When I was ten years of age, my world as a colored child was shaken. In Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, and brutalized to the extent that when his corpse was recovered, he was not recognizable. Like most colored, and especially as a child, his disfigured face traumatized me. This was the reality, however, of being colored in America, especially in Mississippi, which was considered an uncivilized state for coloreds.
I did not realize the degree to which I had been traumatized by Till’s murder until some thirty years later. My husband, who was Ethiopian, and our five-year-old son and I were traveling from Florida to New Orleans. Passing through Mississippi, my son saw a sign indicating a road leading to a beach. Both my son and husband were eager to drive down to the beach. I had an immediate anxiety attack; the thought of driving down a country road in Mississippi was unbearable. My son was crying to go to the beach, and my Ethiopian husband kept asking what was wrong with me as he continued down the road. When I saw another black family there, I was immediately relieved and returned to myself. I was not able to explain my strange reactions, neither my son nor my husband could have understood the fear I had experienced as a colored child in America, especially in the state of Mississippi.
I experienced fears from my days as a colored girl some forty years later when my son was older. While he had been away at college, we moved to a predominately white area so that he could attend Plant High School, one of the best in the nation. Jaha had gone to have breakfast with high school friends. I was scheduled to present a workshop in St. Petersburg. As usual, I turned on the alarm system. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the Gandy Bridge that I remembered that Jaha did not know the alarm code; I went into a panic. As soon as I got across the bridge, I called the school and told them I had to go home because of a family emergency and would be late. Thoughts raced through my head of Jaha coming home, opening the door, the alarm going off, the police coming, and not believing this was his home and the worst happening. I thanked God as I realized he had not come home yet. I stayed until he arrived and gave him the code. Being black, African American, or whatever we were designated did not matter; we were still the other, and I feared for the life of my son.
A few months after he finished college, Jaha moved to Japan. I visited him there almost a year later and never worried again about his safety or well-being for the twenty years that he lived there and in Micronesia. He rarely came back to the US to visit; I went out there each year; when he did come home, I was happy to see him but not totally comfortable with his living back in the US.
While I do not consider myself to be “tragically colored,” the fears of my ten-year-old colored girl were and are still deep in my psyche. The anniversary of the murders of Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice revives the memories of days past. If racial violence continues to take the lives of young black males in this country, the reality of being “colored” remains despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other “legal” measures that supposedly were indicators of America’s racial progress.