Tuesday, October 18, 2005


My Own Way: Another Personal Story

When I post about race and class, I invariably get questions probing how I'll raise my son differently because he's black. What's the difference in experience? Is it culturally acceptable to be smart and black ? Every time I try to respond, I'm at a loss. I always enjoy the discussion, but how can I possibly represent an entire race of American citizens when I only really know my experience? So I'm starting a weekly series (as long as I can manage it). I'm going to interview friends that I admire most from all races to find out what it took to get them where they are. I learn more about my friends. You learn a little bit more about the complexities of race and class. We both read an interesting story (I hope). It's a win-win.

Karen is another good friend of mine (Read about my friend Jose in Against All Odds). We've known each other for about twenty years. Has it been twenty years???? Karen is a brilliant, African American woman with the gift of insight. She is a voracious reader and has a steadfast independent spirit. It was a long road, but she is now doing something that she loves to do and that suits her perfectly. She is a teacher. I could tell you stories including some about Karen when she was younger and didn't have a car, in an area without a well-developed subway or train system, trying to work full-time and take classes full-time (but I won't). She never wanted a ride; she never needed help; she never complained. Amazing, I'm telling you. These are her words.

My mother is the oldest of 14. My dad was raised by his grandparents. Both my parents were raised in a very rural environment in Arkansas. My mother went to school in a one-room school house. Eight children, one room, all different ages, all old books. It's interesting. People think that everyone in the South was involved in the Civil Rights movement - not true. Where my parents lived in Arkansas it was 'business as usual.' They got married when my father was 19 and my mother was 20. They had a high school education. My mom went to college for about 6 months and left. Dad took classes related to his job. They soon moved to Flint, Michigan. Most black people in Flint Michigan had roots in Arkansas, but moved to find better opportunities and so that their kids could go to college.

I was a very shy child. I was not the kind of kid that marched with the other kids. I always had this sense of wonder. I was always reading books. It wasn't like our school system prescribed them. When I was in school, I don't remember reading any books for school. From what I remember, they were never required. I'd be hard pressed to say that I remember anything we did in high school English. All of the reading I did, I did on my own. I read things I wasn't supposed to read. When I was 13 or 14, I read what was a groundbreaking book for me: Sophie's Choice. I don't know how I got my hands on it. I was around 16 when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (she is from Arkansas) and the other books in her autobiographical series. In her first book, she left home to become a dancer, and later went to Africa and learned to speak another language. I also read the Diary of Anne Frank . When I started to read more, I realized "there's more to life than Flint."

At my school, they never talked to you about college. The attitude was "you graduated from high school didn't you, so beat it." Most people went to work in the factory - it was a factory town and that was the expectation. The guidance counselors never met with you to ask you about your plans. I didn't even know who my guidance counselors were. I read books to find out what I was supposed to do to get into college. I didn't know anything about an SAT or an ACT, but I bought a Barron's book and I took it upon myself to figure it out. I remember telling my mother one day, "drop me off here." "Why?" my mother asked. "Because I'm taking a test." I never mentioned what the test was and she never asked. Now that I'm a mother I think "wow, they really did me a disservice."

Some parents/educators/teachers get a skewed view of who a good student is. Is it a student that gets all As? Is it a student that is well behaved? Is it a student that gets into a 'good' college? My parents wanted me to be my own person whether that was a scientist or an artist. Early on, I wanted to be a musician. I started at Lincoln University [a historically black university] and after two years, transferred to Howard University [another historically black university]. I knew my parents couldn't pay for it, so I left there after 6 months. When I left Howard, I wanted to be on my own. I called my grandmother and she gave me enough money for one month's rent. I was twenty years old, and knew if I went back to Flint, there would be a chance that I'd never leave. It was a big, big gamble. Eventually, I stumbled across a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield teaching adults and I knew I could do it. I left Blue Cross Blue Shield to work for a dentist. He hired me because I had 'inside knowledge' of the health care industry. In the interview, he asked me to spell 'ptosis.' I did. He decided to hire me, and said "I don't know how my patients will take a black person behind the counter." I trained his employees, and soon he trusted me with thousands of dollars. We still keep in touch.

I did eventually graduate from college. One day I saw an ad in the paper. A program interested me. If you got picked for this graduate teacher's program at George Washington University, you didn't have to pay a dime and you were guaranteed a teaching job. Lots of people applied and so did I. In the interview, the panel asked me this question: "If there was a fight in the hallway, what would you do?" I said, "I wouldn't get in the middle of it. No I wouldn't. I'd have to go get someone." They laughed. And the rest is history.

I'm raising my daughter a little differently. I read to her every night. My parents didn't read to me at all. They just said, "you'd better go read a book." I started phonics with her when she was about 4 1/2 and she ate it up. (Six months before, she just wasn't ready.) She is seven now. She's reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6). Harry Potter has mass appeal. We bought the last Potter book in the series on the Saturday it came out. We read a chapter a night, or if it was a natural stopping point, we just stopped. I also try to give my daughter a fundamental sense of self. When she was younger, you know, she wanted to get the other [white] dolls. I never told her she had to get African American dolls too. I just always told her she had a pretty brown face. I let her get other color dolls (1 or 2). I kept reinforcing though that there were different colors of the rainbow and they are all beautiful. Children learn early that they are not the 'beauty queen.'

[Me: How do you respond when people say parents don't need to talk about race, just love their children?]

That's ridiculous! Not everyone's parents sit down and tell them that everybody is the same and reinforce it as the child grows older. Not every parent will model the behavior. If the only people the parents talk to are the same race, when the child grows up, chances are those are the people they will want to be around. I heard one Latino high school student in my class say the other day about white people, "they think we're all in gangs anyway" and then a white student confirmed it "yeah, they do." Whatever race your kids are, it's important that they know they can make a significant contribution and they too can play the game. You have to tell them that.

I am encouraged by the teenagers today. In the age group 15-25, the hip hop generation, they are breaking barriers. They are much more likely to have friends of different races. I don't know if the hip hop music brought them together, but from about 16 they all listen to 50 cents and Ludicrous [sp?]. If you go to prom, they are all dancing to the same music.

Vernice, I tried to send an email but it bounced back, so I'll leave it here:

Hi. I LOVE this idea. I loved reading this. I posted about it, and offered a plea for more and varied people.

You bring such an authentic voice to this work. I am going to assign some of your blog entries as required reading for my students next semester. I'll let you know which ones. Maybe they'll talk to you about them.
Thank you. And thanks for all of your support. I'd love to interview more people about their parents, their childhood and their children. So far, the best part about my interviews is that I have insight into their lives. I'm also realizing the story in itself is teaching me some important lessons. Bring it on!
I love these kinds of stories and I'll be following this series. If you are interested in reading more stories like this there are tons of them out there in various books on ethnic studies. Ronald Takaki has several books that weave ethnic narrative with history that are particularly good.
I love reading your stuff. It's always thought-provoking.

You know, I never once have gotten asked about my girls, "How are you going to raise them differently, since they're white?"


Beautifully written.
Ivory: I'll have to check out Ronald Takaki. I've never heard of him. Thanks for the tip!

And thanks Nancytoby. BTW, when's your next triathalon? I won't join you, but I'd love to cheer you on...
Probably not until spring, but thanks for asking!

I'll be looking forward to the series. I think it will be a real eye-opener for a lot of us and will prompt some great discussions.

But I'm gonna let you in on a little secret: I don't expect you to speak as a "representative" of your race and class. You only have to express YOUR OWN opinions. I do have questions about AA life and what makes it unique, but it would be silly of me to rely on one person's perspective as the definitive explanation of a complex subject. That should be a major "duh" moment, but for too many of us, it isn't.

Keep up the good work! :-D
And the other thing is...I'm feeling like when I speak about race and class, because it's such an incendiary issue for folks, I'm putting so much pressure on MYSELF to represent it properly. MY little secret is that I'm not thrilled with how I've been doing that. Still, I want to share for some reason - go figure. This is my way... That's part of my blog benefit. It gives me a forum to talk about things I think I need to talk about, and in some way I hope to work through my own pain. Anyway, thanks for listening.
BTW... It just occurred to me that someone might stop asking questions because of my past comments. I still want to be pushed back and to have honest discussions. I just want to add other experiences here so I don't give such a one sided view. Please keep commenting!
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