“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… no woman has ever written enough.” -Bell Hooks.
When I moved to the U.S. deep South in 1990 as a senior in high school, I was stunned by the racism. I had never encountered anything like it.
I was raised air force. I was raised on books. I was raised on Jesus. I was raised on love. I was raised completely oblivious to class and race.
When I was twelve, my best friend dated my brother’s best friend. She was white, he was black. We were mildly appalled. We giggled about it behind their backs. We speculated how long it would last and what their children would look like if they got married.
We were suspended in that state of horrified fascination that overcomes witnesses to some terrible accident. But not for the reason you’re thinking.
We giggled because we were twelve and they were our friends and none of us had ever dated before and it was weird. It never occurred to us to think of their respective races. They were Colby and Angela, and they were dating. That was plenty to be appalled about.
So imagine me, age 16, entering my senior year at Jefferson Davis High School, Montgomery, Alabama. De facto segregated classrooms. The (almost) all-white choir (one very talented black boy, whose family could afford the required year-long tux rental and whose voice had won him a reluctant place in the Southern Belle teacher’s heart, had made his way in). The white girl whose study group had to borrow someone else’s house to work in because her dad wouldn’t let the black kid in their group come in through the front door.
Summer. That sweet, innocent white girl I got to know when we roomed together on a mission trip. She forgot her shampoo, and was horrified when our other roommate–Lesley, my friend with the missing eye and the short close-cropped African hair, and the laughter that filled the room–offered to loan hers. Summer leaned in to me later, conspiratorially, and asked if she could borrow mine instead. “It’s just, you know,” she said. I didn’t. I didn’t know at all. “Well…” Still not understanding, sorry.
“I don’t want to borrow her shampoo. It’s just…”
It’s just. Oh.
Did you know that by 1995, the Montgomery Country Club still did not allow the children of black employees to swim in their pool, and not because they were employees. The children of white members shouldn’t have to share a pool with [insert ugly term here], of course. They might, I don’t know, leave… something… in the pool…? Contamination, you know.
I consider myself lucky to have been raised color-blind. But it’s not an unmitigated virtue by any means. The down side of color-blindness is embedded in its name: It’s a form of blindness.
In my AP English class that year in Montgomery was a boy named Les. I’ve spoken of him elsewhere. I didn’t like him at first–he fell asleep in class regularly, played practical jokes constantly, and the teacher treated him like some sort of prodigy. Which, it turns out, he was. I liked him better once she explained: He had a thyroid condition that caused him to gain weight and fall asleep uncontrollably, his mother was sick, he worked nights to pay the rent, and he was enrolled in four AP classes in hopes of earning a scholarship that was the only way he would ever go to college. The kid fell asleep during the AP exam and still won top marks. He got his scholarship: To Harvard.
He was black.
For years, I used Les’s story to defend a deeply held belief that race doesn’t matter. Look at Les, I’d say. He was born in a poor black family in the South, and he did fine. Look at Les. Race doesn’t matter, not if you’re willing to work hard and overcome. Race doesn’t matter.
I didn’t understand why black activists had to be so in your face about it. I mean, I know racism sucks, but it’s not like it stops a person from doing the things they want to do. Look at Les. Not everybody can get into Harvard, of course, but if you don’t like the racism of the South, why not move North? Look at Les.
This was the form that my own color-blindness took.
In the time since, both forms of blindness have fallen away, for better and for worse. I notice race. When I meet someone for the first time, it’s one of the first things I notice about them, somewhere between noticing whether they’re smiling (after) and what they’re wearing (before). I am no longer color-blind.
I also recognize racism’s insidious harm to our society. No, it’s not enough that a rare prodigy can break away from the poverty and cultural deprivation that was planted in slavery, grew in segregation, and continues to flourish like an insidious ivy digging its roots into a crumbling brick wall. It’s not enough. I am no longer color-blind.
When two professional black women are apprehended and searched because a pair of shoes was stolen from a shop they were in earlier; when two out of five couples run into legal trouble for their home births and it just happens they’re the black couple and the bi-racial couple; when this commercial starts a fire-storm of hate talk:
When this is what your black friends face every day, well, it’s not enough that a few people are okay, that some break away. None of us is okay so long as some of us are not.
I don’t know what the answers are. I wish I could say, “This social program,” or “This private initiative.” Heck, I wish I could say that I myself have never had a racist thought in my life. I wish I could say that.
The only thing I know for sure is that stories change things. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave (the book not the movie) changed slavery. Martin Luther King Jr changed segregation with his speeches. Sojourner Truth and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and it’s still not enough.
Keep writing. Keep writing. It’s not enough yet, but there’s hope for us. There’s hope: