She was sixteen, sheltered, and shy. But she was smart, the Valedictorian of her class. She loved writing and hoped to become a journalist. Her English teacher, Mrs. Daily, encouraged her writing and entered her into contests. She won both the Optimist Club and the Civitan Club essay competitions in her senior year. Winning the Civitan award was special because she received a $50 savings bond.

That year’s topic was “What Democracy Means to Me.” In the untested heart and mind of the essayist, the amazing sixties vitalized her, a Negro girl growing up in the Jim Crow south: The Brown decision had outlawed school segregation, Negroes had won the right to sit where they chose since the Montgomery bus boycotts, Negro college students were engaged in freedom rides and sit-ins at lunch counters. Young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had sparked the fire of freedom in generations of Negroes.

A required course for all senior students, “Democracy vs Communism,” prepared her well to pen an essay about what Democracy meant to her. She had learned thoroughly the oppressive system of communism, its lack of freedom, justice, and the individual’s aching for a better life that only democracy promised. She wrote eloquently about the free and fair elections promised by democracy, somehow ignoring the fact of Negroes were killed for registering to vote. She wrote sincerely of human rights and equal protection under the law, though she had been ten years of age and aware when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. The essayist wrote of social equality, overcome with the prospect while also knowing deep down that she, her parents, ancestors, or any other Negro that she knew and knew of had not exactly experienced it.

She wrote it even as she was aware of the fear that her parents could not protect her from harm.

But here was the opportunity to share her dream of the goodness of America. She poured out her soul, her vision of her country as a great democracy where each and every citizen was free to live the dream. She wrote convincingly of things that neither she nor anyone she knew had true access to.

When it was time to go to college, the essayist’s family insisted that she choose something more practical for a Negro girl than journalism. They suggested that with only the magazines “Jet” and “Ebony” as possible employers, she might find her education wasted. Surely, she did not want to join the ranks of the majority of Negro women as domestic servants. They wanted more for her. She chose Speech Pathology as a major, minoring in English. At her university, only one journalism course was taught. She took it as an elective, happy to write for the university newspaper. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to publish a front-page article? It was an interview with Saul Alinsky, the radical community organizer and writer.

That was the last article she would write for fifty years. During the Civil Rights movement, she stayed safely in the North while others braver than she were beaten, spit upon, and thrown in jail. She swallowed the anger but never became so full as to express it on paper. However, during each presidential election cycle thereafter, she wondered what it would be like to experience interviewing and writing about the candidates. But she did not have the courage of her convictions. She let go of her dream and decided her family was right, better to get the best life you could as a Negro, well, Black, by then. She also was not ready to suffer the indignities of being the “first” Black.

In 1967, after experiencing the Detroit Riot, she came home for a visit, full of the rage of almost all Blacks of her age. She pulled out the essay of which her mother was so proud and tore it into shreds in front of her parents’ unbelieving eyes. Now a young adult, painfully aware of what it meant to be black in America, she could not believe she had written such sappy, ignorant thoughts about a concept that had no meaning or relevance for her. She hated herself for allowing whites to believe that she dreamed or hoped for what was theirs alone. She hated most that in her eagerness to impress, she had surely fostered their sense of superiority; poor little Negro girl hoping for something she could never have.

In 1990, she wrote her first book about co-dependency; and then two more related to the education of children of color. The writing was not the same as when she had been an essayist. What she wrote now was scholarly, devoid of the purity of soul, the exposure of the spirit with which she had written decades before. Her naiveté was long gone. It would be some thirty-five years before she wrote an essay in which she could lay bare her soul again.

On her 71st birthday, she woke with the questions faced by many of her age. How had she lived her life? What had she accomplished? What was she proud of? What remained undone? She boasted of her greatest accomplishment -- two Ivy League-educated children -- the Dartmouth son, a city councilman; the daughter, a Harvard-educated lawyer. She, the good mother, had earned her Ph.D. and a successful career. She had published books, she had revived and directed a historical museum.

She remembered the essay from more than fifty years before. So long ago, she had dipped her foot in the water of racism, but she had been unwilling to take on the ferocity of the subject even though it was what her life and the lives of all others who looked like her.

She had to complete the task set out when she was still ignorant of the world. She could no longer pretend, resist or look away. If she wrote now, it must be about race and it must be honest. It was race that shaped her identity, her experience, her fears, her sorrows, and her wisdom. Race coursed through every vein and artery of America, it lived within every cell and it started the nation’s heartbeat and nurtured the country’s growth.

America’s cultural mind had been flooded with the images of blackness created, reinforced, and perpetuated. Now at 71, she was ready to free the essayist of her credulous youth, to express her mind, to let her spirit leap onto the pages. This time, it would be different: yes, she would write essays again, but not those of the hopeful dupe of a Negro girl she was in the early ‘60s. These essays would be the truth of an experienced elder who understood the realities of America’s grand democracy.

She knew what she had to say.