I never intended to write about race, but the land of my birth could not have thrived without racial designations and a racial caste system. Race started her heartbeat, and nurtured her growth, it lives within every cell of her body. Race is in the sinews, bones, and marrow of this country. Race courses through its veins and arteries.
Race has seeped into and overtaken its culture and its institutions. America would not be America without race. Her cultural mind is flooded with the images of whiteness and blackness that she has created. Viscerally, she responds at an unconscious level to the beliefs and attitudes that these images have created.
As a high school student, I won the Optimist and Civitan Club's county essay contests. In those days, I wrote inspirational pieces such as "What Democracy Means to Me". I was filled with hope for a better future. The Brown decision had outlawed school segregation, though not for me. African Americans in Montgomery had eliminated sitting in the back of the bus through a yearlong boycott. African-American students were engaging in lunch counter sit-ins. Through my hopeful sixteen-year-old eyes, despite the life that I knew growing up in the Jim Crow South, I too could start to believe in the dream of freedom and justice that my country promised.
Over my professional life, I chose "unracialized" professions, i.e., Speech Pathology and Counselor Education. I steered clear of race as a dissertation topic, but somehow, race was always there. Maybe it was bringing children into this race-conscious world that opened my eyes; and made me realize that education and class do not supersede race in this society. Henry Gates would probably testify to that.
Now at 71, I am ready to free the essayist of my youth again. I look, listen, and feel all that drives this country's images, belief system, and cultural mind; race. In just the past weeks, three movies have brought race fully into our consciousness. "Hidden Figures" made us aware of how race creates a history void of the contributions of those designated as "black" in our society. "Fences" the August Wilson play, brought to the screen and performed with ultimate reality, seared our minds with the intolerable oppressed lives of black men striving to be men. Finally, I Am Not Your Negro" based upon the writing of one of America's greatest writers, opened our eyes if we dared to see the reality of race in America.
I cannot pretend, I cannot resist, I cannot look away. If I write, it must be about race. It is race that has shaped my identity, my experiences, and my fears. Race has made me weep, consumed my ten-year-old mind with a vulnerability that no child should ever be forced to feel, and filled my heart with fear. Over this more than half a century of life in this land, I have come to fear policemen, groups of white males, and pickup trucks with Confederate flags. To be completely honest, I have only felt totally safe when out of the country of my birth, this nation consumed by race.
This land could not exist without her racial inheritance, for it is race, the designation of its people based upon one drop of black blood that creates the racial hierarchy makes its reality, and gives it the exceptional life it proclaims. The United States is a country, created through its racial policies to be a white garden of Eden served by those who are not designated as white. To be an American is to be white.
What would America be if race was not the foundation upon which we as a country were established, which keeps us bound to our conception of who we are. If race was not our constant companion, the thing that shapes our reality, recognized or denied, who would we be as a nation? Without the racial classifications of whiteness and blackness, the United States as we know it would not exist. Overt, covert, violent, unconscious, or denied, race is the essence of America. When will Americans have the courage to acknowledge its racial DNA?
Now at almost 72 years, as I contemplate Erik Erikson’s psychosocial task of Integrity vs Despair, I am clear about the work that lies ahead. I feel no sense of despair, I have had a good life, wonderful parents and extended family, a community that nurtured me, the best of education, and career opportunities that let me experience passion and freedom. Race has not made me a victim, rather because of it, I have grown stronger, more resolute, and determined to live up to my potential as defined by me, never by the stereotypical images. Because of having to negotiate and outmaneuver the racial crossroads I faced, I am more clever, resourceful, and ingenious. But integrity requires that I face and speak the truth of being born and living as a “colored girl” during Jim Crow, through the years of promise, and now coming full circle to the reality of race in America.