Race and Community: Lessons from a Black Woman from Baltimore

NOTE: This piece is the first of a series of Essays on Race. I wrote it in the spring of 2014 and, obviously, a lot has happened in the sphere of race relations since then. Ferguson. Staten Island. The callous murder of a 12-year-old black child. Ad nauseum. I have to stand up, speak  up---for myself, my people, my life, my world. That's why I started this blog in the first place: To tell whoever will listen that Black Lives Matter. JUST the same as All lives matter.
I have previously posted this essay on my Facebook Timeline.
Coming soon: Part II: Race and Culture---The Impact of Black Culture (Music, Theatre, Film) on American and World Culture   

I began writing this piece in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, as a response to President Barack Obama’s charge to the nation to have a conversation about race. More recently, there has indeed been a conversation about race, but not exactly what President Obama had in mind. In just the past few weeks, there has been a spate of racially offensive incidents/comments, including Federal law-breaking rancher Cliven Bundy’s outrageous remarks asking whether “Negras” might be better off picking cotton rather than being on welfare; and NBA team owner Donald Sterling’s comments to his Mexican/African-American mistress that she should not promote Instagram pictures of herself with Black men (NBA great Magic Johnson was the specific black man he objected to).

To be honest, “Race” is a huge and complicated topic to tackle. Each one of the news stories I’ve just mentioned is enough to make my head spin, and it has already unleashed all kinds of responses, in all the media—TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet—and among all types of people: Liberal and Conservative politicians alike have tried to distance themselves from the abovementioned racists.

Racism is an insidious, malignant cancer that has been around since the dawn of humankind. It may be most commonly thought of as existing between Blacks and whites in America, but it is essentially an “us” against “them” mentality that has affected every combination of races, religions, and creeds. In earlier times, the Native Americans, the Irish, the Italians, and the Chinese were subjected to cruelties as horrible as those inflicted on African people, right here in the U.S. In the early 20th century, Hitler tried his hardest to annihilate the Jews of Europe.

So, our human capacity for hatred, superiority, that “us versus them” mentality is strong. But our human need to belong is equally strong. The irony is that a “community” can be used to foster both hateful and positive views, actions, and lives.

I decided the best way for me to deal with this issue is to share some of my own life story, in my little corner of the world, in the hope that my experience and lessons learned will encourage you the reader to start or continue this conversation wherever you are.

I am a native of Baltimore, Maryland, born in 1953. Throughout my life, I have experienced the joys, the pains, and the vicissitudes of being Black—of being judged by my color and not by my character—just like all of my family members, friends, neighbors, and the larger Black community.

I come from a proud Black family. My family and its history are multifaceted and varied; a microcosm of what it means to be Black in America. My family tree is made up of chauffeurs, washer-women who took in laundry for white folk, mechanics, civil servants, teachers, professional actors and dancers, military servicemen, lawyers, beauticians, and homemakers.

Thanks to one branch of my family, my Maryland roots are long and solid. According to oral history, this branch was made up largely of Freedmen who did not experience slavery to any significant degree. In contrast, there is a branch that contained not only slaves, but the children of slave owners who raped their slaves. Ironically, this branch of the tree can trace its origins to Sierra Leone, while we know too few details about the history of my Freedmen ancestors.

The color of our skin ranges from white to brown to ebony. There are natural redheads and blondes, as well as brown- and black-haired folks. People with straight hair, “good” hair, wavy hair, curly hair, and coarse, nappy hair. There are very tall people (could they have been Bantus? I don’t know) and very short people (Pygmies maybe?), thin and heavy people. But all of them—all of them—taught me to be proud of my race, no matter what problems I faced.

Because White was Right in the 1950s, I had a hard time believing I should be proud. On television, the only Black people I saw were on comedy shows like Amos ‘N Andy or Beulah. Variety shows gave us the crème de la crème of entertainers like Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway. Sports, dance shows, children’s programming, commercials, and news programs were virtually White. Education was still segregated despite the Brown decision.

I attended an all-Black elementary school, #132, the Coppin Demonstration School. This school, located in West Baltimore, on Mount Street between Laurens Street and Riggs Avenue, was one of the premier training grounds for Black teachers in Maryland. Many of the senior teachers were graduates of Coppin State Teacher’s College—the same Coppin State that today appears to have a less than stellar reputation—and the student teachers honed their chops in our classrooms. I received an excellent education at #132. I even completed my elementary education a year early.

And I completed my elementary education there, even though my family moved out of West Baltimore during those years, by living with my Grandmother, who did live in that area. You see, we had school districts back then; you went to a neighborhood school in your district. You could choose among schools in your district, but you weren’t supposed to cross districts. School bussing was very rare then. Racial equality definitely had nothing to do with what few school busses I ever saw.

We had good text books, and the teachers expected much from us. We studied art and music along with reading, writing, history, geography, math, science, and social studies. We had an annual book fair, where I would choose to buy a variety of books—I loved to read, thanks to my family’s influence. I always chose science and history books because they were my favorite subjects. President John Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, was among my favorites.

In history class, we learned about the Colonial period of America by making tallow candles and hand-sewing quilts (my mother still has mine). We had no gymnasium, so for Phys Ed, we walked a block, in our gym suits, to a nearby church basement, where we played dodge ball and jump rope, learned to tumble, played games with Indian clubs, etc.
When we learned President Kennedy had been assassinated, we were in our 6th grade classroom, and we cried as we were sent home to be with our families to grieve. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was announced on the transistor radio we were listening to, I was hosting my best friends at our 6th grade graduation cookout, and we cheered and clapped for that historic day.

During my elementary school years, my family was among the blockbusters of Baltimore, moving into a previously predominantly white community, Lauraville, in February 1962. On the day that we moved to our house—on a block with only 6 houses—the elderly white couple to our left put up a For Sale sign, followed shortly by the neighbor to their left. Two of the 3 remaining white neighbors moved out within a couple of years. The third family remained neighbors—and casual friends—for many years. To be fair, one of those 2 remaining families who left claimed they were doing so only because the husband’s job had been reassigned out of state. Across the street from us, the back yards of two other white families on adjacent streets faced our homes. One family moved away within a few years; the other, an older couple with grown children, stayed on for many years, and when they did decide to move, they stipulated that a white family must buy their house, to help maintain an integrated community.

My neighborhood actually borders three “established” communities: Lauraville, Hamilton, and Morgan Park. Among my Black friends and even some family members, there is disagreement over which community we actually belong to. Many of my friends claimed Morgan Park because they felt ostracized by or even invisible to the traditionally white Lauraville and Hamilton communities. But Morgan Park was built by and for Morgan State College’s professors, decades (1920s) before my little community was even built (1951), and its historical boundaries end where our neighborhood begins. The Hamilton community begins where Lauraville ends. Still, whatever we call our neighborhood, we are fiercely loyal to it. Many of my friends have never left the neighborhood, or else they have taken over the family homesteads when their parents died, or decided to purchase other homes in the area.

I attended Hamilton Junior High School at a time when there were only a dozen or fewer Black students. None of us who were in the same grade were in the same homeroom. Daily, in the halls I was called “N*****” and told to “Go back to Africa.” Not one of us, Black or white, knew anything about Africa except for stereotypical Tarzan movies and “documentaries” about the “primitive” Pygmy and other tribes of Africa.

I cried a lot, but my parents just kept telling me to hold my head high and do my best. Still I did make some friends in my 7th grade class, and we stayed friends through high school. When my 7th grade class was going to have a party and I offered to bring my records to play, I was told, “We don’t want your kind of music.” They had no idea that “my” kind of music included both Black and white artists. I went home, prominently labeled every Beatles and Rolling Stones record I owned with my name on it, and took them to the party. Incredibly, it broke the ice, and I received fewer stone-cold stares, fewer racial comments. But notice, I had to assimilate into white culture. No one valued my culture. In essence, I learned to live in two worlds, a white world and a Black world, and to be fluent in two cultures and languages, Black and white.

In 8th grade, my Civics class was going on a weekend trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. My Civics teacher told me I couldn’t go on the trip because of my grades. After my parents pressed the teacher about this, it came out that there was “concern” about me going to Williamsburg because I was Black; I wouldn’t be accepted. My parents would have none of that, and I boarded the bus for the trip with the rest of my class. Williamsburg was one of the best experiences of my life; first because of the Colonial history, and second because no one in Williamsburg cared that I was Black. There were no stares, no questions about me sharing a room with several white girls, nothing. In fact, I was treated with more respect and courtesy than the Civics teacher and many of my schoolmates had ever displayed toward me.

During 8th grade, I learned that I, as well as some of my white girlfriends, qualified for the “A” course (advanced academic) at Western High School, the oldest all female public high school in the nation.
For many reasons (including lack of confidence and shyness on my part), I did not complete the “A” course, but I continued to receive an excellent, eye-opening, mind-expanding education at Western High School. Teachers, both Black and white, encouraged me to come out of my shell and to speak up for myself. That was all I needed, then, and at every stage of my life before and since—I just needed a boost, a word of encouragement, a push—to help me take the next step in my life journey. In my senior year, I was Editor-in-Chief of Paradox, Western’s poetry magazine.

I applied to Goucher College, at the time a historically all women’s school. Western was a pipeline school for Goucher, and in the age of feminism and liberalism, it was the school of my dreams. Not Towson State College, not Morgan State college, but Goucher College. My application was rejected, even though I had good grades and good SAT scores. But then my Black guidance counselor stood up for me and by my high school graduation day, I was accepted at Goucher; I even received a small scholarship at Western’s graduation ceremonies. Four and a half years later, I graduated from Goucher with a B.A. in English and a minor in Psychology. I had started out as a Psychology major with a minor in English and had to catch up my English credits. And I maintained my place in the Class of 1974, despite needing the extra 6 months to finish.

Finally, with the help of Goucher’s Career Counseling center, I found a good job as a copy editor within 2 months of graduation. I worked for that one company (Waverly Press—and the two companies that subsequently bought out the original one) for my entire professional career. In the process, I was able to combine my love of writing and my love of science into the career of my dreams. But again, it took the encouragement and support of my work community to enable it to happen.

Meanwhile, my two younger brothers had an easier time; by the time they went to school, 6 and 10 years, respectively, after me, there was a greater mixture of ethnicities, thanks to explosive and revolutionary changes of the 1960s—they benefitted from the Civil Rights Acts I celebrated when I was in elementary school. And yet, they had their own encounters with race.

The older of my two brothers played football for the Hamilton Optimists. At a major game, my whole family was sitting in the stands cheering the team on. As my brother ran downfield for a touchdown, a white man sitting one row behind us said, “Look’a dat boy run! He run like the PO-lice are chasin’ him!” My family members and I looked at each with pained expressions, but we neither looked at nor challenged the man. Does anyone honestly believe that had a white boy been running like my brother was, this man would have made that comment? I don’t think so.

I am now 60 years old. I have seen so much progress in race relations in my lifetime. And yet I still carry all of those battle scars from my experiences. They color how I respond to other people and how they respond to me. The world I grew up in is not the same world my brothers grew up in. The world my 21-year-old “post-racial” nephew faces is light-years away from what my brothers and I experienced. Yet, all of us face the same age-old questions: how do we live successful, happy lives in a world filled with opportunity, obstacles, and outright dangers?

Thanks to all of the communities I’ve belonged to—home, school, work, city, global—I’ve learned how.

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