By Mia McKenzie
When I was in second grade, I was given a reading test. The test-giver wasn’t my regular teacher, but someone whose job it was to give reading tests, I guess. I was six years old, a year younger than everyone else in my class, because, after having my IQ tested at the age of five, it was recommended that I skip kindergarten and go straight to first grade. I was smart. I was gifted, to be more precise. And I knew it. So, this one day in second grade, I was given a reading test. I sort of remember what the classroom was like, I kind of remember the table where I sat. The test-giver pointed out words to me on a sheet of paper, and I told her what the words were. I don’t remember the words now. Except one of them. I remember the word:
I knew this word. I knew what this word meant. I knew that the present and past tense of this word were spelled the same and had different pronunciations. (I also knew the word ‘pronunciation’.) I had a thing about this word. The thing was that whenever I was presented with this word out of context, outside of a sentence where it had to be either the past or present tense depending on the meaning of the sentence, whenever it was up to me to just decide which tense I wanted the word to be, I always chose the past tense. Simply because I liked the sound of that word better. I liked the sound of [red] better than the sound of [reed]. I still do. It sounds denser, deeper, more soulful, doesn’t it? So, when the test-giver pointed at this word, not in a sentence but completely without any context, I knew it could be either the past or present tense and that it was for me to say it whichever way I liked. I said:
The past tense of read [reed].
The test-giver frowned, and I remember the frown exactly. I had gotten every word right up until then, and the frown was a frown of disappointment, like, “Aw, shucks, you got one wrong.”
The test-giver said something like, “No. That word is ‘read’ [reed]. Not red.”
I was six. And I remember thinking: I am smarter than this teacher.
I think that was the moment I became dangerous.
Little black girls are not supposed to be brilliant. So many of us are, but we’re not supposed to be. To be a black girl in the world is to be nothing. To be a black girl in the world is to be dismissed and dehumanized at every corner of the globe, every single day. To be brilliant and a black girl is, in many people’s minds, an oxymoron. An impossibility.
But I didn’t know that then.
In my world, in the world of my family, being a brilliant black girl was not only possible, but an everyday reality. In my family, I was surrounded by smart black women. And I was told all the time that I was smart. I would go so far as to say that as a child my gifts (my intellect as well as my talents) were revered by my family. Every aced test, every starred art project, every perfect memorization of a poem or a bible verse was—to my aunts, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great-grandmother—a holy thing that demanded praise and exaltation.
This is not to say that I was spoiled. I wasn’t. My parents were not nearly as impressed with me as my other family members. Or, it might be more accurate to say, they were not as good at showing me that they were impressed. They were very young. They did not always take the time to make me feel special. But I was lucky that I had other family members who did.
My late preadolescence and my early adolescence were awkward. To say the least. I was skinny, and most of my face was nose (it still is). I was teased a lot at school. I was called ugly, a lot. My self-esteem wavered a little in the years between ten and fourteen. But even as I experienced teasing, and sometimes cruelty, about my looks at the hands of other kids, I never forgot that I was smart. Gifted. That idea had been rooted so deeply in me that nothing has ever been able to shake it loose.
It has been the most important idea of my life, the most essential thing I know and have ever known about myself.
The world has tried to make me forget it. Every time I turn on the TV, or the radio, I am reminded that black women are supposed to be crack-addicted welfare-mothers, bitches, tricks, skanks, and uneducated, violent loud-mouths. Every time I interact with a white person who is surprised at how “well” I speak, or a black person who is surprised by how “white” I sound, I am reminded that black women are supposed to be one thing and sound one way. Every day, in some way or another, someone assumes I am less than what I am.
But I am lucky. Because I know what I am.
And knowing makes me dangerous.
Knowing means that I can’t be controlled. It means that I can’t be shamed or silenced. That I can’t be made smaller. It means that no matter what happens, no matter what fucked-up shit anyone says or does (including me), I still love myself. Even when I fail or falter (which I do all the time), even when I am not as good as I hope to be (which I often am not), I still believe in myself.
And to be able to say that while walking around in this world, in this skin, is, I think, an amazing thing.
I am dangerous.
I want to be. If it means that I’m not taking anybody’s shit. If it means that I make my voice heard. If it means I’m tough enough to survive, and not only to survive, but to grow, to blossom, to be beautiful and rare. If it means I’m willing to take chances, that I’m willing to RISK, every single day of my life.
I am empowered, now, by the idea of my own dangerousness.
I am inspired by it.
I am in love with it.
**Mia McKenzie is the creator of Black Girl Dangerous and the Black Girl Dangerous Photography Project. She is a writer (winner of the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award, winner of the Astraea Foundation’s Writers Fund Award), a reader, a photographer, an activist, and a nerd.