Friday, January 07, 2005

I Have My Own Dream-Part 1

In today's news, the arrest of one of the Klansmen involved in the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists from New York, was announced. It only took forty years. In the immortal words of Fannie Lee Chaney, James Chaney's mother, "Mighty long time."

I was two years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, although it seems like a thousand years ago. To anyone younger than 30, it wouldn't seem possible that racism would show its ugly head after Dr. King's death, but I have had firsthand experience.

When I was in first grade, I got in a fight that resulted in a pencil stabbing in my left hand. Like many of my peers, I still (at nearly 40) have a blue spot in my hand, courtesy of the graphite pencil point. My parents would not have me subjected to this thuggery, and promptly found a school in nearby Bellerose, a nice White community not too far from my own community of St. Albans. I would have to be bussed. In 1974, only six years after Dr. King's death, the presence of my brown face, and that of many of my peers, caused an uproar. Nine months later, toward the end of the school year, I had the dubious distinction of being called a black cookie by some white kid in the lunchroom, for reasons that escape me, but are irrelevant anyway.

Fast forward five years to the last day of school following my first year in junior high school. Bussed again from my neighborhood of St. Albans to Floral Park, the next neighborhood over from Bellerose, it seemed the White community was still unhappy about having Black, and now Asian and Latino kids coming into their schools. Our bus was attacked, pelted with bricks, stones, and bottles; the windows broken, cuts and bruises coupled with hysteria. The kid next to me ended up with a gash on his head that bloodied my favorite yellow skirt.

The local news stations and the Daily News covered the incident, and a few kids were arrested. Meetings were held between the parents, with dismissals such as "it wasn't a racial incident, it was just rowdy kids; boys being boys." Never mind the racial epithets hurled along with the bricks. And so, September rolled around, and school started off with a palpable tension between the Black kids and the White kids. All this about 10 years after Dr. King's assassination.

Since then, I've been:
  1. Asked if Black people tan and sunburn
  2. Asked how do I wash my hair
  3. Accused of shoplifting in a health food store by an anonymous White man who thought two young Black women reading a product label and laughing hysterically indicated mischief
  4. Had a White woman moved to the far side of an elevator we were riding, clutching her purse tightly.
  5. Followed by a store detective in Macy's and
  6. Followed around a small coffee store in Park Slope, the predominantly White neighborhood I currently live in.

A few years ago, a homeless White man asked me for money, and following my refusal called me a nigger bitch. And in early November, on my way home from the gym, I passed another homeless White man who was counting a roll of singles. The exchange went something like this:

Me: Excuse me.
Him: You're not gonna rob me, are ya?
Me: (snickering) Put your money away, old man, and be quiet.
Him: I know you people. You're all thieves.
Me: Be quiet, old man, or someone will rob you.

I share all this because these incidents shape who I am. I'm no longer angry, as it's way too much work to dwell on the past -- you learn from your past and learn to make your future better. I am Black, and will always be Black, even if I'm struck today with vitiligo, and every surface of skin turns white. Black folks themselves have occasionally rejected me; more than once, I was pegged an "oreo," Black on the outside, White on the inside because I was smart, did well in school, and was articulate. I have occasionally rejected Black folks; I can't stand loud-talkin', undereducated, ambitionless, irresponsible baby-makers who prefer to sit around getting fat off of my tax dollars. No matter what, I am part of them, and they are part of me. Yet, when "the dream" is discussed, it seems the other parts of me; the woman, the homosexual, need not apply.

More in Part 2.

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