One of my earliest memories—I must have been about nine—was of riding on the gondola at the state fair with my little brother. We had been allowed, after much begging, to leave our mother and baby sister and ride across the fairgrounds by ourselves. We held hands and swung our legs and thrilled at the lights that glittered below. The gondola looped around and as we neared the turn, two boys in a gondola car came nearer. They were older than us and laughing and shouting, but we could not hear there words. Then, they were there, almost close enough to touch, and there words hit us with the force of a slap: “N***** lover!”
My brother looked confused. He dropped my hand. We finished our trip around the fair on the gondola and came back down to Earth coloured by a new knowledge. I was the winning colour and my brother the other.
My life has been blessed and full of privilege. When I was six we lived in a former crack house and ate what Welfare delivered to our door in a cardboard box: food that would sometimes go missing and once, even, was on fire when we walked out the door to go to the school bus. The school bus that bussed us out of our nearly all-black neighbourhood to the almost all-white neighbourhood on the other side of the city. It was a long bus ride. My school was on Oberlin Rd. so perhaps it was fated that years later I would choose this venerable institution as my college of choice. Thus I found myself well scholar-shipped to attend one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges and, fittingly, the first one to graduate both African-Americans and women along with men. Despite this fame, it was a pretty white school, just not as white as its liberal arts brethren institutions. But, then, I was white—and smart in a typical, scholastic way—and so it was easy for me to ride the good will and opportunities of the late nineties.
It’s just not so easy if you are black. Certainly not if you are a black man with a single mother being raised without a lot of money, oh, and throw in a little learning difference (“disability”) too. Forget it.
I walked through the corridors of my childhood afraid of all the same monsters in the shadows as any other child. The shadows take the form of memories at times…
Mrs. Jackson was my grade two teacher and my brother’s grade one. She had a big pile of white-yellow hair teased up on the top of her hair. She was scary in a way that I never could put my finger on: in a way that was beyond the yelling, frowning, and threats. I spent the year tensed in my seat. She spoke often of her five cats named after the Jackson five. When my brother got to her class after me, she decided he was lazy. Nothing, of course, that couldn’t be paddled out of a child. She tried. I learned many years later that she laid down on a railroad track and ended her life. What does one do with the brutality of it all?
My brother and I were late again for school. We walked in the doors together and went to the front office together. The secretary looked at our note. She sent me on. “I’m afraid, however, Isaac that this is your sixth late and that means a detention for you.” My brother and I always came to school together and I never once had a detention in all my years of school.
I had a step-mother that lectured me, while my brother slept in the back seat, about how she wasn’t racist and had nothing against black people, but that it just wasn’t right when they married white people. That was the crime: black and white, mixed. My brother is mixed. I felt sick. What could I say? Why didn’t I say more? Words fail.
“Jump in,” my mom said and she drove my brother to the grocery store. They discussed the shopping list until the sirens went on. They pulled my mother over as she wondered why as she never sped. They forced my brother out of the car and put him into the cop car. “What’s going on?” my mother asked. It turned out that they thought maybe my mom had been hijacked by the black guy in the car next to her. Even after my mother explained this wasn’t the case, they kept my brother in the car with them for fifteen more minutes.
These incidents and dozens more snapped at my ankles and hooted from the shadows. They filled the spaces between what I experienced and the truth. They buzzed in my ears when I met middle class white young people who talked about class and discrimination or said things like: “We are beyond -isms.” The monsters haunted my childhood and much of my adult hood, but they didn’t harm me. I have thought this was luck for all my life. But, it is not blind luck. It is more sinister than any such lilting of a word. The monsters were there but they weren’t after me.
Today, I feel thankful for all those black men and women who came before. Especially those who were able to write and speak about the experience in such a way that the rest of us could imagine our own privilege, feel into the experience of the other, and then move forward a bit more committed to illuminating the discrimination that continues to haunt us. Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Baldwin; Maya Angelou; Alice Walker; Toni Morrison; Angela Davis, W E B DuBois; Richard Wright; Zora Neale Hurston; Frederick Douglas; Harriet E. Wilson; and Barack Obama. This is just a few of the long list that ought be ever so much longer. I’ve been thinking about race and discrimination a lot now that I live on a remote island where the number of people of colour can be counted on one hand and named. My brother came to visit me this summer. We stopped to get icecream and met the one other black man on the island. He’s a mechanic. He knows me by the car I drive. I know him by what he does, who he’s married to, where he lives on the island, the community he keeps, and the colour of his skin. But that’s a story for another day.