Friday, January 4, 2008

My First Lesson In Being Black

When I was a little girl, I loved Peppermint Patty. She didn't wear dresses and she played sports. She talked trash and she would threaten to give you a knuckle sandwich in a minute. She was a night owl and she regularly used the wonderful phrase, "wishy-washy." All those things really appealed to a highly competitive, athletic, and late nite lurking tomboy of seven tender years like me. I was completely clueless that the cartoon character was white. In fact, I was completely clueless at putting a "race" to any member of the Peanuts Gang.

I knew I was black, but I had no concept of what that meant in everyday society. I went to a 99% black elementary school and I lived in a predominantly black middle class neighborhood. All my friends were black. Even though looking back, my two closest friends where both clearly multi-racial and either could have easily passed for white, but they never identified as anything other than black. My girl scout troop was all black, as well as my sport teams. I never remember race being discussed or being an issue. We were just us, regular kids.

For a school art contest, I proudly submitted a drawing of Peppermint Patty on a baseball mound. I played little league, I was the only girl on the team and I wanted to prove that girls could and did play baseball. It was an awesome drawing, if I must say so myself. A darn good likeness of Peppermint Patty especially in my mind with the light brown skin tone I added to my drawing. I had always thought her skin tone was strange, so I "fixed' it with a thin, tan watercolor mix that I had watched my mom use repeatedly on birthday cards for my friends. As far as I knew, all birthday cards needed to be "fixed" when you bought them home from the store.

When I submitted my drawing for the contest, the woman in charge (who was not black) exclaims quite loudly; "this is a great drawing, but you ruined it by making her black, this character is white." Needless to say I was quite crushed by her statement, because all my young ears heard was "ruined" and I knew what that word meant. I was completely confused about how making Peppermint Patty the same color as me was wrong.

Fortunately for me and unfortunately for the lady, my mother worked at my school. I ran to her in tears and told her exactly what the woman said. My mother dried my tears, got me some OJ, and told me to wait for her outside the school library. She disappeared around the corner back in the direction of the school auditorium with my drawing. She returned without my drawing and the grim expression I only saw when my father had pissed her off. After checking out one of my favorite books, Harriet the Spy, my mom and I went home.

That night, my mom and I had a very long and I realize now a very gentle conversation about race. It was a difficult and painful discussion for me to understand, but I knew one thing for sure at the end of our talk, my drawing was not ruined because I made Peppermint Patty black. My drawing was beautiful because it was my vision. My mom made clear that my drawing was fully entered in the art contest and to be proud of my work. When it came time for the final exhibit, my entire family attended to see my drawing. Hand and hand with my mom and my grandfather, Paw-Paw, we all proudly observed the second place ribbon beside my "black" Peppermint Patty!

I don't remember who or what was awarded first prize. I do remember for a long time that I didn't shared my drawings with anyone I did not trust. It would also be a long time before I enjoyed reading about the adventures of Peppermint Patty again. Most importantly, I also never went back to feeling "regular" about myself ever again, I was suddenly thrust into being regularly conscious, yet comfortable with my blackness all the time. My world had changed forever and it had not been my choice, someone else had made it for me.

As an adult, I always worry when I see small black children because I know the moment is coming of when they will be "reminded" that they are black in a negative way and I always hope that they have someone like my mom to bring them back to positiveness and beauty of their blackness.

How about you? When did you discover the full impact of what "being black" actually meant in this society?


La ~ msviswan January 5, 2008 at 10:20 AM  

What a touching story, I would love to hear the conversation your mom and the white female had. Talk about the "arrogance of ignorance".

I grew up in a all black U.S. owned society. I always had the feeling of being the majority (black people), and if I died, it made sense in my childish mind that the world must cease to exist. Eventually in early grade school I realized I was just the majority in my small society, but not when it came to getting respect, money or power through out the universe. My skin color didn't cut it. Anyway, I do remember earlier about four or five, I was in the doctor's secretary office watching my mother pay the secretary (a white female) for my visit. The television was playing in the waiting room. Out of the blue, I asked my mother.. "why are there so much white people on TV?" As I think back, I partly said it indirectly to make the white secretary uncomfortable. Even then, I realized something was unfairly "wrong" with this discovery. I'm sure the person who felt uncomfortable was my mother trying to explain. I don't really remember what she explained, but I guess I already made my point. Interesting topic though, I have to do some more inner searching on this.

DJ Black Adam January 5, 2008 at 10:26 AM  

Thank you for sharing that. As for myself, I went to a predominately white grade school in the late 70’s. Even though after “Roots” had come out the majority of White students apologized to me about what happened to poor Kunta Kenta, I never really felt “racism” per see.

We often went to visit my grandmother in Chicago, so I was often in a completely Black environment, yet I felt fine at school or at home. I was a Cub Scout (an organization I blame for brainwashing me enough to join the Marine Corps later, If I might add…) and was invited by my fellow scout friend to his birthday party at the “Tiger” club in Aurora.

When I got there, I was informed by one of the children as I waited at the door, and while they wee feeding my dad crap about him needing to be a member and all; that I couldn’t come in because I was brown and not white like them.

After that, the social reality of what being “Black” in America opened up to me.

Mes Deux Cents January 5, 2008 at 10:29 AM  

Hi Professor Tracey,

I must be very fortunate because it wasn't until High school that I got my first taste of other-ness.

It was my sophomore year. A person that I hung out with and I had an argument (about what I can't remember). During the argument my White "friend" called me the N word. That was the first time I had ever been called that and so far no one else has.

Honestly it didn't really faze me that much. I just stopped hanging around with that person.

Also the school I went to was about 99.9% White, so I guess I had no choice but to only attribute the experience to that individual person's stupidity.

I'm not sure why I didn't internalize it, I guess I just knew that person was trying to hurt me and that I wasn't a "N".

The next time anything like that happened to me was when I drove from South Carolina to New York; I was in my mid 20’s. A cop in New Jersey pulled me over on the New Jersey Turnpike for absolutely no reason, except that I was Black and I was driving a nice car. I was pretty mad.

I’m sorry that woman “ruined” your joy when you were seven. I have a feeling she knew exactly what she was doing. But you get the last laugh, look at you now! So her plot to derail the dreams and joy of a little seven year old girl didn't work.

I enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous,  January 5, 2008 at 10:58 AM  

Thanks for sharing that Tracey.

I got my first introduction when I was a little girl and a little White girl told me I was "different" and "not like others".

At our ages we all know that meant I was the exceptional Negro, the good Negro.

I got it to a certain extent and I knew it didnt sit well with me but I wasnt completely sure why.

My son as a Black boy who is hyper and talkative deals with race from public schools but he doesn't know whats going on. Its a fight everyday.

Tami January 5, 2008 at 11:57 AM  

The day after Richard Hatcher became the first black mayor of Gary, Indiana, “for sale” sprung up in front of white residents’ homes like dandelions. There was white flight on a grand scale. From what I can tell (I wasn’t born yet), the folks in the neighborhood of Miller didn’t flee so quickly; they weren’t giving up the beachfront property that easily, nuh-uh. But there was enough of a shift in the lakeside neighborhood that in the early 70s my young married parents were able to purchase a nice split level on a wooded street around the corner from Lake Michigan. We were the second black family to move in.

If there was any tension in the neighborhood, I was too young to notice it. Sure, the old lady who lived across the street with her daughter never spoke to us. But Mrs. Kaminski, the Lithuanian immigrant who lived next door, stopped by regularly and brought great homemade goodies. I went to the Hebrew nursery school at the temple on the corner, because it was convenient and a good program. And I quickly became BFFs with Carol, a black girl about my age whose family was the first to integrate our block.

I never noticed that I was different from most of my neighbors and playmates until about the first grade. Chrissy, a little blonde alpha girl who was part of my kindergarten clique, had moved with her family to a gated, all-white community over the summer. One day after school her mom invited a group of us over to her new home to play. In the station wagon on the way I learned that Chrissy had recently thrown a birthday party and I was alone in not being invited. Later, as all my friends played in Chrissy’s bedroom, something was different. She would pull them aside and giggle and whisper. Finally, she announced that I had not been invited to her party because I was black. She yanked my friends into another room with her and closed the door on me. I remember marching to tell her mother, who reprimanded Chrissy and assured me that the only reason I was left out was that there were too many kids on the list and they didn’t have the space for everyone. Lame excuse. And I could see through it even then.

I don’t remember feeling bad about myself after this incident. I had plenty of other friends who didn’t share Chrissy’s bigotry. But this marked the time when I began feeling like an “other.” Later, when I began going to Saturday School across town with mostly black kids, I caught hell for not being “black enough.” I sort of came to accept that I was just me and that me doesn’t quite fit in a lot of places.

wisdomteachesme January 5, 2008 at 11:58 AM  

as far as i can remember, it was other black children that made me realize there were differences that to them were important.
i can also remember pieces of conversations by white teachers--at a black school-that could be deemed racist.

as a child, i also was filled up with sports, music and art. i was a tomboy in every aspect of the word- and could sit and draw for hours on end. and my mother was a music teacher, so that was a must in our home--piano lessons and playing an instrument in the band-also, learning how to swim.

which she made sure that the 3 of us (my younger brothers) we all learned.

it was the black children in my neighborhood that taught me about hate concerning skin color. as i am light skin with "good hair" (ohhhh how i truly dislike that phrase).

i was told that i was a 'half-breed'--and the word did not upset me as did the tone of hatred that it was said with. i had no idea what a half breed was--but i spent my entire childhood around people that would tell me that, "i thought i was better than them because of my looks"--????? it jsut escaped me because i thought no such thing-- i never did get it--but it hurt because i would hear the way they said it.

my father was a history professor and my mother a music teacher-my grandparents- my grandfather started a school for blacks (back in the 40's) in this area he was principal for over 30 years there- it is named for him and is part of the nc public school system in this county.

my father was a huge militant (as much as my mother would let him be -for safety concerns for all of our lives)--i later found out.

i never once heard my parents or grandparents speak about "how bad" off blacks are-or the white man this or that--i never knew that we were suppose to be less than whites or anything of that nature--they never talked about that in front of us--which i am extremely grateful for.
i realized that things looked different when we left the "black" part of town. but i never thought much about it at a young age. we had a black college nearby, stores, clubs, hotels, and so forth-

but as i got older and moved to live with my grandparents (rebellious child:) - i was thrusted into the 'country' and the separation of colors was evident. but it never bothered me. i was picked on because i had white friends and i saw nothing wrong with it--they were people to me--but here again, i met up with black hate because i looked different than them and i dressed differently-
and i had no idea that my grandfather was such a large person in this community--which translates to--black folk will be jealous when you growand try to help them in te process.
but for a few years in my life--i always wanted to be darker--so no one would pick at me or make fun of me--HA! that truly passed as i began to love myself and how God made me to be-and a lot of the people that i grew up around are not doing very wellin their lives now.

so when my daughter (who is light skin as i am-with a different texture of hair) came home one day and said that a boy told her she was white and not black (this was a blk child)- she didn't understand what it all meant-
i sighed and began to explain to her as best as i could in 6 yr. old terms, that he is confused and not knowing- and that we are black people - colored- and that he has been taught to hate what does not look like him.and so on.

i'm not sure if she fully understood all that i said-but she was calm and went along her merry way.

but later on--another shool year-a year older--she came home and said a child said things again to her concerning her skin color--but this time she said --" i told her, she didn't know what she was talking about and that God made everyone and that God doesn't make mistakes!"
i fell over laughing-hugging her and praising God that for wisdom-but she got it right--just as i taught her.

good post prof tracey-good post...
thank you for allowing me to share a part of my story.

SheCodes January 5, 2008 at 12:53 PM  

Mine was extremely traumatic, so I won't put everything here.

I grew up in the Carribbean where just about everybody was black. Doctors, policemen, governors, everyone. We moved to the most racist city in New Jersey, in the dead of winter when I was six.

Not only was the shock, horror and bewilderment of the intolerably cold weather (I believed that I was going to die from it) but my brothers and sisters were the only black children in the school, and had thick, british accents back then.

I was completely ostracized, except for a jewish boy, who had a crush on me. He was very popular and basically saved me from getting beat up.

I remember not understanding ANY of the colloquialisms and one day, this fat white kid spat at me and called me 'colored'. Well where I am from, 'colored' people are WHITE people... and the term is not an insult there.

So after I corrected him and said that HE is colored, his face turned white, and then very red, and then said 'I'M GONNA TELL ON YOU!!' Then the teacher took me aside and said to me, 'Sweetheart, you are colored, and there's nothing wrong with that'.

I went home and told my mother, who said, 'No, THEY are colored. Tell them your mother said that you are black, and not colored.'

That's when I knew that my mother could not protect me from this strange, white, hostile new world.

Mes Deux Cents January 5, 2008 at 1:15 PM  

DJ Black Adam,

I've heard stories about Aurora, Illinois. I hear it's really racist.

tasha212 January 5, 2008 at 5:25 PM  

I don't think that there was one specific incident that let me know that I was black. My parents let me know that I was black and that it was a beautiful thing. I went to all black schools until I was in the third grade. I remember feeling at home. In third grade I went to an all girl white Catholic school. My sister and I were the only blacks in the entire elementary school. It was a cultural shock from the beginning. While my sister would eventually assimilate into the sea of whiteness, I became a pro-black revolutionary who remained "authentically" black. I spoke out against racism and white supremacy. I used to wear a t-shirt with a picture of a black Jesus whichd read "Jesus, the Black Messiah." I took every effort to let everyone know that I knew that I was not one of them. In spite of this, I was generally well-liked and well-respected amongst my classmates. Thanks, Tracey, for sharing your story. It was really touching.

Candy January 5, 2008 at 7:50 PM  

I was made aware of my blackness by black children.

My block in St. Louis was mixed, so I had close friends who were black, white and American Indian. The first school I went to was pretty mixed, so we all thought we were the same anyway. When I got to fifth grade, I changed schools. It was predominantly black, with about 25 percent of it being white students; my neighborhood friends were at the school too.

It seemed to all start when we were in sixth grade. The black kids would pick on the white kids and were just plain mean - it was horrible. They'd call them names like honkey/hunkey (don't know how to spell it) cracker and hoosier. (In St. Louis a hoosier is a white person who lives in a trailer and is white trash - on the south side of town. It is not a good thing.)

They tried to get me to not hang with my white friends. But I wasn't having it, and neither were my black friends from my block. So the black kids would diss us too, but I didn't care.

What did upset me was the hurt I saw in eyes of my white friends. I wanted to cry. I told my mother about it, and we talked about race and how insecure people use that as an excuse to try to make another feel inferior. But just because someone says it does not automatically make it true, my mom said.

My first encounter with someone trying that stuff on me was in college, when a drunk white kid called me the N word. I couldn't get to him fast enough - his friends hustled him onto the elevator to get him to his dorm room. Now this was a kid who always went out of his way to speak to me all the time; there was somthing about the kid I didn't like, but I couldn't put my finger on it. That incident put it all in perspective. The kid tried to apologize to me the next day, but I acted like he wasn't there. In my life, he didn't exist anymore. You have to do people like that sometimes, don't you Prof. Tracey?

Sharanya Manivannan January 6, 2008 at 3:07 AM  

What I liked most was how you retold the incident, without a trace of hate... :)

One of the first times I understood race dynamics within Asian countries was when I moved as a child from Sri Lanka to elsewhere in the continent. Also a colouring incident, which involved other kids laughing at how my sister and I coloured in the faces of pictures we drew.

Lola Gets January 6, 2008 at 4:28 PM  

Wow, that was touching and deep. Its a sad fact of life, that one has to eventually recgonize how society as a whole views them.


Tamora January 9, 2008 at 1:13 PM  

I'm not black, but my introduction to the issue was shattering for me. I grew up in an all-white coal mining town in southwest PA. When we moved to California, there were Hispanic and black kids in my school, but hillbilly me who couldn't pronounce Spanish words was the odd one out. Then another new kid came to school, and we got to be friends. His name was Austin, and he was black. We played on the gym sets all the time and ate lunch together.

Then one day I kissed him on the cheek. My teacher pulled me aside after lunch and told me I shouldn't kiss Austin because he was colored (this was 1964) and people would take it the wrong way. "Actually," she said, "you shouldn't play with him anymore, either." The other kids said the same thing. And she must have talked to Austin, because he didn't hang out with me after that. When I told my dad, he said it was just as well.

I cried myself to sleep that night.

That's how I found out there was a difference. We'd been too poor to afford a television for the previous two years, and I'd been too young before that, to notice the upheavals of civil rights. After that, I paid attention. Not that I got my friend, or my color blindness, back.

I've never told anyone about this before.

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