Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Black Like New Jersey

There are a number of misconceptions about New Jersey and people from there. Some come from people who aren’t from there, and others come from those of us who grew up there.

The first is that it’s a vast industrial wasteland. Now this is understandable if you’ve only ever driven along the New Jersey Turnpike, that 122-mile swath of highway that runs from just outside New York City to just above the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The entire point of the Turnpike was to move goods quickly from one end of the state to the other. And with only 18 exits along the entire route, it’s more of a route through the state than for it.

And yet, New Jersey is officially known as The Garden State, and while this may not be seen as easily from its other major highway, the Garden State Parkway, with almost 90 exits over its 172-mile route, this road for the state takes you through slices of suburban and rural New Jersey that people who only drive the Turnpike, mostly outsiders, never see.

But there are a few other misconceptions about New Jersey, and one of them is that everyone from New Jersey is like the people in North Jersey, or Northeast Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, to be specific. But the people who live in Southwest Jersey, near Philadelphia, might have a different view. And then there are the people who live in the shore towns, or in Northwest Jersey. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no one way to be from New Jersey. The people from Passaic are just as much from New Jersey as are those from Phillipsburg or Cape May or Camden. The people who order “pizza and subs” are just as much from New Jersey as those who order “tomato pie and hoagies.”

And you don’t have to love Springsteen or the Four Seasons in order to be a legitimate Jersey Person.

What’s my point? For my birthday, my daughter gave me Baratunde Thurston’s book How to be Black. After jokingly asking her if she was going to read every other chapter (my wife is white), I sat down to read this book myself.

I couldn’t put it down.

This was the book I wish had existed when I was in high school back in the early 70s. The problem was that Thurston wasn’t born until I was in college. This book pointed out that there are many ways to be black. To some people being black is about being from the inner city. To others it’s about being from the south. To still others it’s just about what ethnic group they are, even if they much prefer Rachmaninoff to rap.

In other words, there are as many ways to be black as there are to be from New Jersey.

I could’ve used this book when people, mostly my classmates at Ashland Elementary School and East Orange High School, accused me of “not being black” or worse, of being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside), because I didn’t fit their narrow notions of what it meant to be black. This is a book that I’m certain many kids could use today, as they find themselves accused of “trying to be white” when they’re merely being black in their own particular way; one that looks more like the view from the Parkway than from the Turnpike.

And this is a book that I believe everyone, black, white, or purple, should read, before you go on making assumptions about what is and isn’t “legitimately” black, Asian, or even Irish.

My name is Keith, and I’m from New Jersey.

I’m also black.


  1. Surprise, I'm bi- racial bro. I bet you didn't know that . My pops is half white. I have a HUGE family. I've got at least 100plus family members on Facebook.

    They run the spectrum of color, from white, to blue black. One of my daughters is gay. Bet u didn't know that either.

  2. Over the course of my life I learned to embrace the Oreo comment. If those behaviors got me to the educational goals and travel goals I had set.