Literary Orphans

My Life is No Minstrel Show
by Shannon Barber


I only smiled because I didn’t want to cry in front of them. I remember the tension in my face and the frozen thing on my lips that passed for a smile.

“Wait, that’s how Black people say it. Right?”

Eyes turned to me. I was the only Black person in the room. I started to sweat; I felt it run from my crotch down the inside of my thigh. My eyes felt tight, the way they do when I want to cry but won’t.

That moment is my history and my future.

Too often people want me to prove my Blackness. Looking at me is rarely enough. The fact that I am a clearly unambiguously Black Person, that I have been called a nigger to my face more times than I can count, that I have been hassled by police, that I have had my physical safety threatened because I am a Black woman; is not enough for people to not question my Blackness.

When this comes from within the Black community I believe it is a function of internalized racism and woebegone solidarity. Black folks sometimes want a monolith of Blackness to shield us from the world. It feels good to hide behind the arms of your ilk.

On the other hand, it’s so hard to admit that yes a Black person can be like this, it’s hard. Sometimes it hurts.

We are trained in America to be suspicious and resentful of difference. When some of us are not Black in the ways that seem appropriate in any given moment, we are looked upon with suspicion; solidarity for us is conditional upon proper behavior.

White people want validation of whatever they are already thinking about Blackness. Whether it is White women wanting me to be their Sassy Black Lady friend who dispenses advice and life lessons or White men who want me to be their ghetto wet dream video vixen.

They are different expectations that come from the same frustrated need.

The need is to see Blackness as not only a skin color or community but as a performative identity that is confined to whatever preconception they have. I have been guilty; others have imposed those needs on me. I hate to admit that I’ve ever played that game.

People assume if they make me angry enough or “catch” me on the right day I will be performing the Blackness they want to see. It may be neck rolling, finger snapping Angry Black Woman. It may be, heterosexual Christian upstanding Lady Blackness.  It could be Jezebel fallen on hard times hooker with a heart of gold Blackness but it is never without expectation and it never fails to hurt me.

At times, the expectation of a certain–no let me stop bullshitting–TV worthy Ghetto behavior comes from a purely racist place. Someone wants to say, I told you that’s how Black people are. They want to have the moment inside their head where they feel justified in thinking, “stupid nigger.”

Someone else may simply be unaware of and uncomfortable with the idea that a Black woman may not be the Black woman they are familiar with. Or they assume because our culture says that Blackness can only be done one way and that I am fake.

Now I am the anxiety riddled Black woman who despite years of working on establishing her own singular method and means of Blackness. It hurts too much.

I spend too much time burning, seething, and wanting nothing more than to destroy everything I see.

It hurts too much.

This hurt is never small and has taken root in my soul. It is pain that reaches down and pulls at the things most private and most sacred to me. It blooms nausea and flaming shit.

Instead of throwing punches or setting people on fire, I embarrass them in public or in front of their friends. I have developed a thick mean skin and will lacerate people on the street in my calm, small voice. I have learned to hold my head up and let my gaze burn.

When the anger has died down and my fists have unclenched, all I want to do is cry. I want to fall to the ground like an overtired 2 year old and cry the inconsolable cry of someone who doesn’t have sophisticated enough language to ask why anyone would feel the need to hurt me this way.

All I can do is care for myself. Occasionally I can turn these incidents into teachable moments; sometimes all it does is make me want to vomit. This is the Blackness I have to accept because to reject it, is to reject the essential truth of Blackness and my identity.

Blackness as I do it, is Blackness as much as any other idea or actuality of Blackness. I never have to satisfy the hungry mouths that only want Blackness their way, on their terms. I force myself to remember all the work I put in every day to protect myself from the non-racist people who say the most racist things to me is important.

This is not what I wanted you to know.  This is not what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about how much I love the Dune saga, I wanted to tell you how hard I squee about Star Trek. I wanted to be beautiful and eloquent.

I tried.

All I want you to know now is that behind my glares and my angry blog posts and analysis: the real truth is I’m hurt. I want to be protected sometimes from the stress and the pain. I want to not be expected to present myself Sapphire or Jezebel or Mammy.

What I’ve been trying to say is hi I’m Shannon. It’s nice to meet you.


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Shannon Barber is an author from Seattle where she lives with her partner and a small collection of oddities. She likes to crochet, drink hot beverages and annoy her partner. To see more of her work please visit her at

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–Art by Peter Lamata