Around the age of 30 I finally learned what had made too many of my elders, who saw me as their high-achieving pride of the race, so frightened at what could happen to me later in life—when the grace, smarts, manners, comportment, hard work ethic and do-gooder character building my youth became moot points in my adulthood. These attributes which once busied me into fortifying attention would later sabotage me as an adult, and the reason was what I finally processed as racism in real life- not in a book, news report, term paper, the “Roots” series at Black History Month or a PBS special. My spiritual, mental and psychological adaptation was a violent, stubborn one.
At 16 years old, the NAACP of my small Illinois hometown determined to protest the school district I was a local standout, participant and benefactor of. The reason? The high school pregnancy, suspension, drop-out and truancy rates were alleged to be in direct relation to 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 surrounding networks, but Black students were more often steered to technical career programs, the military in a Desert Storm era and even jail.
The NAACP’s proposed solution was to pull Black students out of the school district and into makeshift church schools until the school board 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 average. I needed my grades. My opportunities to college were most definitely tied to very necessary scholarships a senior year lacuna would jeopardize.
At that time, I was Class President of the high school and Miss Junior Kankakee of the integrated town. As a result, I knew more people than most. I saw the NAACP’s argument. It made sense to me that Black women and men could better understand and “relate” to Black young people, and Black teachers would not overreact about minor behavior issues. I also knew they would better recognize displays of prodigy which cut against the prevalent models set by White behaviors, culture and identity.
Yet, I had also always been sequestered in honors classes and surrounded by higher achieving friends of all races. I knew the other side. The color of our teachers was not responsible for who we were. For whatever reasons, we were self-determined. For some it was certainly pushy parents. For others it was pressures from their cultures and religious households where misbehavior or poor achievement were sins. For many like me, it was just a will to stay busy and out of trouble leading to opportunities I enjoyed.
The NAACP’s petitioning and partitioning our district into makeshift all-Black church schools, directed by retired Black teachers, was antagonistic to all I had learned in Black History Month. These were today’s crusaders, talking now. But according to my history, people had died to end segregation. 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 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 speak further on this. 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 to be the foil to low Black achievement (and White guilt) on national television. It was to be my first plane trip. I was excited, and ready.
However, elder Blacks who had swept me up into scholarship pageants and Debutante Cotillions were concerned. They 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 the movement did not begin for children like me, who were lucky not to need too much intervention from teachers in order to do well. They insisted I was a rare exception, not the rule.
They attempted to explain I was unaware of how most 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 protesters 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 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 where people don’t know you, your life is going to turn into having many more surprises, pressures and battles than you can ever imagine now. Then maybe you’ll see what we’re talking about.”
What they were talking about actually started quickly. 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 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 respectable Negro. To this day, I am amazed how many things I considered 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 pointedly. I wanted to know where Columbia University was, and I wanted to be taken there since I was going to go to New York for the television show. After we were picked up at JFK Airport 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; 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. We had been informed the other guests on the show would be from our hometown, people we knew. 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 earlobes, polished toes and high spirits. My factory-worker father pulled me to the side. He told me: “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 do what I said I was going to do and go on the show. The producers were clearly wrong, but I would not be right by taking my free trip to New York and going home without giving them their appearance.
As we prepared to go on, one of the producers expressed concern their little star guest was “boring.” This was leading up to the days of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and a host of other ridiculous productions who cull their cheap content from fighting and screeching Black guests, tantrum-prone and immature caricatures. The television producers told me to “Pep up, babe.” I was quite pepped in fact- just with my legs crossed, hands folded in my lap and big mouth left back at home. Despite calling me because I wrote a letter to rival an experienced journalist, the producers expected a kind of neck-rolling, head-jerking, loud and gyrating Black girl who was populating talk shows more and more. Their reactions to who I was as my own self foreshadowed what would be a terrible experience.
For them, I was not “Black” enough. The audience thought so as well. The moment I shared my experiences as well as reasons for disagreeing with segregation in the mid-nineties, most audience members booed. Some– hurled insults. I was stunned. They brought up that ditch many Blacks face once we pass a certain point: total estrangement from our own people and near disdain for being “different,” almost like we embody the White enemy. Our words of encouragement and advice remain distrusted, spit back, mocked and resented.
The audience cross-examined me to points of having to raise my voice. My mother had to stand up to explain we were not necessarily rich, just stable. Imagine? A people who are so hurt a child’s mothermust explain she is not rich so the masses will back off her. Once my mother, father and I were sufficiently pissed off to vigorously respond to audience attacks, the producers ran to me with glee: “Good job!” They did not care for the issue at hand. They wanted a show. A bunch of Black people shouting at each other is more of a show than a Black audience celebrating one of our own in peace.
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 all forced them. 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 that 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 they are dangerous, will grow so crazed with the weirdness such signals bring as to start to look dangerous.
I have a grand-cousin who earned two degrees in social work. 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 keep on asking me the same questions over and over. They act like I’m hurting them or something. They attack anything I say. And I’m just as nice and happy as a betsy 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 White folks spend their whole lives being told and taught that those with Black skin were savages, and poor, and unintelligent, and ungodly I understand what is going on around me and I don’t go so crazy.”
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.
In the following year, 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 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 White 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 the Black 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 was 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. Now, I was just 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 in the air and grab my purse off his desk to go home. I forgot I was Black. For me, the perception was: “See…attitude…that’s what we need to crack down on,” he said. I was just another mad Black woman with attitude. And attitude never gets a White student suspended.
The teacher who 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 never even saw me talking to these girls. My English teacher confirmed I was sitting in class on time and leading a project at the moment the other girls were getting in trouble. The senselessness of 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. One of the White girls in my honors class would have been protected, not suspended.
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. I had a breakdown. 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 codes: 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 narrative he gave my father, 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 punishment and backlash.
Numbed, I coasted through senior year without the same torpedo for highest grades I was known for. I lost the point. Apparently, none of it counted when it really mattered. I would be just a “mad Black girl” if a hint of conflict ever hovered above my head: no fair trial, no weighing of evidence, no consideration of my side, no belief that maybe I was scared or hurt. I thought it was just high school. I didn’t realize this was the whole world.
As I had planned to do before, I applied to many colleges. I started my first relationship and romance. Spending time with him and going to work became my priority- a narrative I realized the NAACP was trying to derail for its Black girls who treated a relationship and a job like the best trophies they deserved. 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, graduate 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. Exceptions made for me based on my pedigree or status did not matter. At the first signs of conflict or misunderstanding or disagreement, it was quick reversal into that concentrated viewpoint of bigotry. I would be part of the problem if I pegged all White people this way. That is wrong and bigoted. However, my experience and history tells me it might not be all White people but it is definitely the majority of them.
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, as one of the 35 blacks in a class of about 1000 or so freshman, it was so obvious I left the dorms early and took extra classes each term 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 achieves a fraction of what they set out to do in life will tell you a peaceful, unencumbered path is impossible. Some of us quietly accept prejudice and discrimination, and probably are better off for it. Others, like myself I can admit, talk very loudly. Both coping styles carry their toll and price.
Those tough elders had 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 for a moment. 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. Then they pull me aside and in their own ways they ask, quietly, “Should we tell them?”