Fear Erases Hope
I was privileged, only I didn't know what that was then, but looking back I can see it. I had my own Chevy pedal car and a playhouse made of bricks. My father owned a construction company and hired people, mostly blacks and Latinos and I played with the children of those workers. All the children came to our property. My father and mother encouraged it. In fact, my father built the first cinder block home down in the valley area, different from the small adobe homes that dotted the landscape. However, I also entered another world--obviously different. In the mountains were better homes than the ones in Alamogordo with patios that went around the house, near springs and much, much cooler than down where we lived. I played with those children as well, never really understanding that I was considered special and different or even that I was different. Children were children to me. My parents had a diverse group of friends. I didn't know that I was probably the token black girl being allowed into those small, all-white communities. I simply lived my life. I was fairly happy.
I know now that my father moved us to New Mexico because he was looking for a haven different than the one he grew up in. He had wanted to give us--my sisters and brothers--an opportunity to be considered equal and I guess I did. My first boyfriend was blond and blue eyes, not because he was white, but because he was the only boy as tall as I. No one said, "You can't have a white boyfriend!" More, just like other girls, he was my boyfriend because I decreed it and he didn't know it. But, I digress. The reason for this part of the story is that I had no color fears, no race fears. I didn't stop to think if I was better or inferior. I was a kid with other kids. I never heard the word "nigger"--not once in my early years and it wasn't until I was about 8 or so when I read the word for the first time and asked my parents about it, that I knew it was a word that denigrated the Negro, who I knew myself to be.
From there we went to live in Oklahoma for a couple of years when my father went back to teach math at a historical black college (Langston University). I was 8 and the joy of it was having teachers who looked like me (which I didn't have in New Mexico). I think it was here that I started realizing some fundamental differences about race. I was always liked by my teachers. I was a good student. My first and second grade teachers were white. I don't remember the first grade teacher's name, but I thought her mean. I realize now that she was a bigot, treating the Mexican kids differently and with disdain. I didn't know what that was then. I just felt protective of my brown-skinned friends who were hurt by her insensitivity. I didn't know it for what it was. Mrs. Sharp, who I do remember, was my second grade teacher and I liked her because she was tall. I think there was a kinship between us, but again, she treated the Mexican kids pretty bad.
I didn't understand any of this until I was being taught by black teachers. There was definitely a difference in their nurturing of learning and because of them I wanted to teach. There was discipline, true, which I believe both my first and second grade teachers were adept at doling out, but there was a genuine caring that comes from teachers who love not only their work, but their students. Still, it wasn't until I was fourteen and living in Houston that realities slammed into my consciousness about those subtle differences and it was perhaps here that these incidents chipped away at that place that there was a fairness that was for all. Fear took hold in subtle forms that I must now acknowledge and erase.
I got called "nigger" my first day of school entering the 10th grade. It wasn't just that this white student called me that word in a dining room full of people, but that not one teacher took him by his ear and told him that it was unacceptable. I handled it. I mean, I knew I wasn't what he called me--and I knew even then that it was his ignorance, yet no one came to my rescue. No one stopped him. My courage was in full force as I said to the table of white girls I was sitting with, "Perhaps if we move real slow to the left, we can leave whatever he is talking about here." There was relief, even a few giggles. The sister of the boy glared at her brother and walked away with me. I won! Didn't think much about it until the other incidents. A teacher letting me know that "you people don't have an aptitude for math" as an excuse for not answering my questions or helping me with the assignments. There was the UIL competition where I, a good singer, practiced for weeks with the best pianist only to be told the day of the competition that she would not be accompanying me because her father forbade her playing for "that nigger"--(Sharon cried that day, she was so upset) and, of course, the day after Dr. King died when the principal of the school refused to fly the flag at half-mast as ordered by President Lyndon Johnson. I handled them all. But, my armor was being chipped away very slowly--imperceptibly so.
I demanded that my father allow me to attend a predominantly black school near the campus. There I was nurtured by teachers and counselors who had my best interest at heart and I was exposed to art and literature on a major college campus, something my father bestowed on my for more than two decades after we left New Mexico. But, my father was smart. He also made sure that I still competed and learned in environments where I was the only black person--the one they let in. He felt that it made me more well-rounded and it did. I excelled in competitions of debate and other learning endeavors. I was a so-so athlete, refusing to be a jock when I had a good brain. And I thought there was hope and that the work of those in the Civil Rights movement was paying off. I never had to look for a job, people came to me, and I would tell my Black friends that we were making strides overcoming the racist mentality of those who would blow up a church or sic dogs on marchers. I was wrong. That same structure these days exist like never before, and this time armed with intellectual mumbo-jumbo rather than bullets or bombs. The rhetoric is just as dangerous. While I consider myself a chipped vessel, I know that it in no ways compares to the kinds of attacks on little brown and black boys and girls who are being targeted for prison as we speak (http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/) where "1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, there also is a significant number of girls in the juvenile justice system. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages." That's just one aspect of this structure, but also these days, merit is becoming a far removed advantage for people of color. Doesn't matter if you're the best anymore and for us we know that it never was the case. Maybe one or two, but the odds are against people of color still. STILL?
This could strike fear into the hearts of many, but the truth is that the fear is more invasive as what this type of fear does is erode hope! You have a whole new generation who thinks that being the best rapper or playing the best ball will help them overcome. For those who do, where does it benefit the communities. The disparities are to be overcome, but it will take some new thinking.
Psychology Today and the death of Gil Scott Heron has brought some reflection time on my part. I know that dialogue is a weapon against imperialism when people come together for genuine dialogue and conversation, but I also know that the venues for these discussions are limited. Social networking is bringing about a change, but I have to believe that until we can create a type of parallel universe in answer to this structure that refuses to topple. Oh, there are some bandaid fixes, but the need for invasive surgery is at an all time high. There are not enough Tim Wises and Robert Jensons to topple these structures and perhaps they can never be toppled. Instead, we must build the better structures, the better vehicle for peacemaking and equality, the better structures for addressing injustices. New Media. New Institutions. New policymaking organizations, strengthening the ones we have, but building, building, more. I decided that fear is not an option anymore and so I am going to build that better structure. For me it is media: Think Peace Media and Communications Network. After working in media for more than a few years, I realize that I am equipped to develop better programming. There are ways to facilitate peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping--parts of the whole, creating and designing, implementing and making it work!
There is one answer to fear and that is hope--because hope does not disappoint. Remember that and join me in building new structures for our future. What structure will you build?