As we mark this day in 2011 to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., reflecting on the transformations his efforts have made in the United States moves me to share a particular - painful - heartfelt memory and story.
To be introduced to and spend time getting to know me - one would never even imagine that I was - actually - born in Oakland, California. That southern influence seems to soak in after being relocated to the south at a very young age.
However - I have very poignant memories of my first few years of living in California. As a little girl - I attended Kindergarten at Longwood Elementary - and First Grade at Manzanita - both Elementary schools in Hayward, California.
I remember my first best friend. She lived across the street from us during my first grade year at Manzanita. She had a bicycle - one of those that had the flat metal piece going across the back tire that most kids would allow someone to sit upon and share riding. There was one particular day - I was wearing banana skin slippers - as they were called - while riding along with her.
My right foot ended up mangled within the spokes of that bicycle. By the time my foot was removed - the flesh was torn so badly. I remember my mother picking me up and carrying me to the house. I remember laying on a bed - my foot propped up on a pillow - Vaseline all over the wound. The pain and the burning - the sight of the wound making me nauseous. My dad kneeling by the bed - praying for me.
My physical growth since then has caused the scar to move about an inch above my ankle bone. And to this day - I think of her every time my eyes even glance upon it - and smile! And I feel the warmth - again - from the memories of time with her that - as a child - I grew to always feel like I had to hide in my heart.
She was black.
There was a boy in my class at Manzanita elementary. He was just a boy. We were just good friends. He was shy. But he would talk to me. His Grandma - WOW! She was like - Grandma to all of us in the whole classroom! She was always there for every special day we had at school. She always baked goodies and brought to all the parties we had in class. And she - always - had hugs - for everybody!
My last memory at that school - it was May Day. The school had a huge celebration - outside on the playground. I remember all the colorful streamers and balloons they had decorated the “ Witches Hat “ with for a special May Day Dance presentation.
He was dangling from the handrail on the steps to the side door of the school that we entered and exited from to get to the playground from our classroom. We were sitting there talking. He asked me why I was moving to Texas - and how I felt about that. I remember his Grandma coming through the door - out to the steps with us. We were all about ready to head in and prepare for leaving school that day. I remember her picking me up - giving me one of those - huge Grandma Hugs and a kiss on my cheek - telling me that she’d miss me and pray for me.
Every time I see - or - hear of black boys behaving badly - I think of him - and his Grandma - and cry. But I feel the warmth - again - from the memories of time with them that - as a child - I grew to always feel like I had to hide in my heart.
They were black.
It was summer shortly after we moved to Texas. Kids always scattered all over their neighborhoods - peacefully allowed to play with no worries - at all - unless you counted the batter hitting the catcher with the baseball bat - or the ball landing smack between the eyes. Every once in a while - somebody would overshoot the grass while running for a touchdown. It would take about a week for the “ road rash “ to go away from skidding on the driveway. But the healing time never got in the way of keeping on with the game! We were tough kids.
But we were confused. As a 5-year-old child spending my first summer in Texas - I ended up learning my first “ Dirty Word “ - taught to me by the other kids.
I will never forget the first time I heard the “ N-word “ come out of the mouth of some kid. I had to ask what it meant. I remember the sinking feeling in my heart - the sadness. There are no words to describe the sense of - sadness - anger - offense - helplessness.
Even worse - those feelings were compounded by hearing that word coming out of the mouths of adults - not just inside homes - but - anywhere - everywhere around town. The feelings impacted could be compared to some adult being placed on the moon with a month’s load of supplies - before the spaceship departs with the rest of the crew.
I hated that word from the start. I had friends that were black - that I was forced to leave behind - that I would miss for the rest of my life. I felt like I had been forced to live on another planet - growing up in a culture that assumed it had some extra-terrestrial right to claim dominion over another race of human beings.
And I grew up having to hide my disgust. There are two times in my life that I remember - when I braved opening my mouth in defense - to honor my friends left behind in California. I was met with physical abuse. I had to learn to keep my mouth shut - hide all my own feelings inside.
I was attending Heights Elementary school in Texas City, Texas when summer came before advancing to the Fourth Grade. By then - we’d been living there for almost 3 years. News had come. For the first time ever - Heights Elementary school was going to be racially integrated at the beginning of the next school year.
After only 3 years of living in Texas City, Texas - as a child - my summer vacation between Third and Fourth grade classes was spent with a LOT of FEAR.
Within THREE SHORT YEARS - the culture of the south had managed to instill a sense of absolute fear of black people into the child I had - no choice but - to remain. The stories - the huge lies. “ They’ll beat you up. They’ll kill you ! “
I fought a huge battle that summer. As a child - I had decided I did not want to live in fear at school. My mind and heart kept going back to my friends left behind in California. The math was never adding up with all the lies. I’d had black friends in California - and we’d shared wonderful times. I never saw anything like what these people in the south kept saying.
By the time school began - I had worked out my own - stuff. Like most of everything else I held heartfelt that didn’t roll with the flow in the south during my life back then - I had to keep it all inside - secret.
I had decided all the other kids could deal with it whichever way they wanted. But as for me - black people were human beings just like me. I was gonna treat them the same way I’d want to be treated. And nobody can have too many friends.
And despite being as young as I was - I knew it would be up to me - to have the most patience.
They were black. And as a child - they felt like they had the world against them - ready to beat them to death at any time.
I knew I had to work really hard to give them some hope and understanding that not all white people hated them. I won. I beat the south. That year - I managed to develop friendships with some really wonderful - and fun - kids at school!
I hate that word.
I hate when black people use it. And don’t even start with all the crap about it being some kind of “ pet name “ shared amongst each other. You younger generation folks - you know damn well you’re blowing smoke with that lie.
You make me angry when you use that word. Skipping the “ R “ makes no difference. And you know that.
My anger toward you for using that word comes in defense of all those that came before you - those that went through way too much Hell to get you where you are today.
How dare you - offend - disrespect - dishonor the blood - sweat - tears - and HELL that your grandmothers and grandfathers endured???
In their defense - I tell you now - every time you use that word - that is EXACTLY what you are doing. And you need to develop a sense of shame for that. You need to get some house-cleaning going on in that soul of yours.
You grow totally ignorant to the heart of your grandmothers. I would give - anything - to have been blessed with having a black grandmother. Oh, my God - the wisdom - the soul - the patience - the determination - the love.
I can only imagine - the beauty that would have filled my life from absorbing the presence of a black grandmother. Those of you with African Descent - have that precious opportunity.
On this day that we honor the legacy of such a wonderful black leader in the history of this nation - I implore those of you using that “ N-word “.
Instead - turn the corner and begin absorbing the beauty of your grandmothers.
Begin living that beauty - from your grandmothers.
If not for yourself - do it for me.