Clowned

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.

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5 Responses to “Clowned”

  1. Jessica Says:

    Don’t judge your teenage self too harshly 😛 You had good intentions 🙂 We all do at that age, we just don’t necessarily have the worldly or historical knowledge or maturity to make the statements we want.

  2. Jessica Says:

    or should.

  3. Baette Says:

    Well said Jessica. I physically recoil when remembering my desperate attempts to connect with my heritage backin the day. But try not be to hard on that lil girl who so unknowingly displays her desperation, cuz she’s trying and it’s a start in the process of identifying what’s lost and gradually making the painful/joyous journey towards reclaiming and defining ourselves for ourselves (hope that makes sense).

  4. theroamingnaturalist Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I also think that making an effort to wear something decidedly “African” was a step in the right direction. You very well could have worn something European and you chose not to. Beings that it was a bunch of white girls and a white woman (raised by racist parents) that helped with the costume, I think you did the best you could with the available resources. Could you have felt connected through any costume without knowing the tribe, or even the region, in which your family has its roots? Maybe so, but you made a choice to wear something “African,” rather than “European,” and that in and of itself was taking a stand. IMO. Which doesn’t stand for much, but since I was there, I feel the need to run my mouth because I love you and always admired you for wearing something that DIDN’T match what everyone else at the festival wore.

  5. friday jones Says:

    I would guess that European-descended people would have similar confusion, since there is such a welter of choices of costume, taking into consideration the region, the socioeconomic stratum, and the particular point on the Renaissance timeline are all variables that can wildly affect choices of costume. We’re all so ignorant of our genuine origins and so overwhelmed by storybook and Hollywood imagery that most RenFaire costumes are probably an historical mockery. Especially the sneakers.

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