By Sharon Kelly-West –
While recently trekking a four-mile hike through my old neighborhood in East End with my dear friend, I began to reminisce.
He is white and I am not. We chatted about Black History Month and vented to each other about how very important it is to acknowledge the contributions of Black people in our country regularly—not just one month of the year.
I took a moment to reflect on the time when my mother shared with my brother and me that we would be changing schools. Our beautiful, new, and wonderfully maintained school, located in a cohesive Black neighborhood of East End, would no longer be the school we would be attending.
I recalled the sock hops at Lucy S. Herring School at 85 Mountain Street. I recalled the lunch room with the great lunches and the folks who worked throughout the school—teacher, librarian, cafeteria staff, or janitor—all lived in our East End neighborhood.
The words Mommy shared with me and Ricky were, “Starting in two months, you will be going to a different school. You will be in classes with the white children; therefore, you will get a better education and better books.”
Can you imagine how difficult that was for her to share with us, knowing that this integration thing could go horribly wrong, or trusting that it will be just fine?
I do not recall speaking of this with my friends in the neighborhood. It was not mentioned.
The “New” School
When I arrived to the “new” old school—David Millard Junior High located on College Street at the time—it was huge and dark and old. And there I was: a seventh grader, tall, skinny, dark, and shy, entering these long halls and passing what seemed like grey walls everywhere.
It was a challenge even finding where my classes were. I do not recall stares from white kids, but I do remember one guy named Dan. I would love to know his last name and where he is. For he said hello to me.
Dan was a white guy with an Afro. He was tall and slender, and he said hello to me. He was so welcoming to me. I wish I had known how to accept his friendship, but I was clueless.
All my teachers where white. Where were my black teachers? Mrs. Owens, Mrs. Hammonds, Mrs. Rumley, Mrs. Louise White, Mrs. Young? Ahh, at last—I spotted Mrs. Anderson, the librarian from Lucy S. Herring, in the “new” old school library. I said nothing but exhaled: in my seventh-grader mind, I felt she would look out for me, for us. It was such a relief to see her.
I recall sitting in my English Literature class. My teacher, Mrs. Clodfelter. It was me and one other black student in the class. The other ten were white. All I wanted to do was to get into my classroom and sit unnoticed. It took me too long to find the class and when I did, everyone else was seated, so I sat at the closest desk I could wander to.
She had already started the class when she made the announcement.
I hear it now like it was yesterday: “Class, we have two new students with us today. We have “Nigras” [not Negroes but “Nigras”] joining us.
“That word” did not feel right. But Mommy said this school will be a better school and we would get a better education; therefore, in my adolescent mind, I decided that this was the proper way to say “Negroes.” I shared this with no one; I kept it within me in a safe place and did not choose to visit there, as it never felt right.
College—and the Same Old…
Fast forward six years. I’m sitting in an English Literature class during my freshman year in college, studying the works of an African American writer. As I devour the assigned reading, something he had written blows me away. He mentioned how black people were addressed as “Nigger” or in some circumstances “Nigra”…
Wait! Did he say “Nigra”?
At that moment, I realized why that word never felt right. Because it was not right. It was evil and full of ignorance. These words exuded from the mouth and heart of my teacher. My white teacher in my “new” old school.
Walking Through the Past Into the Present
So, at the end of our walk, I went home and reflected on this moment, though it occurred so long ago. How has that impacted me, influenced how I feel about me today? Have I implanted enough self-efficacy in my adult children that they are not influenced by people who can be ignorant? Have my children encountered situations that they have not told me about?
I do recall a moment: When my son was in the first grade at a private Christian school, he was sitting at the dinner table and all of a sudden he burst out crying. I asked what was the matter, and he said, “My friend at school said she could not play with me anymore because I am black.” He then said, “I told her God would not say that.”
I loved how he responded, at age six, in just the first grade. It hurt him, yet he responded so well. Me, not so much. We met the family at their home the following day, and let’s just say they got the message.
Cultural Humility—and Cultural Pride
During my sessions on “Cultural Humility” I ask this question: “When did you first feel different?”
My dear friend helped me to answer that question during our long hike on a beautiful day. It is beautiful that we are all different. We must embrace our uniqueness and the uniqueness of others. Culture makes us different.
The 1990’s movie Cool Runnings, about a Jamaican bobsled team, includes a line that is so memorable, so true, so important: “People are afraid of what they do not know about.”
Remember that. Do not allow others to tell you who you are or quantify your value or your contribution to humanity. If others do not know about you, who you are, you must teach them, inform them, show them! You are the lead actor in the role of your life. Live, Laugh, and Love.
So I ask you, each reader, “When did you first feel different?” What did you do with that information? Did you hide it, or shape it? Did you learn from it, embrace it? Did you grow into it, celebrate your difference, your uniqueness?
We have the power within to shape our negative lived experiences into a force that propels us forward and upward. And we must do so. As Dr. Maya Angelou wrote, and taught us …“And Still I Rise.”