Around the age of 30 and ensuing years after, I finally learned what had made many of my elders, who saw me as their high-achieving young heroine, so frightened at what could happen to me later on in life—when the grace, smarts, manners, comportment, hard work ethic and do-gooder character, which rewarded me with admirers of all races in my youth, could start to turn against me in adulthood. The attributes which had once overwhelmed and busied me with fortifying attention as a tween and teen would later overwhelm with me as an adult, due to either not enough attentions or all the wrong attentions; my spiritual, mental and psychological adaptation would be a violent, stubborn one.
At 16 years old, the NAACP of my small Illinois hometown determined it would protest the school district I was a local standout, participant and benefactor of. The reason?The discomforting school pregnancy, suspension, drop-out and truancy rate was most probably in direct relation to a nearly 50/50 Black/White student population. An entire population of Black students attended a district with scarcely a Black teacher in the schools. The leaders of this movement claimed White students were either going to college or guaranteed good jobs in town through their parents and otherwise, as Black students were more often steered to jail, technical schools and short military careers.
Their solution was to pull Black students out of the school district and into makeshift church schools until the powers-that-be achieved more balance in racial representation. For me to protest as part of this movement, I would have had to leave school the year before college admissions were sealed and with a near straight-A honors average. I needed my grades. Although my family worked honestly and hard, my opportunities to college were most definitely tied to scholarships a senior year lacuna would jeopardize.
At that time, as Class President of the high school and Miss Junior Kankakee of the integrated town, I saw the NAACP’s arguments as somewhat valid. It made sense to me that Black women and men could better understand and “relate” to Black young people, so that more Black teachers would not overreact about minor behavior issues and they would better recognize displays of prodigy which cut against the prevalent models set by White behavior, culture and identity.
Yet, I had always been sequestered in honors classes and surrounded by higher achieving friends of all races. For whatever reasons, we were clearly self-determined. The methods of petitioning and partitioning our district into makeshift all-Black church schools, conducted by retired teachers, was antagonistic to all I had learned in Black History Month. These were today’s crusaders, talking now. It was such an oddity to me we were at this backwards point in race relations that I penned a letter to the newspaper stating 1) I did not agree with the boycott, 2) we should not look to segregate schools, 3) parents should get involved in steering children’s futures and 4) we all needed to pray.
I still agree with the last two, at this age of over twice 16.
My letter galvanized the NAACP’s threats into a movement. It freed up Whites to start writing in their opinions for much more “hope” that we could “all get along.” It spurred Blacks to write in with their own experiences, usually counter to mine. I was profiled in the newspaper, and taken from my afterschool jobs, studies, church activities and extracurricular projects to be a local celebrity. My desperation to cover acne accelerated. Within weeks, a national television show in New York had heard tale of the news in our small town; suddenly, I was to be swept off to New York City in order to be the foil to low black achievement (and White blame) on national television. It was my first plane trip. I was excited, and ready.
However, concerned and active Blacks who had swept me up into scholarship pageants and Debutante Cotillions approached me gently regarding this new role I played. They did not give personal attack, as some NAACP leaders in town chose to do, for an outcome I had not asked for. They attempted to enlighten me to the fact that this movement had not begun with Black parents of outstanding children like me, who were lucky enough not to need too much intervention from teachers in order to do well. We were the rare exceptions–not the rules.
They attempted to explain I was unaware of how the majority of Black children were serviced poorly, unattended to and written off at levels far below their full potentials. I always listened and smiled through their pointed lectures. I thought I was saying something peaceful and that our forefathers would have wanted. These other protestors were more still, calm and serious. A distillation of the speeches I frequently heard from them is this:
“You don’t understand. You’re sweet and easy. You were moving on a path before you got to school. You are not going to feel the same high discipline the majority get. Once you get out of here and into this world, your life is going to turn into having many more surprises, pressures and battles than you can ever imagine now.”
The surprises, pressures and battles actually started the moment I crossed over the threshold of just sweet and easy Black student to local television star, public voice and threat of future leadership. In the weeks before the show, television show producers called my parents and me incessantly. I was amused at how they directed my mother to speak of me; she confirmed how early I started talking, made it clear I worked hard and no one had to tell me to, emphasized how well I wrote and that I wanted to go to college, and confirmed to them that they had an authentic Negro to depict. To this day, I am amazed how many things I considered to be so normal were so shocking to so many people when encased in a brown girl. We were small-town, working class people. We had many strangers call to to congratulate us, but even more acquaintances decide not to speak to us. It appeared we were betraying the race.
I spoke with the television show more briefly, since I was handling my life and new role. I mostly wanted to know where Columbia University was, and to journey there since I was going to go to New York for the television show. Our limo driver made the detour to the school’s Morningside Heights campus, and I sat on the steps of the main building with plans to apply. These producers who arranged this stop also promised me VHS tapes of my television show. The producers were like the rest who wanted to contribute to my obvious success story; they encouraged me to give the tape to colleges. Their promises were enthusiastic and energetic. But, we would never hear from them after our show.
My parents and I journeyed to the New York production set to receive the firsts of many surprises I would earn over the years: attempts to test my will, give me new challenges to reckon with immediately, emotional shutters and shocks that add for us what others don’t have to deal with it, and expectations of a thrill in how we will handle this (rather than help). We had been informed that all the show’s guests were people from my hometown.
It was only once we arrived that producers explained Former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke would be a guest on the show as well. I knew who he was, what he stood for and what it meant for me. I was stunned. I felt the life drain out of my meticulously-curled hair, perfumed chest, polished toes and high spirits. My father pulled me to the side to immediately scrutinize this. He told me: “I’m sorry, but as much as these people spoke to us, they had to know this man was coming on the show and did not tell us. If you don’t want to go on, you don’t have to.”
I decided to go on the show, as I said I was going to do. The show’s producers were clearly wrong, but I would not be right by taking my free trip to New York and going home without an appearance. As we prepared to go on and I sat with my parents, one of the producers expressed concern that their little star guest (me) was “boring.” This was before the days of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and a host of other ridiculous productions who cull the majority of their cheap content from Black guests who screech, fight, snatch wigs off, stomp and otherwise appear tantrum-prone and immature. The television producers told me to “Pep up, babe.” In fact, I was quite pepped–just with my legs crossed, hands folded in my lap and big mouth back at home. Despite calling me because I wrote a letter to rival an experienced journalist, the producers expected a neck-rolling, head-jerking, loud and gyrating woman they saw on television. Their reactions to me foreshadowed what would be a terrible experience.
The producers did not really care who I was or what was most respected about me. Here, I was not “Black” enough. The audience thought so as well. They represented the ditch many Blacks face once they over-achieve: complete and total estrangement from our own people and near disdain for being “different” enough to embody the enemy. Our words of encouragement and advice remain distrusted, spit back at us, not taken and just as rebelled against. The moment I shared my experiences as well as my reasons for disagreeing with the implementation of segregation in the mid-nineties, audience members booed me and jumped up hurling insults.
The audience cross-examined me to points of having to raise my voice. My mother had to stand up to explain that we were not necessarily rich, just stable. Imagine? A people who are so hurt that a poor child’s mother has to explain she is not rich just so the masses will back off of hurting her. Once my mother, father and I were sufficiently pissed off to vigorously respond to the attacks, the producers ran to me with glee: “Good job!” They did not care for the issue at hand. They wanted a show. And a bunch of Black people shouting at each other is more of a show than a Black audience celebrating one of their own for good grades.
What was most startling about the experience is how much the host, producers and audience were nearly committed to seeing us all act “ghetto”: pitched, explosive and physically animated. When those characteristics would not naturally manifest, they were forced. There are plateaus of composure; too many Blacks have to become nearly catatonic or diseased by high blood pressure to contain the stress inflicted by a world of prejudice and discrimination forcing these unnatural characteristics. One would think others would take into account all the stress prejudice and discrimination must bring Black people, to treat us more tenderly and gently.
Yet, too many Black Americans get the opposite. Too many others hold poisoned stock data of Black people as volatile, angry, mad and dangerous. Any good person with good intentions, amidst signals to keep affirming you are dangerous, will grow so crazed with the weirdness such signals bring as to start to look dangerous. I have lost jobs in this fashion–unable to understand how or why I could be the most chipper and happy person in the offices, yet I was always the one being corrected or giving apologies demanded by White others who were so on edge in my presence. My confusion eventually subsided into the very anger I did not have to begin with, but which these White others’ prejudiced delusions finally caused.
I have a grand-cousin who earned two degrees in social work as a lifelong Chicagoan. She raised six children and paid off a home. She raises her grandchildren. She has never been arrested. I remember her kinda sorta speech on this, more than I want to:
“Yes, sometimes I am in situations and everybody is just acting weird. They look like they’re snarling. They keep on asking me the same questions over and over. They act like I’m hurting them or something. They attack anything I say. If I move or get up to go the bathroom, they flinch like I’ve pulled out a gun. And I’m just as nice and happy as a besty bug. It always sneaks up on me. But I have to stop myself and say ‘Oh, I forgot I was Black.’ Cause you know, we forget that. Why would we be thinking about being Black? But, once I remember I have Black skin and these White folks have spent their whole lives being told and taught that those with Black skin were savages, and poor, and unrefined, and unintelligent, and needy, and ungodly I understand what is going on around me and I don’t go so crazy I.”
On that show, and in my life, I forget I am Black. I came to know that my stuttering and furrowed brow would not be considered signs of distress for others to immediately come to my aide for—as I saw done for White heroines in the movies. For me, these would be certifications of a “ghetto” threat lurking inside. Later in life, this would involve clear unfairness on my jobs, assaults by men, cocky and aggressive handling by police, and constant backlash or distrust among far too many White friends who never outlasted whatever situation we were fated to sit within.
On the show, the pressures to account for my “ghetto” life hindered the capabilities of the audiences to hear what I was saying: self-reliance, spiritual cores, hard work and finding people who uplifted one’s talents could surmount the racism our town was assigning to great teachers who helped many of all levels. Yet, the presence of my two parents in the audience and ‘talking White’ made me an imposter in these Big Apple Blacks’ world.
It followed in a year where I was more nervous and scared to wear my pageant crown on cars and floats for events in Black communities; I would answer for it the next day in school, hear I was not “pretty” and be accused of “acting White.” In the rural cornfield towns and fairs, Whites would clap and cheer. I did not understand why I was certainly something to see for many. Was I a zoo animal? I was not “Black enough” for my own people, and often unsafe en masse of them. I would never be “White enough” for other people, and most often unsafe en masse of them. I was unsure where I belonged.
What I remember most about the show is coming back from it, still juggling studies and attention, being both congratulated and despised. Of course, there was envy. A group of girls determined they were going to tax my nerves with low blows and insults until I approached them. I explained I did not enjoy or appreciate being called names. The girls exploded into a storm of “Bitch this!” and “Bitch that!” I walked away.
A teacher noticed their volatile outburst through the halls. She reported them to the office. Within minutes, I was also called to the office to face an Assistant Principal. He had my suspension slip ready. The other girls had provided my name as “starting” a fight with them, although I was nowhere on the scene of it. I admitted I had been the first to approach these young women and ask what was wrong. He stated: “You started it.” He added: “We’re cracking down on Black girls fighting.”
I was suspended as Class President and a woman who had just journeyed onto television to defend the school as not being discriminatory, because I was a ‘Black girl fighting.’ I am not sure how graceful I was supposed to be in that moment. But he saw me roll my eyes, throw my hands up in the air and grab my purse off his desk to leave. Another student at another school would be perceived only of having “hormones” (or maybe in shock from being suspended). But, I forgot I was Black. For me, the perception was: “See…attitude…that’s what we need to crack down on.” I was not the Class President honors student that I, as an educator today, knows is vulnerable to the pained anti-intellectual climate in response to centuries of denials for Blacks in America; I was just another mad Black woman with attitude. And attitude had never gotten a White student suspended.
The teacher who had turned the other young ladies in ran to the office to say she would have never brought in the girls who were screaming in the hallways if she had known I would wind up suspended along with them. She stressed she had never even seen me talking to these girls. My English teacher confirmed I had been sitting in class on time and leading a project. The senselessness of the moment and the insistence on my punishment–from a drama created by Black girls and enforced by a grown Black man–shattered a part of my faith in who I was at that time. There is no way a White girl in my shoes would have been managing all this mess.
I drove home and found my father had taken the day off of work. By the time I was home, the full reality of what had just happened set in. My father raced to school to demand an explanation. He asked why the situation was not treated as a simple argument, addressed by a Peer Mediation session or principal’s office visit. My father heard the same general color code: the school district had entrusted its Black Assistant Principal to put an end to “Black girls fighting.” My father explained “You can’t make a martyr out of my daughter for your damned job.”
The man attempted to explain. Given the story of me he hinted at, one would have thought I threw all his papers off his desk and tried to turn it over. From the attacks a largely Black audience had given me on a television show, to the attacks from Black student body members once I returned from being on television, to a senseless attack from upper administration, it seemed as if I had been lied to. The primary reward in studying and working hard seemed to be violent backlash.
Numbed, I coasted through senior year without the same torpedo for highest grades I was known for. What was the point? Apparently, none of this would count when it really mattered. I would be just a “mad Black girl” if there was ever a hint of conflict hovered above my head: no fair trial, no weighing of evidence, no consideration of my side, no belief maybe I was scared or hurt. I thought it was just high school. I ain’t know nothing about “mad Black woman” yet. As I had planned, I applied to many colleges. I started my first relationship and romance. Spending time with him and going to work became my priority. I lost faith in being a good “student.” I lost faith in being “good.” Luckily, I had stockpiled enough societal credit up until that point so this new indifference made no difference.
This was a first point when fissures started to invade my skull, for a future volcanic quake of my brain. That climaxed in my early thirties. I made the mistake of being immersed among too many White people at once: in my jobs, graduat PhD program, my apartment building, my neighborhood and my career. Despite many good and decent individuals around me who were not Black, I just discovered the American group mentality was to believe the majority of Blacks are incompetent, incapable and threats. Exception made for me based on my pedigree or status do not matter at first sign of conflict or misunderstanding or disagreement, before quick reversal into that concentrated viewpoint on the majority upon which bigots measure all. I would be part of the problem to peg all White people this way. That is wrong and bigoted. However, my experience and history tells me it could be the majority.
Though it did not know it as a young woman, my solid faith in the dream of uplift would not live forever. Once I went off to University of Chicago, 1 of the 35 blacks out of about 1000 or so freshman, it was so obvious I left the dorms early and took extra classes each quarter just to graduate early and get outta there. King Kong set Jane free. The Beast freed Beauty- and turned into a prince to boot. Challenges and struggle arise. Sure. But you get rescued, not kicked when you are down, right? I wanted a world and path and life so peaceful and unencumbered. Any African-American who has achieved a fraction of what they set out to do will tell you a peaceful and unencumbered path is impossible. Some quietly accept prejudice and discrimination, and probably are better off for it. Others, like myself I admit, talk very loud. Both coping styles carry their price.
Those tough elders whispered their own lullabies to me back then and it would take more life for me to understand their messages: to conserve energy for a lifetime of condemnation, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Talented Tenth live on. We are really a Talented Half by now. There is rest in Black suburban enclaves, Black-owned firms and non-profits, Black colleges. Black parents approach me when I speak to young people at schools or events. I have waxed poetic about the power of education, living your dreams, blah blah blah. Their firefly children run in the world now. If they are expressive or smart, they are stopped often and marveled over. They get to feel special. They do not yet have an ongoing relationship or history with the words ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’ and ‘bias’–let alone instant recall as to how they feel.
These parents have heard my speech about education, life and goals. They have sat quietly, arms folded, eyes lowered, lips pursed. They have congratulated me, and smiled. They ask, quietly: “Should we tell them?”