I wasn't always aware that I was growing up Black.
I grew up in San Diego, California. My first memories were of when I was living in a predominately Black area called Clairemont, in low-income housing that we affectionately called the Blue Roofs, because the roofs were blue. I remember seeing a lot of drugs coming in and out of there, and my Big Wheel kept getting stolen. But I loved living in the Blue Roofs! I had a lot of friends and family around. My dad would take us to other areas of San Diego that were predominately White. We would visit friends there, and I always felt like it was a treat to go and visit the big houses with the yards and pools. Never paid attention to the difference between those areas and my cousin's house, where we would torment "Crack Head Clyde" and make sure we weren't wearing red or blue before we went to the community park, just in case we ran into the Crips or Bloods...
I just thought that was life. I was able to fit into both worlds. Never really occurred to me that I might not belong in one of them.
I was in the 1st grade when my mother enrolled me a performing arts school near Old Town San Diego. I had to take the bus for an hour to get to this school. I was the only Black student in my 1st-grade class. My dad was very militant. He still is. Back then he sported an afro or cornrows. Super Black. Dad taught me an alternate Pledge of Allegiance, and one morning, at school, I decided that I would give it a whirl. I stood up and placed my right hand over my heart. I enunciated each word, nice and loud so that there was no misunderstanding that Liberty and Justice were for "MOST OF US ANYWAYS!" (Insert Black fist here). Next thing I know I was in the principal's office trying to defend myself. I rode the bus home with a note pinned between my shoulder blades. For an HOUR. I tried to rub the note off with the seat back, but it wouldn't budge. Not sure who got the note, but dad told me I couldn't say the pledge like that at school anymore. After that, I lost something. I learned that being outspoken was a bad thing. I learned about conforming.
My best friend was Black and some other race, and I felt a connection to her. We did everything together, until one day she came to school and told me that she wasn't allowed to play with me anymore. Her mother told her she would like her to play with "other children". I was sad. I didn't know what was wrong with me. Maybe she heard about the pledge.
In the 5th grade (still the only black student), my class was reading Huck Finn. The teacher asked me to sit out on the front porch so that I "wouldn't get offended". I didn't know what was so offensive, but I went and sat on the porch for that portion of class for 2 weeks. I didn't even see anything wrong with this. The teacher was so nice about it, and I figured she was doing me a favor. I didn't even know that the word Nigger was in the book until I read it in high school. To think, those students knew and never said anything to me, for two whole weeks.
I attended high school in Escondido, and there were more people of color. There were Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, Haitians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Native Americans. The Black students had their own tree. There weren't many of us, but we looked big in number when we were all at the same tree. I didn't think anything of it. In fact, I felt like it was prime real estate. We could see everything, and everyone could see us. Plus the boys (mostly athletes) were cute. We all took care of each other, we were all we had. We were a family. Being Black was special.
The summer before my senior year of high school I moved to Baker, Louisiana. Dad got a new job, and we were able to afford a cute little brick house. The differences between the states became obvious very quickly. One day while walking around our new neighborhood we spotted a house that was recently purchased by another black family. In big black letters, someone spray painted the words, "GO AWAY NIGGERS". I remember standing there staring, trying to digest what I was seeing. I felt fear... sadness... anger.... hurt... for the first time in life I felt like I was Definitely Black.
When school started, I saw Black students everywhere. We weren't confined to one tree; we were numerous. We hung out in cliques. We fought each other, a lot. When there are so many Black people in one area, apparently it isn't necessary to stick together like a family. Blackness felt like an afterthought to the Black people. There seemed to be no sense of Black Pride. The specialness was missing.
In 1995, the desegregation of schools was still a work in progress in East Baton Rouge Parish. This was a foreign concept to me; every history book had told me that segregation was over. On the first day of my first class, the teacher announced that we were to raise our hands when our names were called and to identify ourselves as White or Black. This was the first time that I realized that there was a massive lack of OTHERS in Louisiana. Where were the Haitians, Samoans, Chinese, Mexicans, and Cubans? Where were the Vietnamese and Native Americans? Where were all the people? The teacher called my name and I raised my hand. "Here", and then I paused. Can they not see that I am Black? Do I really need to say this out loud?