Arts featured Racism

Thandiwe McCarthy: Gangsta’s paradise – my struggles as a Black poet

“You don’t sound like a Black person.”

“Oh Thandiwe, you’re the whitest person I know.”

“You live in New Brunswick, you can’t be a rapper.”

I have only ever wanted to be a poet.

I’ve always had a passion for sharing my wild imagination with others. As a child, my family would call me poetic and tell me I was gifted with words whenever one of these creative outbursts erupted from me. Making up words and rhyming just made conversations with friends fun.

But growing up Black in New Brunswick, I found out that fun can be seen as something very different when you’re the one Black person in a group of white friends. I lost my identity, I willingly gave it up and handed it to the people around me.

Hopefully, after reading this you won’t make the same mistake I did, you’ll listen to yourself first, then when that doesn’t go right, you can seek the counsel of others.

I love reading so much my hand was literally peeled off a book to pose for this old picture.

I used to share my poetry with everyone. In school, all I did was share what I wrote with people. Just as someone who draws would share a drawing or a painter their painting, writing has always been the silk that holds my soul together.

But then something happened, around middle school, my friends (all of them white) stopped just enjoying my writing and started trying to find a use for it. Anytime I shared a piece of poetry the suggestions would flood in. No longer did I get “this is cool” instead, these best of friends replied “you could be a rapper!” With an energy that made me think they just figured out how to best help their friend.

And so that’s when I realized that all my friends suddenly became employment advisors. As their only Black friend, my words lost all energy and meaning. Instead, they became lyrics to a song about poverty and aggression that I never wanted to sing. A song I never had anything to relate too, or knowledge of.

I was raised by a proud family who made sure none of their children went hungry or had to worry about not having pencils and notebooks for school. Every year of school, I got a new backpack even if I didn’t need one, I knew nothing of poverty all I knew was that I enjoyed poetry.

But a Black poet among whites can only dare hope to be a gangsta rapper. Too soon did I become Snoop Dogg in their eyes. Suddenly my every rhyme was measured and directed by the only other source of Black knowledge they had: entertainment media.

The only successful Black people they’ve ever seen where rappers. This entertainment diet tended to limit their abilities as friends greatly. Because now, they were only able to motivate my dreams of success using stereotypes and cartoon characters.

That’s when I started to hide my poetry. My peers’ friendliness came off as confinement, the compliments sounded like dismissals. I was a child who wanted to explore the world with words and yet the people I loved said I had to sing about drugs and smacking booty. One of those things I never did, and the other isn’t something I wanted to promote lyrically.

So I gave up on my personal identity to live what I thought was the Black identity: which of course my friends knew better than I. So yes, now I did want to start a gangsta rap gang, and all my friends were invited to join. Except they couldn’t because a weird thing happened when I finally agreed with my friends on how to be black. They started constantly reminding me that they were white and only used it as an excuse not to join me in artistic activities.

The same friends who said they don’t see colour; The same friends who said I should be like Snoop Dogg. These friends, when asked to join the activity they said I was born to do… all of a sudden replied, “I’m too white to be a rapper.”

I have no idea how stupid I had to be not to have seen that massive contradiction right then and there. Waking up to this realization now is like finding out the very air I’ve been breathing has been sewage piped from the homes of the people I respected most.

The worst part is that in the end Their passive-aggressive life advice and ignorant deflection tactics turned into outright criticism. They said I had no right to want to be a gangster rapper because I had such a good life; that I was well read and intelligent, and that I was in fact “the whitest person they knew.”

These are my best friends. Do you know how messed up your soul gets when people you trust to walk through life with you, to defend and support you, end up being the very fuel for all the worst voices in your head? That, along with the fantastic memories we shared, they were also rotting the roots and growing weeds around my very essence to express myself.

When you’re the only Black person in the room your never allowed the space to express anything; not love: that’s perversion, not hate: that’s criminal intent, not kindness: that’s hustling, not friendship: that’s gang activity. We can’t share without being dealers and we can’t even listen to music without it being measured against the darkness of our skin.

As a Black man, I am never allowed to hold anything intellectual or anything that might seem like a strength of personality. All my confidence has been bled out of me as anything I try to champion has forever been smashed against the warped and crooked caricatures of what my friends have seen in the media.

Their reflections of who I am as an individual is so grounded in a cartoonish sense of blackness that I do not even exist to them unless I become a cartoon. Every other aspect of myself is seen as threatening or unrealistic.

I guess I’m just saying that its hard being Black. Mostly because everyone on this planet has a completely different set of qualifications for what blackness is, and somehow they are all equally important for anyone individual to be seen as a member of the Black culture.

Are you born in Africa? How dark is your skin? Do you have curly hair? How big is your butt? Can you rhyme words? Do you enjoy rap music? Can you play basketball?

There is literally nothing, nothing, nothing about Black culture that hasn’t been sold, slaved, stolen or staged to every other culture on the planet. Everyone has a piece of who we are, and they all measure that piece against the entirety of our culture, and I refuse to apologize for saying this but that’s fucking crazy.

This blog post could last forever but I’ll end with this. I truly do believe that we are coming out of the dark times. I just want more Black people, however you define it, to meet more often and celebrate the new artists we are creating now.

Let us put behind all the horrors of the past. So we may rapidly evolve our culture to the point that no other can hold us accountable to the madness of this Black consumerism we live in now.

The only way to be united is for everyone to pick a direction and start sprinting. Be the best version of yourself you can be so when someone tries to question what Blacks can do, everyone on the planet will just say “everything.”

See also: Thandiwe McCarthy: The darkest lesson – my education history

Please help Thandiwe pursue a writing career. Check out more of his writing here.

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