Dear America – One Person’s Perspective of America’s Greatest Challenge
our greatest challenge as a nation is calling us out. For over two hundred years black and white Americans have coexisted in spurring and shaping the growth of this great country. We came here together, some standing at the bow, looking forward into a not so certain future, and some deep in the hull, chained side by side in the dark, for a profit. Even then our destinies were being stitched together against the fierce resistance of trepidation, into the same red, white and blue cloth. So began the first stage of our relationship: Slave and Master. The evolution of this relationship I believe is America’s Great Wall of Realization. Before I continue, please hear me as I say to you that I love this country. I love my home. I’m glad I grew up a poor black boy in southern New Hampshire. I was always the only black child in the class room, but I was never lonely; I had great friends. Nearly all of my friends were white, some black, bust most of whom were white, and nerdy. It was always the nerds who befriended me: the skinny, pale kid with four eyes, or the poor, white, trash. Somehow, we had something in common – we were uncanny, misfits, unwanted by the thoroughbreds. But, that was okay because we were free Americans living each day for the pursuit of happiness. And happiness then was playing in the woods all day, catching frogs, running home to watch the Monkeys (you know, the band), licking out the cream of a suzy-Q, getting your first kiss in the second grade from Jane Loring, the cutest girl in the school who happened to be in the third grade (Even then I aimed high), saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Mrs. Brown’s third grade class room. Being young, poor, and naive in America was great. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was happy, and became known for my smile. The Wall of Realization was unimportant to me. As I grew older however, the pursuit of happiness became a bit more complex.
I began to want a little more than seasons in the sun; like a car to drive to school, a spot on the basketball team, the pretty girl friend, a good grade, a college education, a future. It was when I began to reach for these things that people began to tell me no. My father, a retired vet, just couldn’t afford a car for one of four kids. My high school basketball coach’s hands were tied by influential families and school politics. There was no way he could make a spot for a black kid living in government housing when the owners of local businesses expected there kids to make the roster. College wasn’t in my families vocabulary. The third of four children, I was on my way to becoming the first in the family to march on graduation day. I was becoming increasingly stressed about what would come next. My grades were average, so none of the school counselors took my hopes seriously. A local recreational counselor, an African- American named David Keitt, noticed me, and pulled some strings to get me into Upward Bound. This program saved me by giving me the information and skills I needed to make college a reality. I Fell in love with a white girl name Keisha. She had beautiful red hair. She and I started out as friends, and eventually became best friends. She lived in a single parent home, and her mom really liked me. But as our friendship budded into love, something happened that forced me to face a strong reality. One day I was visiting Keisha, listening to 80′s music: Corey Heart, Cindy Lauper, A, Ha, etc. Her mother asked me to come into the kitchen for moment. She told me: “Peter, I like you, and you can come over anytime you like, but there is no way I want Keisha to be with a black guy. Do you understand?” Although I did not understand, I told her I did. I stopped seeing Keisha, and I never told her why. In the class room I always knew I was different. The kids made that clear with occasional racial slurs, and the history lessons that I always tried so hard to relate to, or be a part of, never really gave me anything to be proud of. Slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. usually got about a paragraph each in the American History text book. But, I tried to see George Washington’s story as part of my story. This task was easier when I was a kid, but as I grew older, my peers made it clear to me that their history was not my history. “Go back to Africa,” I heard this phrase often. My parents never raised me to see my self as different than anybody else. A noble gesture, but looking back, a little naive. Suddenly, a sixth sense that I had never used before, was activated. I became increasingly aware of just how different I was. When you are a child seeing Star Wars for the first time, it is easy to see yourself as Luke SkyWalker or Princess Leah. This all changes when you begin to see yourself as a color, instead of a human being. Self Realization becomes complicated. The best way to explain it is to quote the great American author, Richard Wright:
“When ever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America,
I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of
Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it, but not of it.”
I was on the outside looking in. I wasn’t angry about it, but I smiled a lot less. My self realization was evolving. College was a little different. I attended a Christian school called Atlantic Union College. The student body was very diverse. There were people from all over the world, with different appetites, different shades of skin, accents, and languages. I loved it. But what really gave me pause was the number of black students. I had never seen so many before. It actually made me uncomfortable at first – I didn’t know how to behave around black people, my people. They accepted me with open arms though. We were amused by each other. They had never seen a black hick before who spoke with a New England accent (I wasn’t even aware that I had and accent – I thought everyone said “wicked”), and I was in awe them. Some were from various countries in Africa, some were from Bermuda, and some were from the places like Brooklyn. I became close friends with some. I fell in love with the Latino culture, and my best friend today -Ana Martinez- is one of the friends I made during this period in my life. But ironically, I still gravitated to the white kids. I was still more comfortable with them. At this center for higher learning, painted like a canvas with various hues of culture, two things struck me as strange. In chapel, and in the cafeteria, the students and faculty segregated themselves. You had a table or section for each race or culture. I always felt odd sitting with my white friends in the cafeteria, but I did so just the same. Second, my family is of Ethiopian decent, so meeting Ethiopians on campus was a treat for me. Every time I met one we looked at each other as if we were experiencing a sense of dejavu. Well, one day I was speaking to an Ethiopian named MiMi in the cafeteria. One of my white friends named Ross, asked me what I was talking to her about, and I told him Ethiopia and our families. His response surprised me. He said: “She’s not black.” and I said “What do you mean she’s not black?” and Ross said “She’s not black like you.” There was a tone of disdain in his voice that I had not heard since “Go back to Africa.” I was hurt, and deeply disappointed, but I pondered what he said in my heart. “Black like you.” What was wrong with my blackness as opposed to MiMi’s? Could it have something to do with the fact that she could not trace her ancestry back to American slavery, and I could? My sixth sense advanced to a higher level. I began to see that on the campus, and in the class room, the foreign black students were more highly regarded than the African-American students. I began to realize that our births, or the roots of our relationship – slave and master – instead of serving as a brick in the foundation of kinship as Americans, it was serving instead as a giant, yet invisible, wedge between us. It was an issue of respect. In my conversations with various people, some white, some black, some African, European, Latin, Caribbean, etc, I began to devise several things:
- Some whites did not respect African-Americans because they did not see us a respectable.
- Some black Caribbeans did not approve of the way African-Americans viewed themselves.
- Some Latinos confessed that they were ashamed of having black family members.
- Some black Africans held the same view as the Caribbeans.
- Most of the foreign Asian students just saw all of us as Americans
- Some Asian-American students seemed to hold the same view as the whites.
- And African-Americans, we were like, what the hell? What do we have to do?
What would we have to do to earn the respect of our white peers? Die like Crispus Attucks? Fight in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry? Enlist with the other 300,000 blacks during the first world war? Join the Tuskegee Airmen of world war II? Drop out of college and fight for the liberation of Kuwait? Invent the automatic traffic light? Invent the gas mask? Maybe invent the cellular phone? How were we supposed to view ourselves when nothing we did seemed to be good enough? In the end the only thing we could have done to change how we were perceived was to go back in time and ensure that African Kingdoms did not miss out on the Renaissance, and so be advanced enough to fight off the Europeans to keep from being enslaved in the first place. We were slaves, and so to many, would always be viewed as either less, or just glorified butlers and maids. How do we change a perception that is so deeply, and psychologically ingrained in so many of us? How are African-Americans to experience self realization within the American/western civilization phenomena when we are “in it, but not of it?” I’m not sure. I once had a friend of African-American-Latin-American descent ask if me I believed we would ever change the perception. Without hesitation, I told him no. I was so sure, until today. What is so different about today? The youth in America are different. The pale, four eyed kids have multiplied, and they have a different vision of and for America. I’ve watched thousands of them marching, volunteering, shouting in the streets, waiting in long lines, pulling their parents by the hands, for a black presidential candidate. What is going on? Is this candidate really so right for America? I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that these kids are not seeing him as a color. They see his experience as part of their own. They are ready, where most of my generation was not, to scale the great wall of realization – to join our experiences into one.
I’m forty years old now. I’m all grown up with a family of my own. I married Tanya, a white girl from Presque Isle, Maine. We have two daughters together. Della is 10, and Halen is 8. They are very active girls – their mom included – and they are happy with playing in their yard, riding their bikes, selling Girl Scout cookies, eating chocolate cake, painting their toenails with mom on “Girlie Night,” and watching movies together on Family Night. Their pursuit of happiness is still a simple one. Della is white. I adopted her on October 12, 1999, and it was the happiest day of my life. Halen, was born on October 7, 1999, and although made together by Tanya and I, will always be considered black. Her skin is nearly as as dark as my own, so you would never know she was mixed. I have a white daughter and a black daughter, so my sixth sense is still active. Like my parents before me, I raise them not to see color – I guess I still believe. However, they face the same challenges I faced. Halen was 6 when she was called nigger for the first time – in church of all places. Six years old, and already being told to see herself as a color. I’ve had perfect strangers attempt to convince them that they are not sisters. This is hard on both of them. I want them to grow up in a more enlightened world, a society that is ready to see beyond color into the hearts of all human beings. Until now, I was very doubtful of this possibility, but the youth of America have me seeing myself, and more importantly my girls as part of the American/Western civilization experience. This black candidate has become a front runner thanks in part to them. They have a vision, and I believe it would be in the best interest of America for it to be realized.
“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”