As my conversation with Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, continued, I grew more curious not only about Dawes’s experiences in the black community, but also those of the people she spoke to while writing the book.
“They all had the same story,” she said of the dozens of people (mostly women) she interviewed. “Everybody has had the same story of feeling like an outsider.”
Naturally, the people she interviewed were among the most gung ho about metal. People who go to shows, who follow their favorite bands around the world, who build up vast collections of music. “These are people for whom metal is very important, so for them to be rejected by their black peers from an early age was devastating.”
Her interviewees shared a feeling of alienation from the black community as a result of their musical preference, a feeling I know all too well and a feeling that Dawes understands as well. “In some ways, the black identity has been ripped from people,” she explains. “That identity is so emotional to a lot of our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, so they’re saying ‘We fought so hard to be ourselves, who the hell do you think you are, thinking that you’re better?’ implying that to ‘act white’ is to think you’re better, when that’s not the case at all.”
I recalled my own grade school experiences of being made to feel like a traitor, even before I became a metalhead (I had a lengthy pop punk phase for which I wholly blame the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games).
“Oh yeah! Yes, definitely,” she piped up, almost before I could get the word “traitor” out of my mouth. I sensed the T-word was one with which she was very familiar.
Dawes told me about her search for an oasis of sorts, a place to belong, a place to escape the ignorance she had to deal with in her hometown. “When I was 18, I moved to Toronto, and I just thought that it was going to be wonderful here,” she said wistfully. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to meet black people just like me!’”
Despite the more diverse urban environment, Dawes was disappointed that race relations in Toronto hardly differed from that of her birthplace. “To be in your late teens and early 20s and STILL be labeled a traitor is hard, especially since I really thought that I had gotten away from that,” she lamented.
We commiserated over the ease with which people, those outside as well as within the black community, have stereotyped us and people like us. “Not black enough,” whether or not in those exact words, are words that have haunted black people who wind up outside of the box in one way or another, black people like myself and Laina Dawes. We discussed blackness, and her ideas about how the concept of blackness has shaped our respective relationships with our peers. “There’s a vested interest, I think, not only in black communities but also in black urban publications like Vibe or Essence or Ebony, in defining ‘blackness,’ and if you fall outside of the definition of ‘blackness,’ people don’t understand you and they don’t want to.”
“People are lazy regardless of race, and they don’t want to get to know who you really are,” she continued. “If you’re going to shows and you’re the only black person there, it’s the same thing — that’s why they say ‘Why are you really here?’”