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January 2012

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Prose: College

First Place

On Being Black
Jordan Stephenson,
Junior, Creative Writing and Professional Writing Major


“It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew he was black but did not know that he was beautiful.” - James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”

Ernest Green came to Carnegie Mellon University as the keynote speaker for the Living Legacies series in honor of Black History Month. You might not know him by his name, but you probably know of him as one of the students in the Little Rock Nine. He was the oldest of the nine African-American students who were chosen to be the first African-American students to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Four years before, the Supreme Court had ruled that “Separate but equal” was unconstitutional. The African-American community was desperate for change, and these nine, brave students were willing to be pioneers of this change. On their first day of school, the Arkansas National Guard denied them admittance into the school as ordered by the governor. Federal troops were sent by President Eisenhower to escort and protect the nine students at all times while they were at the school. The happennings in Little Rock became national news, and these nine students’ difficulties were captured on camera and broadcasted for the whole country to witness. This was the beginning of the integration of schools, and this was only a little over fifty years ago. I can’t articulate how much this blows my mind—how quickly things have changed.

My dad grew up in Brooklyn, New York and was one of the black students bused out of his school district to a predominantly white school district for the purpose of desegregating schools. My dad was part of this—he was in elementary school and part of the Civil Rights Movement. Once, my sisters and I stayed with my dad’s mother while my parents were away for their anniversary. My grandma has a lot of photo albums, and she delights in showing us all her pictures. We were flipping through an album that had all of my dad’s class photos from elementary school and junior high. My youngest sister Alyssa who was a toddler at the time innocently asked, “where’s daddy?” We all laughed, because my dad was the only black kid in most of his classes and his dark skin made him easy to spot. This happened in my dad’s lifetime—the fight to end racism in America. How crazy is that? When people talk about the Civil Rights Movement, they talk about it like it was ages ago and that everyone who was part of it is dead and gone. No! It’s amazing how fast things changed, and I thank God for it. It scares me to think that it could have been me. I could have been one of the students in the Little Rock Nine, ridiculed and threatened everyday of my high school career. I’m so glad I wasn’t, because I am not strong enough to fight that kind of oppostion. I couldn’t even handle being bullied in elementary school, and that bullying was much tamer than the hate the Little Rock Nine walked the halls with everyday. Hate is a hard thing to fight.

Ernest Green stood in front of his audience of Carnegie Mellon students and professors, and gave an inspiring speech about how things are still changing for African-Americans. However, he didn’t downplay the fact that in some areas, things haven’t changed that much. He talked about schools that are basically still segragated, and how even though the percentage of African-Americans who go on to receive higher education has considerably increased since he was in high school, it is still a really low percentage (here at CMU, only ten percent of the student body is Black, Hispanic, or Native American). Ernest Green was the oldest of the Little Rock Nine, and the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central High. Martin Luther King sat with his family at the graduation and clapped with them through the silence that fell when his name was called.

***
"But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" - Robert Kennedy
***

Martin Luther King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.” I’m so thankful for the men and women, and boys and girls, who agreed with him and straightened their backs. How do you stand proud when people are shouting obscene things at you and threatening to lynch you? I have no idea how, but the Little Rock Nine did. They went in that school every day and listened to the insults and threats, but still went into the school every day. How can we take this for granted? I have always wanted to do the best and be the best to make sure the work of those before me was worth it.

I am black. I never used to like being classified as black—I always wanted to be called African-American. I looked at my skin and didn’t understand why people thought I was black. My skin is brown. I have brown eyes and brown hair. But people persisted in classifying me as black, and forms and applications always ask me to identify myself as “Black.” So, black I am. I have always had a hard time with being black. When I was younger I used to pray every night for beautiful, white girl hair. I had basically no hair when I was a kid, and I was so jealous of my white friends’ hair. It didn’t seem fair to me that they got to have nice, silky hair just because they had white skin. When we learned about slavery in elementary school, I wanted so desperately to be white so that I could feel safe. I always felt so scared because I knew that if I lived during that time in American history I would have been a slave. I wouldn’t have been considered a human-being, but as something a little lower than animals. I wanted to be white.

Unfortunately, where I grew up, being in advanced or honors classes meant that most of my classmates were white. Not unfortunately because I don’t like white people, but unfortunately because the others who looked like me were behind, perpetuating the stereotype. I received straight A’s all throughout elementary school. Even then, I knew I needed to work hard to prove myself. I still feel that it is necessary for me to prove myself as worthy of being a CMU student. In high school, I had a white acquaintance who really wanted to be accepted into CMU—it was his first choice and all he ever talked about. When he found out that he didn’t get accepted and that I did, he made it a point to make sure I knew that CMU is an affirmative action school. He told everyone that affirmative action was the reason I got into CMU and he didn’t, even though I had a perfect GPA and was second in my class. Yes, I still have a need to prove myself.

In the eighth grade, I received the NAACP Achievement Award for having the highest GPA out of any of the African-American students in my middle school. At the time, I wasn’t aware of what the NAACP was, and I smiled so big when I got the award. I’m the best, I thought. I can’t explain how I felt when I realized the award meant that I was only the best black student. It shouldn’t have upset me so much, but I didn’t understand why it had to be a big deal that I was a hard-working and high-achieving black student. Why couldn’t I just be a hard working and high achieving student? I didn’t want to be recognized for being black. So I worked even harder, and at the promotion ceremony I was recognized for being the highest achieving girl in my class. That made me much happier than the NAACP award did, but now I realize that is because I didn’t fully appreciate the NAACP then—what it was and what a great role it played in the reality that I went to an integrated school.

My mom grew up in Tacoma, Washington, a predominantly white area. She was the one black girl in her group of friends and didn’t fit in with the other black girls. They didn’t like her because she liked white people. They taunted her and called her white. It’s funny how some things don’t change. When I was in high school, I was called the Oreo—black on the outside, white on the inside. All of my friends were white because I was in classes with all white students. It wasn’t that I was actively searching for white friends and refusing to associate with my fellow black students, but some people liked to look at it that way. It’s sad, looking back and remembering how segregated the lunch room was. It isn’t okay that people are choosing segregation when the civil rights activists of the past fought for integration and our right to be treated fairly. I just don’t get it. So much has been sacrificed so that African-Americans can have basic freedoms, and so many people refuse to take advantage of it.

People tell me that I “don’t act black” all the time. I think this is silly and offensive—they’re basically saying that because I speak correct English and get good grades I am not truly African-American. I am black, and I act black because I am black. Since when is success white?

My dad went to CMU for graduate school. He worked just as hard as all the other students and he excelled. Even so, he was called the “N” word by a drunk, white girl while walking home to his apartment one night. My dad said he laughed it off because she was acting much more like the “N” word than he ever had in his life. There are not any behaviors that are specific to one race and one race only.

Once, my sisters and I went into an accessories store in our mall in Waldorf, Maryland, and we were watched like criminals by one of the employees. I was so humiliated and angry. Does the color of my skin make it okay for people to single me out? I wanted to yell at her, to tell her that I was my class’s salutatorian and prom queen, that my parents both have master’s degrees, that both of my grandmothers went to college, that my oldest sister graduated in the top of her class, that my youngest sister scored very high on her standardized test and received an award, and so many other similar things. But instead, we just walked out of the store. Until that day, I didn’t believe that people really did those kinds of things. When they dealt with it on the sitcom Smart Guy, I figured they just wanted to make good T.V. We aren’t done changing the world. Racism still exists. We have to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was not even a lifetime ago, and that we need to continue the efforts of those that came before us in our own lifetime. That’s the only way change can continue—the only way progress can continue.

Is it not anger that drove the black leaders of the past to make change happen? Anger at being watched, singled out, and treated as an inferior. If you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you will see the anger dripping off of every page, turning into a pool of hate. I do not agree with many of Malcolm X’s beliefs—for example, he believed that true integration could never be achieved—but I do understand how anger led him to this conclusion. My anger is not this passionate, but it does drive me to hate the stereotypes and to strongly dislike the people who keep them alive. My anger motivates me to prove people wrong whenever I can.

***

"To me, the black black woman is our essential mother, the blacker she is the more us she is and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people." –Alice Walker

***

The “Black is beautiful” movement has recently been revived because people are beginning to realize more work needs to be done. The movie Good Hair was the beginning of it. Chris Rock created the documentary because his young daughter came to him crying and asked, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” The documentary explores the reasons why black women go through so much to make their hair as white-looking as possible. On The Tyra Show, a woman described it as, “achieving the white-girl flow.” Reverend Al Sharpton was one of the people interviewed in Good Hair, and I remember laughing when he said something along the lines of "black women and girls are wearing the sign of oppression on their heads." This was mostly funny because of how dramatic it sounded, but also because Al Sharpton has a full head of permed, styled hair.

I never believed I was pretty growing up. I was so jealous of people who were mixed (one black parent and one white parent) and slightly resented my parents for both being black. Light skinned black girls are generally considered to be more beautiful than darker skinned black girls. Until very recently, I had never seen any black person on a commercial who had skin as dark as mine. It is always the pretty, caramel-colored woman with the lovely, curly hair. It is kind of hard to think you’re beautiful when you watch TV, or flip through a catalogue and don’t see anyone who looks like you. And I hated my hair. Honestly, I still do. It’s so much work. I have to get it permed once every six weeks, and if it gets wet it’s ruined. Recently, “Sesame Street” introduced an African-American girl puppet who sings a song called “I Love My Hair.” Even “Sesame Street” realized that African-American girls need help believing that they are beautiful and accepting themselves the way they are.

I’ve learned to love my skin color over the years. It’s the color of milk chocolate, and I love milk chocolate. Also, I never have to tan—my skin has color year-round, so I do not have urges to risk skin cancer in a tanning booth. I am also very thankful that my face doesn’t turn red when I am embarrassed or flustered because my face would be red all the time. Plus, “black don’t crack,” meaning I don’t have to worry about aging noticeably or harshly (my parents are both around 50 and neither one has yet to see a wrinkle).

***

"It isn't a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that's beautiful." -Bill Cosby

***

When I was ten, I received the Addy American Girl Doll for Christmas. Addy was the escaped slave girl who overcame oppression and received an education. My aunt came to visit soon after, and I proudly showed her my doll and the catalogue with the other American Girl dolls in it. My aunt flipped through the catalogue, and then asked me why Addy was the only black American Girl doll. I said, very matter-of-factly, that it was because black people only had one period of historical significance in American history—I was ten, so not in those exact words of course. My aunt got really upset about that, and told me that I was wrong, that black people were important throughout American history. I didn’t mean it the way she took it, but still I had gotten myself in trouble. The next week I got a huge box of non-fiction books about famous African-Americans, all of which I refused to read. I thought non-fiction was boring, and at that time I was uneasy about discussing and recognizing my blackness. My aunt also sent me an expensive book about black models. When she realized I wasn’t taking advantage of these resources, she organized a visit to the Black Wax Museum in Baltimore. I went reluctantly, but ended up enjoying it initially. The wax figures of MLK and Langston Hughes and others were very well done and I admired them for a while. When we had exhausted the first floor, we went down to the basement, not knowing which exhibit was on display. It was a lynching exhibit. I will never forget the wax figure of the burning pregnant women being beaten, the baby falling out of her slit stomach. I immediately began to feel sick and stumbled around looking for my dad. Seeing my face, he grabbed me by the hand and pulled me up the stairs and out the museum.

I will never forget that—it’s one of my most vivid memories. That’s the day I learned what lynching was. I remember once watching a special on TV about the KKK and listening to the narrator talk about how the KKK had recently hanged a young, black boy from a tree because they were mad that a black man got away with killing a white police officer in self defense. I remember being so disgusted and wanting to cry but not being able to. I didn’t and I still don’t understand why they hated us so much. Okay, our skin is darker, so what? Our brains work the same way, our bodies work the same way, our hearts beat and we breathe in the same way. We are human too. I grew up in an area known for hate crimes against blacks. People always said that there was an active KKK chapter in our area. I didn’t understand how something that was supposed to be buried with the rubbish of the past was making its way into my present.

Twenty-five years ago, my parents met at Harvard during a summer fellowship program. Boston was still a very racist city then. They told me that people would yell horrible, racist things at them from their cars and treat them as if they were nothing. I’m so glad that I can’t identify with this. I’ve been so blessed, and I try to never take it for granted. If I lived fifty years ago, my best friends wouldn’t have been allowed to speak to me. I would have had to drink from a water fountain labeled “Coloreds” and sit in the back of the bus. Last year, my sister texted me explaining that her roommate was saying how she thinks Black History Month is stupid because there is no White History Month. I think that argument shows her ignorance. I actually used to think this too, but I was a kid. I thought it was unfair that black people had a month but white people didn’t. As I got older, I recognized that every month is white history month, and that the reason there are these specialized months is so that there is a time when minority groups can remember the deeds of those that came before them.

***

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." –Maya Angelou

***

I really hope people realize how quickly progress was made in the last fifty years, and how much more progress still needs to be made. Yes, we now have our first black president ever in office, and yes, the first African-American Disney princess came out recently. But even more than this can change. Segregation can be completely wiped out. Black children can be taught that they are beautiful and valuable at an early age. We can stop perpetuating the stereotypes—stop telling black children that if they do not act a certain way they are not black. Times are changing, so mindsets need to change too.

View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.

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