Asking for Trouble

I’m already picking fights with people.  It’s awful.  I just got here.  But that hasn’t stopped me from being annoyed with about 90% of the Dutch population.  I need to lighten up.  Stop taking things so seriously.  But really, if you were here, this would piss you off too.  Difference is – it probably wouldn’t piss you off so early in the year; and you probably wouldn’t constantly find yourself in conversations about it.

First, to avoid any confusion, let me say that I’m still ridiculously happy here.  I’m feeling quite grateful and enjoying everyday, everything, everyone.  Nothing has changed.

I just have this thing with Zwarte Piet that I can’t shake!  Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a beloved character in the Netherlands (and apparently Belgium) who comes around during the holidays, beginning in November.  I won’t get into all of the details of Piet’s story.  That’s what wikipedia is for.  The important thing to know for the purpose of this ramble is that this beloved Piet guy is black – well, of course.  But he’s portrayed in black face.  White (and some black) Dutch people paint there faces black, cake on tons of red lipstick to make their lips appear larger, put on an afro wig, accent it with large gold earrings, and wear what I guess is their interpretation of a Moor’s attire.

I had heard and read quite a bit about Piet before I got here.  So I considered myself prepared for some shocking sights in November and December.  Seeing a few people continuing to partake in such a blatantly offensive tradition would be a lot to handle.  But I expected it to be just a few.  I didn’t imagine it could possibly be more than a few.  Although, I will admit that this page from the University’s magazine for new international students raised some broader concerns:

Shortly after arriving I learned it’s more than a few exceptions.  The blackface thing is much larger than I realized.  Portraits of the minstrel character are plastered around the country for the days/weeks leading up to the holiday – in stores and in homes, on cakes and on napkins.

This leads up to a big parade – a minstrel parade.  Adults and children clown around in straight-up, unapologetic black face.  So happy and so abundant.  It’s like an alternate reality.

As I learned more about Piet’s popularity, I started asking more questions.  I had trouble believing that the rational people around me would defend this tradition.  Rather, I expected people to have stories about how frustrated they are with seeing these horrifically offensive representations of black people taking over the country each year.  I didn’t think it would be hard to find Dutch people in opposition to Zwarte Piet.

But there’s nothing but love for him.  I hear a lot of the following:

  • “We love him. He’s a friendly character. That’s not racist.”
  • “He used to be black. But now he’s that color because he went through the chimney. It’s not about race”
  • “The children love him. It’s not racist.”
  • “We can’t change it. It’s a Dutch tradition.”

My favorite quote came from my Dutch teacher: “I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive, is it? I mean, he’s not really a negro.”  He meant it with no harm.  It was actually kind of sweet the way he said it (as hard to believe as that may seem).  After I informed him that it is horribly offensive and turns my stomach, he explained he had just never thought about it before since he grew up with it.  Makes sense.  And I find it fascinating.

So several weeks ago, in my ethnic diversity and popular culture class, I listened as people brainstormed ideas for final projects.  I volunteered my idea that was born out of that fascination (and frustration) – what’s the deal with Zwarte Piet?

Along with a partner, who bravely asked to work with me on this, I’ve committed to drowning myself in images, literature, and conversations about Piet.  Historical research, interviews, maybe a survey…all requiring objectivity.  My lack of objectivity has already proven to be a challenge.  And once I begin having one-on-one interviews with people who adamantly defend minstrel shows in 2011,  I may need the assistance of spiritual intervention to keep my attitude and volume in check.

So yeah, I walked straight into this controversial fire voluntarily.  And this is not going to be easy.

Fascinating, I’m sure.  But not easy…

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The Last of the Black Belt

My mom and I left the “black belt” on Sunday, driving from Jacksonville to Atlanta, then flying back to NYC, where my mom has stayed for another week before returning home to Chicago. I was so excited for this trip, anticipating an exciting hunt for new information and uncovered stories. I was also worried that my anticipation doomed me to disappointment. Thankfully, I was wrong about the dooming part. I think it’s safe to say the trip exceeded both my mom’s and my expectations. We now have new details and even some photos that add tremendously to our quest. I’ve shared a few stories in the last couple of posts. So I figured I would just sum up a few things before returning my attention for a bit back to Amsterdam.

The primary focus of the trip was on my mother’s family. Although my father’s mother had some roots in Jacksonville, we didn’t really uncover any new information about them while there. We did, however, drive by the site of my grandmother’s childhood home, which, along with many other parts of Jacksonville, looks eerily similar to the way it must have looked in the early 1900s. My maternal grandfather, Pop, has all of his roots in Florida, much of them in Jacksonville. The roots of my maternal grandmother, Nana, go from Georgia to Jacksonville. So our visits to Georgia and Florida benefited both of my mom’s parents.

Nana’s paternal grandparents: Lora Hardwick and George C. Harper. I feel like I’ve written endlessly about George C. Harper, the white guy from the wealthy family who had the long-lasting relationship with my 2nd great grandmother, Lora. George and Lora are just fascinating to me. Having read an article in Dawson, Georgia’s weekly newspaper, dated somewhere around 1880, about the evils of miscegenation and the hateful descriptions of the people who engaged in mixed relationships, I can’t begin to imagine their daily struggles as an illegal family. Now don’t get me wrong, black men who only date white women really annoy me. But evil and illegal? That’s taking it a bit far. I wonder what Lora and George looked like, what they talked about, and whether he willingly gave the black children his prominent last name, or if she forced him. Different parts of me want both scenarios to be true. I imagine Lora as quite strong and proud. Although she was “mulatto,” and her children were therefore a quarter black (although I haven’t yet seen his image, my great grandfather describes himself as having blue eyes), Lora raised all of her children to identify as black. Even more, each of the children went on to marry people with dark complexions, including my great grandmother. It may seem like a trivial coincidence. But at a time when black people were given incentive to shun their blackness whenever possible, I have the utmost respect for the pride and the unquestionable identification with black folks of the light-skinned family.

Mysterious Grave: Infant of Mr. & Mrs. G.C. Harper

But I digress with my black Harpers obsession. My point when bringing them up was to describe the mysterious grave of an infant. When visiting the graves of the white Harper family with cousin Kathy, she pointed out each headstone as if reciting a familiar roll call. But one headstone tripped her up: “The Infant of Mr. and Mrs. G.C. Harper, Died Feb.  2, 1904.” G.C. Harper is white George. And the youngest black child we know of was born in the late 1890s. Could there have been a later-born black Harper who died at birth? And would they have actually listed Lora as “Mrs. Harper” in cryptic fashion? George did later marry a white woman. But they didn’t have any children (this woman lists herself as giving birth to 0 children on the 1910 census). Kathy wasn’t sure who the grave belonged to. I don’t think she had ever noticed or paid much attention to it. But honestly, after spending the morning with her new black cousins, I’m not sure she was sure about anything anymore. After much thought and debate that lasted us until Jacksonville, mom and I agreed that the infant must have been a child born to George’s white wife. The timing just didn’t add up because we’re pretty sure Lora had died by 1904. Sad for George, his white wife, and the infant with no name. And really disappointing for us that we can’t claim a black baby snuck its way into the fancy white cemetery.

And one more thing about the Harpers. Along with photos of white George’s parents (my 3rd greats), published in a book we found a photo of the original Harper home. It’s super blurry, and difficult to see much detail. But as soon as we saw it, my mother said, “it looks like there’s someone standing on the porch.” You could make out vague figures. But beyond that, it wasn’t worth the eye strain. I scanned the photo after returning home. And after zooming in and perhaps incorporating some wishful thinking, I feel pretty certain I see an image of a black woman holding a white child, alongside other, less distinguishable figures. Lora’s mother, Julia (also my 3rd great) was the cook for the Harpers in the 1880s. And I know they commonly used the black servants to hold the white children in formal family photographs, as sort of invisible props. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Julia would be holding one of George’s younger siblings in this blurry image of the Harper family. Or I could be stretching. Either way.

The Harper House - do you see her?

Nana’s maternal grandparents: Rose and Jim Jackson. Rose (often referred to as Rosa, and also after whom my grandmother was named) and Jim Jackson have been big question marks throughout my research. I just haven’t been able to find either of them on census records as children. And other than a story my great grandmother told my mom as a child about her grandmother, Mary, attempting to escape slavery as a teenager and being caught by a dog, we haven’t had any information about either Rose’s or Jim’s parents. If the Mary story were even true, we didn’t know if she was Rose’s or Jim’s mother.

So when arriving in Georgia, I was hopeful that we could get even the slightest bit of information on the Jacksons. After an unsatisfying visit to the Dougherty County library, we came out with only one real piece of information that very well could have been about other people: a marriage index listing for a James Jackson and Rosa Phillips. The marriage date was several years after my great grandmother’s birthday, so I at first dismissed it. But my mother verified that she knew they were indeed married years after their children were born (the scandal!). Worth looking into, but beyond going to the courthouse, there was no way to be sure this record was for my ancestors.

A great great (grandparent) marriage

Fast forward to the Dougherty County Probate Court. They were able to pull the marriage certificate, which didn’t provide much more information than the index. But the trick was requesting each of their death certificates. Although death certificates are unpredictable with regards to the amount of information they include (it depends on how much the informant knew at the time of death), we were prepared to pay $25 for each certificate, if only for a hint of any new information. Not only did the nicest woman in Albany, GA return with two completely filled out death certificates, with all four of their parents listed, but she didn’t charge us a cent because we were requesting the information for genealogy research…”I’m not gonna charge ya for these copies.” Once I got over the emotion caused by her kindness, I teared up over the names of an entirely new generation of my great grandmother’s family – her grandparents! Jim Jackson was a junior, as his father was Jim Jackson, Sr. His mother was Mary Gilbert, which verifies the story about a Mary, and explains why my great grandmother’s brother’s name was Gilbert. Rose’s parents were Dinah and Martin Phillips, verifying that her maiden name was indeed Phillips and we had located the correct marriage certificate. And if these discoveries weren’t enough, we went back to the hotel to look at earlier census records, finding Jim Jackson as a child, living with his parents…and his grandfather, Miles Jackson! That makes Miles my 4th great grandfather. It’s almost too much, yet never enough.

Pop’s maternal grandparents: Laura and Alexander Brooks. Okay, these two still remain somewhat of a mystery. Although Pop’s father’s family has taken me to a Zulu ancestor, his mother’s family has been harder to trace. It was only earlier this year that I learned Laura and Alexander’s names after finding them on the census, living with my great grandmother who was a young girl at the time. Beyond that, I’m stuck. While in Jacksonville we were able to narrow down the years of each of their deaths by going through public directories and seeing when they were no longer listed. But then I couldn’t find either of them listed in the local death index. They died years apart, yet they are equally impossible to find.

I just have to keep trying.  What I have learned throughout this process is the information is there…somewhere…waiting to be found.  And the ancestors certainly want to be found.  Some details may just be a bit more difficult to uncover, perhaps a bit dusty, or maybe even lacking sufficient pixels to make anything out.  But trust that none of these challenges will stop me from digging.  Every day it becomes more and more important to give names to my ancestors, making sure they know their lives and their legacies have not been erased or forgotten.  I owe them at least that much.

Mysteries of the Black Belt Part 2

Yesterday’s high temperature in Albany, GA was 101 degrees. Today will be the same. Going between an air conditioned car, an air conditioned hotel, and air conditioned libraries makes it bearable. The luxuries of today didn’t exist for black folks one hundred years ago. On top of the countless adversities they faced that we frequently discuss, like deadly threats of racism, insurmountable economic challenges, and unequal access to health care, I can’t begin to imagine how they dealt with this heat.

In addition to the race, age, occupation, literacy, and a few other interesting facts, the 1910 federal census provided the street and house number for each family. Based on street maps of their addresses, we’re able to place every family member who participated in the census that year, which is actually most of them. So we assume that, living several blocks apart in 1910, my teenage great grandparents would have met somewhere between Madison and Flint Avenues in Albany, Georgia.

Since we’ve come to Georgia to learn more about who they were and what they experienced back in the day, it only made sense to plug the 1910 addresses into the 2010 GPS. And since Albany isn’t a very large city, we didn’t have to drive more than 5 minutes from the main library to arrive 100 years back in time.

House on Madison - where my great grandfather, George, lived in 1910

The homes that my ancestors lived in are no longer standing. However, what must be exact replicas remain across the street. George Harper, my great grandfather, lived with his older sister and her family on Madison Avenue. They were in a tiny, one-story home that may have only looked slightly less dilapidated and depressing then than they do now. One of the homes that still stands has a “Danger” sign on the front door, undoubtedly warning against the inhabitable nature of the structure. Sadly, we saw people living in similar homes just a few doors down.

House on Flint - where my great grandmother, Essie, lived in 1910

We drove down several blocks to Flint, where my great grandmother, Essie, lived at 14, and where her parents lived for the duration of their lives, and where my grandmother and her brother even lived for much of their childhoods. Tiny wood structures, which at one point had no running water or electricity, were homes to 5, 6, even 7 people. To be honest, I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, as I sometimes feel selfishly cramped in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. Living on top of one another in those homes…really, how did they deal with this heat?

***

Driving to the Dawson library to meet Kathy, the white cousin we discovered by phone the day before, I was quite nervous. We already know the black children of my white 2nd great grandfather, George, were not accepted by his family or neighbors in Dawson, GA, which is why they all moved to Albany and lived in poverty after their mother’s death. Although Kathy’s sentiments may be a far cry from those of her grandmother’s (George’s sister), my biased perceptions of the South made me fear she would feel exactly the same about the secret black family as they did in 1890.

Walking into the library, we had our eyes open for an older white woman with a furrowed brow. Instead, we were met with a smiley woman, waving at us, standing toward the back of the room. My mother and I shook her hand and we all walked toward the genealogy room, where we had done our research the day before. Kathy said what summed up all of our sentiments, “I just can’t wait to learn more!”

We shared facts, traded dates, and exchanged photocopies. She was riveted by the stories of the black side of the family, and the ways in which paths crossed with the ancestors she knew. Although her grandmother, aunts, and uncles never spoke of her mysterious Uncle George, his black lady-friend, or his black children, she had some interesting details that added to the puzzle of their mysterious lives. She described “small tenant homes” by the railroad tracks, about 100 yards from the main (mansion-type) house, which at one point were the only other homes on the property. That must have been where my 2nd great grandmother (Lora) lived when she began the affair with George. And perhaps even more interesting, Kathy’s aunt told her a story of a smaller house behind the main house that their mother “built for Uncle George.” George would have been in his twenties, and he had about five children. His mother may have been pissed at him for falling in love with a black woman, whose mother was her cook. But she cared enough for him to make sure they were taken care of, at least for the short term. We presume the children only left the decent arrangement after Lora died, and George moved on to marry a white woman.

Home built for the secret black family - circa 1885

After about an hour of story-sharing, Kathy took us on a driving tour of Dawson. We visited the graves of my 4th great grandparents and many other members of the family, as they all share an impressive lot in the cemetery. We saw the main family home, and where Kathy now lives across the street (her grandmother’s former home). We saw the railroad tracks, and where Lora’s small tenant house formerly stood. And we saw the larger house that was built for George and his secret family, which, by our Albany standards, was quite substantial for a black family at the time. Overall, in spite of a few awkward moments stemming from Kathy’s discussion of her former cook, Cookie, and her preference to be color-blind (she only has the best of intentions), we had a delightful afternoon in Dawson, GA with our new, white cousin.

Our family story just gets more and more colorful by the minute.

Mysteries of the Black Belt

Wednesday evening. Finding cover from the hot sun. Sipping on a beer with my feet in a pool. Making small talk with friendly strangers. This isn’t Brooklyn. I’m on vacation. In Albany, Georgia.

But as you probably know, this isn’t just any vacation. My mother and I have traveled here on a mission: uncovering the past and revealing my family’s quietly kept stories. Having started the research earlier this year online, so many mysteries came to light that just couldn’t be answered remotely. So we decided to come to the source…the south. Or some may say “the black belt.” Did you know the southeastern region of the U.S. was known by some as the black belt of the country, referring to the millions of black people sustaining the economy with free labor? The concentration of black people through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the rest essentially looked like a black belt on the country’s waist when viewed graphically. Gross, but true. And no surprise that my ancestors were right in the heart of that belt…which now brings me here as well. Difference is I’m here visiting, drinking beer, my feet in a pool, and writing a blog from my blackberry…but that’s neither here nor there.

Starting in Atlanta, we settled into a rental car and immediately headed for the library in Macon.  Although we don’t have any family from Macon, the abundance of genealogy records held there helped us to resolve a couple of outstanding mysteries.  After a few hours there, we were on our way to Albany.  With family from Dawson and Albany, which are no more than 20 minutes apart, we expected to spend at least two days digging through the archives and touring the streets.  But since we don’t know any family in the area, we didn’t expect to make any significant personal connections.  Fortunately, we were wrong about that.

After contacting the local historical society for some guidance on how to pursue research on the Harpers, a particularly mysterious side of the family, I was referred to a man who was familiar with them.  After giving him a call, he in turn referred me to a woman, Kathy, who has some Harpers in her family.    He said, “when you’re at the library, ask them to give her a call.  She may be able to help you.”  Sure, whatever.

***

Librarian (on the phone): “Hi Kathy, I have some people here who say they were referred to you by Ed. Would you be willing to speak with them about some family questions?  Okay, here they are…”

Me: “Hi Kathy, I don’t want to take too much of your time.  My mother and I are here in Dawson doing research on the Harper family.  We’d love to know if you know any bits of information to share or have any insight on some sources we might refer to.”

Kathy: “Well isn’t that great?! It’s always exciting for me to talk to people who are researching the same families.  I have done quite a bit of research on the Harper family that I’d be happy to share.  In fact, Francis Harper and his wife Fannie lived in a house across the street from me.  And I live in my grandmother’s house.  Nellie Harper was my grandmother.”

Me (to myself): Oh shit!

***

Note: Nellie Harper is the sister to George C. Harper, my (white) 2nd great grandfather.  Kathy is our cousin!

Second note: George C. Harper had a long-term relationship with a black woman, which led to my branch of the family.  It’s unclear how much the white Harpers know about the black Harpers.

***

Me (a bit later in the conversation): “Kathy, are you familiar with any stories about George Harper having a black family?”

Kathy (in utter shock): “Well, NO!!”

Me: “Well, we’re actually from that side of the family.  We have a lot to talk about.”

Kathy: “We certainly do. How about we meet tomorrow morning.”

Me: “I can’t wait.”

So here we are in the deep south, about to meet a white woman for the first time and tell her all about the relationship her great uncle had with a black woman, and the many children they had as a result.  This is about to get very interesting…and all of our minds are about to be blown.

Black Girl Gone Back to Africa

This revelation about my ancestry is coming sooner than expected.  On Saturday I did some research at the Schomburg in Harlem. I was only there for about 1.5 hours. I spent at least ten minutes of that time shaking and in tears…the super duper happy kind. Back to Africa kind of happy.

I went with a focused mission. In an attempt to tie up some loose ends before heading south, I wanted to take a look at a book my great grandfather, Charles Sumner Long (my mother’s paternal grandfather), wrote back in 1939. Since he and his father were both prominent leaders in the A.M.E. Church in Florida, it makes sense that the book is about the history of the church. I recently purchased and read a book about this same history, which made numerous references to Charles’ father, Thomas Warren Long. I have also come across numerous references to Charles’ book. But unfortunately, it’s no longer in print and can now only be found on microfiche. Hence my trip to the Schomburg.

My expectations weren’t too high. I suspected the book would carry a neutral tone and as the author, Charles wouldn’t go into much detail about his family. So when I saw a photo of Charles on one of the first pages (I had never seen his image before), I was satisfied and felt my 1.25 hour-long trip to Harlem was worthwhile.

I set myself up with a well-funded copy card, prepared to print any page that made reference to anyone with the last name Long. I scrolled through the book, zooming, straightening and focusing the film almost obsessively. I printed various pages with tidbits about Charles and his father’s role in the establishment of numerous churches in Florida. Somewhere in the middle of the book, between two chapters about a black bishop and a black politician, Charles wrote a brief chapter about his (and my) family history. I started crying as soon as I read, “He was the slave of John Roberts…” It felt like striking genealogy gold.

Here’s what I read:

Can this even be real?!  He dumped so much information on my lap that it took me some time to process. In all honesty, after I printed the page, I had to put it out of my mind just to regain the capacity to get through the rest of the book. And not until I left the library did I fully digest exactly what I had learned about James Long, as well as Thomas (though I already had a small bit of his story). I’m still digesting it, really.

First of all, most people assume that if their ancestors survived the slave trade, they came from the west coast of Africa.  And since the Zulus are from southern Africa, not many people are even aware they fell victim to slave traders.  But it happened, and apparently not so infrequently.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1783 and 1825, 25,477 were taken from southeastern Africa to Cuba alone, (21,038 disembarked).  Although his circumstances were less common, my third great grandfather certainly wasn’t alone.

The Spanish trade to Havana, Cuba started in 1789, which is perhaps right before the time James would have arrived.  And apparently Matanzas was big on sugar production.  So I can make the assumption that James was working on a sugar plantation.  Beyond that, I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced.  An entirely new area for research has opened up.

Although I have found an African ancestor, which for many would be the jackpot that brings such a project to a close, there is so much more work to be done.  I need to catch up on these areas of history that I previously had no idea related to me.  As far as the Longs, there is one big, gaping hole in the story. If James purchased his freedom in Cuba and moved to Florida, under what circumstances did his son come to be enslaved? Was he also re-captured into slavery after moving to Florida? And was his wife enslaved as well? I’ll need to do some research on this John Roberts character in Jacksonville. Perhaps details about his plantation will direct me to the details that will fill in these gaps.

And speaking of traveling (was I at some point?), these new insights have added at least two more trips to my agenda, keeping in mind my agenda has become more of a long-term thing.  Cuba (Matanzas in particular) and Mozambique, since it seems the most common route from southeastern Africa to Cuba was from Mozambique to Havana. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.  But who knows what kind of records of the trade they kept  in either Mozambique or Havana?  I may be getting greedy, but I think I might have a chance to learn James Long’s African name.

There’s History…and then there’s My Story

We already know I was the angry black girl in high school. I was an Africana Studies major in college. In law school I focused primarily on public interest and civil rights law. I care and am quite passionate about all things related to black people. The ultimate goal of this whole journey is to provide young black Americans with an opportunity to learn about their ancestry and the struggles of our people in order to garner more self respect and esteem. But only now, as I have been digging into the stories of my ancestors, has the history that influences all of us begun to truly resonate and affect me so deeply.

Although I didn’t realize I was doing it, I had somehow placed the middle passage, hundreds of years of slavery, reconstruction, black codes, jim crow…all of it into some type of academic bubble. And now with names, and even some faces, to associate with the words in the history books, I feel the pains of our brutal past that much more intensely. My great great grandmother survived this. And my great grandfather accomplished that in spite of this.

No matter how much reading, how many papers, and how many opinions I may have established, the story develops an entirely new tone when there’s blood involved. Kind of like when you watch a tragic story on the news. You learn about a child who has lost both of her parents in a fire. Wow. That’s really sad. I can’t imagine what she must be going through. But then imagine finding out it’s a member of your family suffering. It’s no longer just a regretful shame that you wish wasn’t so. It’s now gut wrenching and worthy of tears – a much more personal pain.

Eventually I’m hoping to bridge the deepest gaps in my family history and identify which of my ancestors actually crossed the Atlantic to suffer enslavement in Florida, Georgia, and wherever else they may have landed. If Alex Haley could do it, there’s no reason I can’t (well, actually there are a ton of reasons – but I may as well try to beat the odds). I’ve gotten to the point of my family tree, from the beginning of the 19th century, where everyone was enslaved for the duration of their lives. Born and died during a time when they were valued less than an automobile, and in many cases viewed as disposable. They, needless to say, were human beings, although they were never treated as such. But there was a time – a person…people who were born free. Born free as Africans, forced from their homes and families, enslaved and subjected to inhumane treatment for the rest of their lives, with the knowledge that many descendant generations to come would suffer the same fate. I know more than I care to know about that fate. But I want to know their names. I want to know anything about them. I want to identify with them. I want to pay tribute to them by removing them from an academic bubble about slavery and truly knowing their stories. It may sound crazy, but I want to feel that pain.

As I head back to school to study the sociology of migrant people, I potentially will gain even more of a cold, academic perspective of what it means to be far removed from one’s homeland. I’m sure I’ll analyze how individuals tend to hold onto anything that’s familiar in order to maintain a clear identity and value what/who is truly their own. But I’m interested to know if others have a similar experience or reaction when learning about personal family history. Is it uncommon to reevaluate or relearn history after you locate your place in it? It means so much more to know who of your own was there – and all of us have people who lived through every stage of it – good and bad.

From the Perspective of a Race-ist

First I should mention that this post has nothing to do with Amsterdam. It does stem from something that recently happened at work. But I’m going to try my best to leave the specific circumstances out of it. I’ve just decided to use this space to get some things off my mind – not to say they won’t still be on my mind – but perhaps now they’ll also be on your mind. And that makes me feel a bit better.

Matters of race have been of critical importance to me ever since I realized my race mattered to everyone else. Perhaps I was more in tune to questions of race as a child because I always lived and grew up around black people, but attended predominately white schools. That combination led to much self reflection early on. I have a pretty vivid memory of the racial dynamics of my 3rd grade class – at least one particular day. It must have been black history month. All of the students sat on the floor for a special lecture about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream. I was the only black student in the class (in the interest of full disclosure, there couldn’t have been more than 18 students total). As Ms. Porter vaguely described the troubles of black people in the U.S., all eyes were on me. Because discretion is perhaps a lesson taught in 4th grade, my classmates did not try to hide their fascination with my difference and association with these people whose lives suck so badly. Their stares seemed to say, “wow, she’s black. I wonder if she’s poor and angry.” Present day self would have been proud, and happy to lead the class, and requesting the extension of history lessons related my people well beyond one designated month. But the 3rd grader was mortified. My objective was to blend in, which was not being accomplished. I would bet (a small amount of) money that none of my classmates would have memories of that day or that lesson. My perspective was certainly different from theirs. I guess that was the beginning of the “minority” experience.

I was a senior in high school during the hype of the O.J. Simpson trial. The opposite of where I was as a 3rd grader, in 1995 I was constantly fighting the black fight, schooling my white classmates on their privilege and making sure my blackness and black people didn’t go unnoticed. I even wore down my AP English teacher until she added one piece of black literature to the syllabus, Things Fall Apart. And on a random day during that year, my small Statistics class was starting late. So about 6 of us, including the teacher, began chatting about O.J. and the craziness of the trial. In the midst of the conversation I said something along the lines of “I hate the white system of power in this country.” Little did I know, I had started a battle.

Several days later (or perhaps it was the next day) I reported to an emergency senior class meeting that was scheduled for the beginning of our lunch period – everyone was required to attend. Although such a meeting had never been called before, it could have been about anything. And about 2 minutes into the Head of High School’s announcement/speech, I realized the meeting was about me. She was saying something to the effect of offensive comments being made in a classroom that were being looked into, as well as the need to resolve class conflicts, blah blah blah. I had no doubt it was about me – and it also tipped me off when all attention and eyes seemed to be focused on me. As my classmates shuffled out of the emergency meeting, one of my few white allies whispered to me that she knew at least 2 girls had reported me to the Headmistress, requesting that I be expelled from school for being racist.

Aside from the fact that I subscribe to the belief that black people can’t be racist (prejudiced, maybe), the absurdity of this claim enraged me. These rich, white, bitches were trying to ruin my life because I spoke against the structures of power in white-dominated America – as I was sitting in a classroom of all white girls an hour from my home because the public school in my black neighborhood may very well have allowed me to graduate functionally illiterate. They claimed I said, “I hate white people.” (And honestly, in that moment, I did.). And from my ally I learned they made the argument that if they had said something similar about nigge…uhhh, black people, they would be kicked out. So I should face the same consequence. Apparently they were advocates for equality.

I was a strong student and in good favor with my school’s faculty. So although I had a moment of worry about my fate, I never actually believed I would be expelled. But this was lucky. In a not so different scenario, I very easily could have been perceived by the school’s administration as a threat, intimidating my poor, defenseless classmates with my racist rants.

I may not have been expelled for my O.J.-related remarks, but I certainly did earn a lovely pair of glasses that force me to view the world through special lenses, magnifying the biases with which I (and all of us) are viewed. I still wear those glasses everyday, whether consciously or not. It’s through these lenses that I have watched 3 black people fired for matters not relating to their performance (though they might claim one was related to performance – it wasn’t). And as far as I can remember, no one else has been fired for matters not relating to performance (at least since I’ve been there). Now we all carry biases and sometimes perceive people negatively as a result. But when it affects my people more than most, I can’t help but wonder if I’m still fighting that same battle that started in 12th grade.