03 October 2013

when i realized i was black.

i've had a lot of conversation and contemplation about race these last few days.

how it defines us while not really defining us at all. how it's both real and fallacy. how it contributes to our stories.

how we say it comes up all the time these days in this our "post-racial America," but we actually don't really talk about it much. we talk around it. at it. conversations of race are often accusatory or defensive or, my least favorite, dismissive. we cling to words like "colorblind" and "tolerance" or say that people are too sensitive about race. we start sentences with "i'm not trying to be racist, but . . ." as if this qualifier is anything more than weak potpourri in a very very pungent bathroom.

how when i visited South Africa, and my dear and sweet coloured friend kept referring to the black people as "darkies" in negative ways. how i shuddered. how i asked about it after several references since, obviously, i look more like the black South Africans than the coloured South Africans. how he replied, "but you're American." and i laughed at race because in America he would be considered black. racial identity demands context, construct.

and in that moment i was reminded about race. how it defines us while not really defining us at all. how it's both real and fallacy. how it contributes to our stories.

story. i'm reminded of how someone once invited a group of people to tell the story of the first time we realized what race we are--the first time i realized i was black.


i know there are marches and conversations and speeches tucked in corners of my childhood memory in smalltown Dillon, SC, as my parents were very involved in conversations and movements in regard to race, rights and reconciliation.

but the story i call my own first was in first grade. in january, i believe. i was starting a new school mid-year. just a month or so before that day, my dad--a pastor--announced that we were moving to a church with a library, a nursery, a gym and 2500 members and that we'd be the only black people there and how did we feel about it. i remember my sister and i saying, "a real gym inside the church?!?! cool!" i was six. and i had nothing to assign to race at the time.

on the playground that first day at the new school. i remember running to the magic metal half moon-shaped wonder in the middle of the playground and just before i attempted to climb, a girl said, "nuh-uh! you can't get on here!" i stared. or maybe i asked the stringy blonde haired jungle gym guard why. i don't really remember. but i do remember her saying, "the last black girl who got on here did yada, yada, yada, and so you're not allowed on here . . . yada, yada, yada."

i ran to the teacher (who was actually a substitute that day). i remember knowing this wasn't right, and i remember the teacher confirming this for me. she happened to also be one of the 2500 members of our new church, so she marched over to the girl and said, "you can't keep anyone off of the jungle gym. that's not right. and you need to get to know Ciona," she said. "she's going to be in your sunday school class, too. you remember the new pastor we've all been talking about? this is his daughter."

i remember how easy it was for the jungle gym guard to, well . . . let down her guard when she was told it wasn't right and was educated on what we had in common. how easy it was for me to shake hands and laugh and play with her, her white friends and my new black friends whom i invited to join us (how long had they been rejected by the guard? and why didn't they tell on her?).

i remember how i went to her home for sleepovers and still have photographs with her at my 6th grade birthday party. how i would later find out her grandfather was one of the 2500 members who left the church because we were there. how easy it is for children to learn--both the wrong and the right.

i have many race stories. most of them are more subtle than my parents' or my parents' parents' stories. some of them are a lot more messy than this one that ended so cleanly wrapped in a pretty United Colors of Bennetton bow. some of them are beautiful and inspiring. but this is the one that launched me into identifying by race and assigning various meanings to being black. made me realize that others assign meanings to my being black. made me realize that justice depends upon the intelligence and compassion of those in power.

that's the conversation around race i want to invite people into having--about their personal origins around race. when did you realize you were red, yellow, black, white or brown? when did you assign meaning to what your race is?

thanks for hearing my story. i'd love for you to comment with your story--maybe you, too, were 6 or maybe you were 26. whatever, whenever. i want to hear it.

if you have a beef to pick, a cause to defend, a slur to utter, though, i don't want to hear. i can guarantee i'll delete your post when i read it. not because i don't value and honor free speech or because i am imposing my personal beliefs on you. it's just that the best conversations usually start with stories--sometimes messy, complicated and hard to hear stories even. so i invite my fellow storypeople to please honor this and take a moment to share a few paragraphs or just a short sentence even about the day and age you realized your race. all others, just listen for now, please.

may we always tell our stories. it's all we truly own. may our stories, however, not own our every day. and on this day, may you be filled with grace.

peace.

Ciona

(image by my talented sister Lanecia Rouse)

9 comments:

Kristin D said...

What a beautiful piece! I first remember realizing I was white and that was different, when I transferred to a predominantly black school in 3rd grade. I didn't know I was different until, when we were braiding each others' hair, the other girls were annoyed because my plaits didn't stay braided when you let go of them. :-)

Claire McKeever-Burgett said...

I realized my "whiteness" and the privilege that comes along with it when, very honestly and without pretense, I said to my Womanist professor in grad school, "Race was never an issue growing up. We didn't talk about it. It was just a non-thing," and she replied, "That's white privilege, Claire. Not having to think about it." That's when it clicked - the privilege part. And perhaps the race part, too. I also grew up wanting to be Aretha Franklin because I knew no one else on earth could sing like she did, not realizing, of course, until I was 26 and in grad school, that my body was much more valued and privileged (by some) than hers because she is black. I count this awareness as a gift - and pray for more of it. Thanks for the prompt, Ciona.

Alisha said...

I was about to turn 10 and invited a classmate to my birthday party, she declined because I'm black. Until that moment, my innocence had been protected. I, immediately, went home and let my mother know about this situation. I expected her to be as surprised as I was. She was not. She didn't explain anything more than that some people say mean things. As I grew up, she went on to tell me that I had be smarter and work harder if i wanted to be recognized as an equal by people who judged me by my skin color.

Connie said...

I do not ever remember not knowing I was black. It was just something you knew back then, living in the South. Negro parents told us as soon as we could understand to protect us from racist actions.. However, the moment when I realized how.much my being black mattered was when I was 6 years old. My mother took me to a department store in the early 60's to buy school supplies. I had to use the restroom but the lady would not let me. In her helplessness to rectify the problem, my mother became very frustrated with me! She actually fussed at me for not using the bathroom before leaving home because she said and I repeat, "you know these white people are not going to let you use their bathrooms.". I had to relieve myself in the alley behind the store. Then we casually went back into the store and purchased our school supplies.

Then when I was 8, my mother worked as a domestic for the summer at a millionaire's home in Rhode Island. Mr. Latter allowed my mother to bring me along with her that summer. I would be a great playmate for his grandson. I frolicked on the beach, rode on the oldest merry-go-round, always grasping the brass ring, and learned to play croquet. The first day he taught me, his grandson, Andrew, wanted to go first because he was a year younger. Mr. Lattner quickly responded that he could not because he was a gentleman and I was a lady and "ladies should always go first.". He handed me the mallet and I went first that day and every day afterward. I was sure I had died and this was heaven! I was so happy to be normal that I forgot that my mother was one of the maids.

Mr. Lattner was from TX. The mean old bathroom guardian was from SC, both from the South. Before that summer in RI, I just assumed that it was the way of the South, but Mr. Lattner taught me that my being black only mattered if the person holding the mallet decided it did. My color only mattered if the person in power said it did!

Anonymous said...

I don't recall one significant moment I am most fortunate to say. I have just always known. See, I grew up the baby of 6 children. I was always made aware of who I am and always taught to "Say it loud, I'm black & I'm proud. I started school the first year desegredation was mandatory & it was a very pleasant experience for me. I had friends who spanned the rainbow. I had such a strong sense of self that even if there was opposition I didn't notice. I have always opened the book & not just examined the cover. I have read some wonderful "books" & some not so wonderful ones in every race, creed & color. Now don't get me wrong, I live in the real world and always understood that there are some who judge me by my dark brown skin. But I always believed that if they didn't take the time to "read my story" it was their loss. Ciona this is a great discussion. KRIS

Heather Truett said...

I'm going to be thinking on this.

Ciona said...

I've loved all of these stories and tried several times to reply to each one on my iPad. I see now, however, that the comments did not post . . .

I'm so moved by the power of sharing these stories and hope that you will encourage others to share, as well!

We all have beautiful stories.

love.

Anonymous said...

I know when I realized that you were black and I was white: we were al heading down to Louisiana for a post-Katrina mission trip. You and Lanecia were traveling separately and driving through Mississippi late at night. When you arrived, you talked about being afraid to stop at gas stations, etc as you drove through Mississippi. I realized that I had never known that fear

Kendalling said...

I was in second grade at Myrtle Beach Elementary School in South Carolina. I made my first true best friend. Her name has Felicia. She was tall, skinny, dark, and had little braids that stuck out every which way around her head. She had the prettiest, widest smile I had ever seen and I loved her with an affection that I felt for many years, long after I lost touch with her. We laughed a lot, talked a lot, played the same. To me, we felt like we WERE the same.

That school year, just before the Christmas holidays, while the rest of second grade was on the playground, the teachers called Felicia inside and allowed me to come too. They gave her a whole bunch of presents in big paper grocery bags. I remember hair bows and packs of new underwear. I'm sure there were more enjoyable kids things in the bags, but that's what I remember most -- the necessities. Felicia was very happy and so were we all. Like two sisters, we laughed. I realized then that she was very poor, and also understood somehow that the teachers saw in her what I saw in her. Even today, I choke up thinking about it.

When the school year ended and summer began, I was afraid I'd lose touch with her -- we didn't live near each other. I asked my mom if she could stay the night with me through out the summer and she had me ask my dad. My dad was a dominant, tough, and at that time, ignorant and narrow-minded, young guy from the South. But even I, at that age, was shocked and devastated by what he said to me in his "office" in our garage. He said, "Black people don't spend the night at this house." And right there he constructed the clear, cruel difference between us and "them".

Even at eight, I knew he was wrong. I also knew his declaration was pivotal in my future with Felicia, because I needed my parents help to keep us close. It broke my heart and I cried a long time.

The next year in third grade, I do not remember seeing Felicia. I moved schools after that. Years later, in 7th grade maybe, I was at a middle school basketball game and I saw her on the other team playing against our school. She was the star, and I was proud of that because it matched up with all my memories of her and silent hopes I carried for her. I remember thinking her legs were strong, like a beautiful horse's. I think I talked to her then, and learned she'd had a baby. And this fact showed me how our world's had diverged.

That love for her was still there, unspoken. Did she feel it too? Or had life stacked up against her over time, in the way my father had, making her unable to access the affection she once had for the little white girl in second grade who loved her like a sister, with devotion and joyful oblivion, and later, heartbroken fortitude? - Kendall Heath