Jan 17, 2011

That day...

I have a very vivid memory of standing in front of our smaller, black & white TV, my parents behind me, holding one another, as the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death was being played and replayed. Tears were streaming down their faces. The only contemporary experiences I can relate it to are the exploding of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the crumbling of the Twin Towers on 9/11. There was just horror and stunned silence. I don't know how long we stood there. My parents didn't speak. But even without their words, I knew something profound and life altering had occurred, and that it would affect me personally somehow.

This may sound crazy, but for years and years I didn't know I was black. Of course, I knew what the color of my skin was, and I knew other people were of varying shades. But I wasn't aware of the implications of that, or the stigma associated with my blackness. I had parents who were well educated, very dedicated to parenting, and to the community, and I was surrounded by classmates in the academically talented program, as it was then called, who accepted me for me. The message I got was that I was smart, talented, and could aspire to anything I wanted to. I was blessed. It would be quite a while before I realized my childhood experience wasn't common.

This may also sound strange, from a black person who grew up in the south, but I never heard the 'n' word directed at me until I was sixteen, on the day I landed on the campus of Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. Actually, it wasn't on the prep school campus, but as I was walking downtown for the first time, and a bunch of townies shouted out the window, "HEY, n*****!" I stopped, looked around me, thinking, "Where?" I saw no one. Then I caught my own reflection in a shop window, and realized I was the n*****. The power of that one word and how it changed me is something I find hard to put into words. Every positive thing my parents, teachers, and friends had ever poured into my life suddenly took a back seat to the implications of that word.

Today, I know there are many more attributes I possess that make me a minority, someone to be discriminated against, depending on the circumstances. But there's something very positive that can come out of being denied liberty, equality, access, and dignity. It makes one a better person, if you allow that and refuse to be controlled by bitterness. It causes you to reach out in love to ALL people, no matter who or what they are. Actually, I feel really sorry for people who've lived their entire lives in a protected cocoon of their own culture. They miss out on a lot. I'm happy my skin is brown. I'm happy to be female. I'm happy to know what mental illness is like. I'm happy to be a single mother, and to have successfully raised children with rare disabilities. I'm blessed to know what it is to be poor after having more than enough. And I'm happy to be an outspoken follower of Christ, who made me and loves me unconditionally.

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