Were there any puzzling racial episodes for you? Was your neighborhood -- your part of the world -- multiracial? Was there some instance when you thought, “Huh? Why is this person saying that?” or “Am I missing something here?” and you were brought to a realization concerning skin tone that was either enlightening or painful?
This was the question posed to me recently in a conversation with a very dear friend. It’s an interesting question in and of itself. I emailed my answer to him, and he suggested that I post it on my blog while he posts a similar type of story on his - syncing our days and redirecting our readers to each other’s posts. I didn’t have any problem doing this simply because half the people who visit my blog already visit his site. I’m just basically giving everybody the heads-up that we did plan on having similar posts today.
So let’s get back to the question. Yet before I start, I should give everyone a fair warning. I am not going to hold any punches with this post. There might be parts that can make people feel uncomfortable. Please bear in mind that I dealt with this situation for 18 years. You will only deal with it for a few minutes, or however long it takes for you to read this post. If I could pull up my big girl panties and handle this long ago, then you should be able to handle these things now.
Don’t worry. I’ll be standing right beside you with my hand out. We can walk along this memory together. We’ll share in a laugh at the funny parts. We’ll shake our heads at the strange parts (of course there will be strange parts -- you are here at my blog). And when you gasp at the shocking parts, I’ll sigh and nod and assure you that those things really did happen. We’ll get to the end together where my mind and heart will be free from a little of the burdens I carry alone. Hopefully, you’ll gain something from this too. If anything, you can say it simply passed away a bit of a boring workday.
I’ll start off by describing the area where I grew up.
New Alexandria, Pennsylvania . . . you can easily think of this place as the heart of redneck country. If I may quote the famous pop-art icon, Andy (Campbell’s Soup Can painter) Warhol, “Pennsylvania is nothing more than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in-between.” I mean no offense to anyone living in Alabama. I’m just quoting something true about the people’s mindset in the area.
The town population was about 600. It was far from being a multiracial area. If I broke it down into a percentage, I would say it was 99.17% Caucasian and .83% African American. (Thanks, Jim, for giving me the right percentage - it is not my strong point.)
Anyway, the valley I lived in was remote and quiet. We were the only black family there. Everybody had a lot of property, and I think the smallest was 2 acres (ours was almost 6). All the houses were spread out, allowing everybody their solitude. A sheltered childhood? Yes, you would be right in this assumption, which might be the reason to the reaction I had for the following part.
My first racial episode happened when I was four or five, which meant this would have happened in 1979 or 1980. I stood in the driveway, watching the dragonflies drinking from the puddles while giving piggyback rides to each other, when a Landrover drove by with the windows rolled down. A man shouted, “I didn’t know there were any niggers living out here?” His female companion laughed.
I, being only four or five, had no idea what the word “nigger” meant. So I went into the house and picked up the dictionary. All it said was, “A Negro or member of any dark-skinned people: a vulgar and offensive word. [See Negro]”
Obviously, this was of no help in figuring out why the man had shouted it at me (I was completely oblivious concerning different cultures). So I checked the encyclopedias. Since this word was not between “Nigeria” and “Nightingale,” I contented myself with looking up why dragonflies liked piggyback rides so much.
Elementary school was the wake-up call for me. I was the only black student there for five years. Seeing the sea of lily-white faces ogling me like I was a space invader who might probe the teacher, it was a very uncomfortable time. No one talked to me, and no one invited me to play with them at recess. Every day, I sat by myself against the brick wall for the entire period until the teacher called us back in for class.
Bear this in mind. The kids were never mean. They just kept their distance. It was as much a culture shock for them as it was for me. Whenever I did receive a harsh remark, it came from the teachers.
My first grade teacher was the worse of the bunch. She ignored me during class. Whenever she asked a question and I raised my hand with the answer (the only student who raised their hand), her eyes would glance over the other students several times. Then she would turn around and say, “It looks like no one has an answer.” She even got fed up with seeing my raised hand and told me flat out to stop doing it because she would never call on me. Then when we had book reports concerning famous people in history, she picked out our assignments. Most were revolutionary heros or explorers: George Washington, Lewis & Clark. I got Robert E. Lee. She smirked and tried to teach me that the South was right to do what they did toward the “lesser races.”
By the last year of elementary school, four black students attended (this number included me). Middle school – 11. High school – 17. I attended public schools.
After several years, I started making friends with the students once the initial shock worn down and they realized I wouldn’t be leaving for my home planet Glorp. All my friends were white because, well, there were no other black kids in my elementary school classes (I was kept separate from the other three). When I attended middle school, and later high school, I tried to make friends with the growing number of black students I met. However, I was segregated from them-- by them. There was an instance when I walked down the hall with a white friend. We passed by two black students. One of them shouted at my back, “She’s made her choice.” For the last years of school, 1988-1993, the black students threw insults at me because I had supposedly “betrayed my race.”
On the flip side, I attended a vocational school for computer programming from tenth through twelfth grade. There was a boy on the bus who was angry with his older sister for having sex with a black man and getting pregnant. He continually called the unborn child a “half-breed.” Then he rolled down the window and spat on any pedestrians who weren’t white. The other white students joined in.
High school was the most hectic/ironic time. I experienced prejudice from the white students on the bus rides and the same from the black students during classes – all on the same day. The biggest lesson I learned from all of this: Racism works both ways, and they cancel each other out in my mind. So I won’t ever let hate enter my heart.
Well, this was my long-winded answer to Jim (Suldog) Sullivan’s question. Make sure to go visit his place. He has a similar type of story from his own viewpoint on when he first saw someone of my race. Don’t worry. You still have the time before your boss comes over to check on what you’re doing.