If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.
- Maya Angelou
When I was seven or eight years old, I watched a documentary on television about the civil rights movement. Until that time, I had never seen skin as having a color. My father was a jazz musician, his buddies, black and white, were often at the house. Louis Armstrong records provided our evening music. My very first “boyfriend,” in first grade, was named Oscar. We held hands, and he kissed me on the cheek. It didn’t occur to me until years later that his skin was a different color than mine. That night when I saw the marchers in Alabama being beaten by the police on our little black and white television, I woke up to what race meant in my country. I buried myself in my mother’s arms and wept, “I don’t want to be white.”
We have each of us experienced race in our own, personal way. From the moment I awoke to the reality of the racially divided world that we live in, I have carried the sadness that I felt that night, watching those brave men and women defy oppression, and walk toward the violence, anger and hatred that stood between them and freedom; sadness, mainly, for the heinous wrongs that were committed against the Africans brought to this country as slaves and all of their descendants treated as much less than equal, but also sadness for all of us, that our entire country had to bear this burden, and deal with the ugly prejudices that separate us, holding all of us back from being truly free.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wrote: “In Stamps (Arkansas) the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed. I remember never believing that whites were really real.”
Segregation in public institutions has been illegal in this country for half a century, but segregation of racial and ethnic communities continues to exist. Perhaps it is a basic human instinct, to gather with one’s own ethnic group, for safety and comfort; however it fosters ignorance, on both sides of the racial divide. What we do not know, we fear. It can also have a powerful impact on our psychology as a society, promoting negative stereotypes, both of the racial other, as well as within each racial community. Psychological examinations of young black children were used as evidence of the negative effects of segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that ended segregation in the public schools in 1954. Sadly, resegregation of our nations schools has been on the rise since the early 1990s, most notably in the Northeast and West, and it’s not simply a black and white issue anymore. “For Latinos, California and New York have the dubious distinction of ranking first and second respectively as the most segregated states for Latino students. Forty-seven percent of Latinos in California, and 58% in New York, attend schools that have… ‘intense segregation’ — schools with 90%-100% non-white students.” (USAToday)
Living in segregated communities may give us the illusion of safety and security in our neighborhoods, but it is not good for us as a society, and it shouldn’t be passed on to the next generation. How can we break down the barriers of ignorance and distrust if we do not live together? Today we are one huge step closer to proving to ourselves, and to the world, that we are ready to be free at last of the racial inequalities that have tethered our society’s progress. But that dream of a perfect union will forever elude us as long as we remain so separated from one another.
When Maya Angelou’s little brother asked their Uncle Willie why the whites hated the blacks so much, he responded, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.”
I have often wondered what would happen if our collective memory was expunged, if we, as a nation, or world, suddenly developed amnesia, and all of the old prejudicial grips on our minds, hearts and consciences, passed down through the generations, just disappeared. Would we return to that innocence of childhood where we truly judged one another not on the color of our skin, but on the content of our character? It is impossible, of course, to erase the centuries of history, bias and fear that each generation passes down to the next. But today I do believe it is possible to move beyond them; we have proven that as a society we can recognize the errors of our fathers and mothers, try to repair what we can in our present, and teach our children to be at once wiser and more innocent and trusting than we have been. By electing a man with black skin to be the leader of our country, and in many ways, the world, we haven’t forgotten, but perhaps we have forgiven, each other, and ourselves.