When I was in high school, a group of my friends and I decided to attend the local Renn Fest. I had never been before, but it sounded like fun, and I was pretty excited about it. To make the day extra fun, my very white friends decided to go whole hog and dress up in high-class Renaissance era garb.
I was the only brown face amongst the group, and I did not have any desire to dress up in European clothing. Instead, I selected some fabric with an “African” design on it from the “ethnic” section of Joann’s Fabrics, and my friend’s mother sewed it into a simple dress with a matching head wrap. I also had a black sash with some kind of gold filigreed design in the middle of it, and at some point I bought a large peacock feather and carried it around with me for the rest of the day.
The whole ensemble was a bastardization of what I supposed was my ancestors’ culture. Every single aspect of the costume was picked because it “looked African,” which meant that they satisfied the requirements for the stereotypical African monolith, a dark continent with no distinguishable differences between cultural practices, beliefs, and norms. I felt so disconnected from my own roots, so lost and ignorant of my past; but still so desperate to know and recognize my own cultural heritage that even the cultural equivalent of a fucking clown costume satisfied me.
I felt proud of that costume, and I got a lot of compliments for it, from white and black folks alike. Now I look back with embarrassment. If the person I am today had seen that teenaged girl at the Renn Fair, dressed in clothing that so fully satisfied the white gaze, surrounded by her white friends, I would not compliment her. I would feel sorry for her loss, for her desperation, for the hole in her heart.
I still feel that loss today. I have to wonder if that hole will ever heal for me, and for all of us.