written to me by the manager and owner of the entertainment company I was employed by, explaining the reasons that they were letting me go. I will paraphrase: “I know I have been a chicken about approaching you about this and I’m sorry. Although you are unbelievably talented, it is because of the complaints of our clients that we are unable to book you for future gigs.” A range of feelings from sadness, to self pity, to anger permeated my being at that time. But self doubt about who I am seemed to creep into my soul. It was just one more trauma I had to endure. Certainly it is painful to see my good friends and colleagues in the music field continue to work and further their careers. However, I was fully aware that this would take place before I transitioned physically from male to female.
It hasn’t been until recently that I have been able to fight those feelings of self-deprecation with tools that I have learned in my study at Hunter College. Coping skills are extremely important for “Girl Like Us” for we face such a wide variety of challenges. I am hoping to be able to teach these skills that have been helpful to me to others. I have a long way to go but we can only keep what we have by giving it away. Of course I am a teacher, too, so teaching comes so natural to me. I am not giving up on society for I believe that everyone has goodness inherent in their lives. But we can start by discontinuing the propensity for us to judge one another.