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Friday, July 07, 2006

Growing Up Black

From the time I understood what "prejudice" was, I have been fascinated by the journey of the black community in a predominately white culture. I am a white (and very freckled) person.

I remember very clearly the civil unrest of the 1960s, the latter part at least, and particularly the voiced frustration of african-americans who wanted to be considered part of main stream America, especially since the males were expected to go and defend America overseas. I am very influenced by a great voice and the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the television is a fond memory for me just as his assasination is a sad memory. His rhetoric was extraordinary to me. He was my first political hero. I was around nine years at the time and I marvelled at the existence of such a struggle and wondered how the handful of black students in my elementary school really felt about being in a mostly white school. These students were well liked but never really "belonged" in the true sense of the word. But they made the best of it as most african-americans had to do for most of their existence on this continent. Resistance was unheard of until Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and others demonstrated that, yes, resistance could happen and could be successful.

But I could not help wondering and still cannot stop wondering about what it is like to grow up black. Sure, I have friends who share their experiences with me - usually the ones about feeling excluded as a community. It was not until I moved to New York City that friends told me how difficult it was to get a cab uptown. Many drivers (most of them foreign) would not stop to pick up a black person. It didn't matter how well dressed the person was. They were black. Period.

A friend who worked at Saturday Night Live during the time comedian Eddie Murphy was a regular player. Murphy could not get a taxi cab home after the show; a white assistant had go hail down a cab and only then Murphy showed up to get in. I found this incredible to believe, just as the stories I was told that even in the 1990s many african-americans are stopped by police if they are driving an expense car or just cruising through a wealthy area of town. How can anyone stand to live like that? Well, they do and they have. They don't like it. They fight against it, but it still exists.

I can't ever get that part around my brain. Why? Why is it there? It's hard to say that bigotry begets more bigotry. My maternal grandparents were very bigoted about black people yet my mother never was. Even growing up in that environment and in the days where bathrooms and schools were segregated, my mother (and father) never believed the black race to be anything less than the white race . . . or any other race. They opposed busing because it was only a bandaid to a much larger problem: unequitable funding in the public school system. The poor districts needed an infusion of funds and support; busing the kids out of there (usually black kids) into white neighbors and vice-versa solved nothing. Those being shipped into the poor areas now got a shitty education and spent too much time on the school bus.

It didn't make any sense.

Recently, I re-read Maya Angelou's autobiographies, starting with I Can Hear the Caged Bird Sing and if you have not ever read that first book, you should. I was fortunate in that during the early 1970s our school implemented a series of classes that called Black Studies and during that time I first found out about the existence of a cinema mostly populated with black performers and so many other things I never knew about. It was one of the most enlightening courses I've ever taken.

So still I wonder. Clearly, the struggle is far from over for the african-american members of our community.

And I still do not understand why that is.

1 comment:

Alondra said...

I read that book by Maya Angelou a long time ago. In high school I remember reading several books by Richard Wright including "Black Boy" and "Native Son." I remember how these stories touched me.