During my childhood I was aware that I was different in color from the majority of people around me, but my father and mother emphasized brainpower, not color. Color was what you were, but not using your brain was a choice. Both of my parents were educated and so were my grandparents. In our family it was all about getting an education.
When I was six, a girl in my class called me "black." I was upset because she made the word "black" sound like a disease or something terrible. What was wrong with my color? I thought, I was brown not "black." My mother told me how lucky I was to be black -- I had African heritage. She also told me one of the most beautiful and most powerful women in history was Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. She showed me a picture and said I was just like her -- brown, smart and beautiful, yet the emphasis was on smart.
We lived in California, and I loved ice cream. Carnation a popular ice cream parlor was near our house. We kids would ask for a dollar and run to the store and buy a cone. We didn't tell mom because for some reason she told us never go to there. When my mother questioned us about buying ice cream from Carnation, she asked if we sat at the counter and ate our ice cream. "No" we said, because we understood we weren't allowed to sit in the store. "Do you know why?" she asked. We had no answer; we never thought about the why. It was all about the ice cream. It was then that she told us that Carnation didn't allow "Negro" people to sit in their ice cream parlors, and for that reason Negroes were boycotting Carnation. If a store or a business didn't respect us, we as Negroes would not spend our money with them. I never went back.
My parents were from the East Coast and never talked very much about racial struggles. I'm sure they experienced them firsthand. My father was part of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and lived through the period when the orchestra was not allowed to stay at the hotels where they played. Our parents never made race an issue. For this reason, when confronted with race issues myself, it was a wake up call, and I would ask myself: "Why are they treating me differently just because of my race?" I decided if that was the reason then they were just ignorant.
In the '60s and '70s, I became outraged when I read about the things that happened to "colored" and "Negro" people in the "South." The injustice was terrible, but all the horrible things seemed so far away; I lived in Los Angeles. I supported the Civil Rights movement; at one point I was president of the N.A.A.C.P. youth group at my church. When a Freedom Rider came to speak at our church, it was a whole different story. It was as if someone from another world dropped into our L.A. beach and sun world. The things he described that were being done to "colored" people was horrible -- death and brutality -- and I realized if I lived there, they would be done to me too. He lived it, and what he shared made a big impression on me and made me ask "how could anyone be so cruel to another person because of his or her skin color?"
Malcolm X spoke at our college, and it was a big deal because he was a "black nationalist." I sat in the front row and was mesmerized by his energy and fiery rhetoric. He made good sense. We should have our own economic support systems; we should be proud that we are black. He made me think. But Martin Luther King's way seemed the better way -- he was nonviolent. Malcolm was way too aggressive for me. Reasonable men could solve these problems if they only talked about them. Right?
Then came the Watts Riots, looting and burning of stores in black neighborhoods. Although we could smell the smoke and see on TV all the turmoil, our neighborhood wasn't affected. After the riots, money and attention started pouring in and things seemed to change for the better. People started talking to each other. Or so I thought.
I should be able to say I live in a safer and balanced society today and that we are now racially colorblind, and anyone who wants to become a successful participant in the American Dream can do so. The positive markers are there: We have our first black president; we have the greatest number of ethnicities in our history living in America. But maybe it didn't change and I wasn't paying attention. Something evil has developed in this country -- mistrust, anger, meanness, divisiveness and killing of citizens are becoming the norm, and those getting killed the most are young black and brown men.
I don't believe it's a coincidence that this is happening. There's a feeling of fear everywhere you go, and I think because of that feeling more people are arming themselves. Some facts:
• There are more guns available and more people have them.
• Young black men are incarcerated at a higher percentage than any other group in this country's history (Ronald Reagan, the "great communicators" real legacy).
• The current racial majority knows that in the very near future they will become a numerical minority.
• Brown and black people are less educated and more economically isolated than ever in our recent history.
• The income disparity has grown and the middle class has shrunk along with their jobs.
• Black lives too often do not matter and too many of our police departments lack a cohesive strategy for positively interacting with its citizens.
• Significant parts of many black and brown communities have no faith in government (local or national).
• Too many of our elected officials are believed to be bought and paid for by a few individuals who control an alarmingly large portion of the nation's wealth.
With all the anger in this country related to race, I had to ask myself: How do I feel about being black? I realized that I forgot I was black -- meaning I left the fight a long time ago and believed it was all over. How wrong I was.
Being black in America is something to be proud of. It was our enslaved forefathers who built this country -- cotton, tobacco, rice etc. Our country, the greatest modern country in the world, even with its racially divisive and deplorable history, has made it possible for anyone who wants an education to get one (that's one reason why millions from other countries flock here.) But even with all the things we have going for us, we are still struggling with the black and white racial problem. As a nation we have rarely talked about it, but we continue to talk at it. Maybe it's too painful, or maybe since it's part of our past those of us living today can't relate. We hear people say, "those things happened a long time ago and it wasn't me."
But what we know is that the feeling of being disconnected from the benefits of mainstream America for a large number of black people continues. Black people feel more isolated than they did in the '70s. Underserved black children living in urban ghettos are less educated, more obese and have poorer self-esteem. Each time I see a mother (black, brown) crying about how her "good" son was shot by police, it makes me sad. Young black males feel besieged, hopeless, unsupported and powerless. They have no hope and have no idea how important their lives are. Decisions they make when they interact with powers of authority usually are the wrong ones and they die. This doesn't mean the authorities have clean hands -- on the contrary, they are even more culpable. Where is their training, education and understanding about the communities they patrol?
As black people we have failed our children on several levels, and teaching them the importance of getting an education is the most important failure. It was our only key to getting out of poverty, and allowing us to take care of our families.
Do I have the answers to the bigger problem? Maybe a truth and reconciliation process for the U.S., like South Africa did, is an idea that the U.S. is ready for, and just maybe we as black people need to look closely at ourselves and tap into what some of us have forgotten. The pride, the drive to overcome adversity and make a better life for our kids -- the faith to see ourselves as taking control of our own destiny. After all, there is no greater country where you can turn it around, and make a difference. Our children are worth saving and they do matter. Black parents -- it's your time to remember that you too are black and proud.
Granny Regina finding her role in America and pride in being black.