And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that. Remarks by the First Lady, Michelle Obama at Bowie State University Commencement, May 2013.
I read a story in a newspaper several years ago that has haunted me. It was about a little black boy from the projects who came home from school in tears. Constantly.
He only wanted to read, to study, to do his best while bringing home all A’s. He simply loved learning. But he was beaten for it daily. Tortured and ostracized by his contemporaries. That’s white peoples’ stuff, they shouted at him. Did he think he was white? Did he think he was better than them and their families? They called him Uncle Tom.
Tipped off by an anonymous and caring soul, a reporter went to the boy’s mother to ask her if she wasn’t proud of her son’s achievements. She responded with something akin to, “I wish he would just want to be a janitor or something and stop causing me so much trouble.” The little boy began to struggle. I don’t know what happened to him in the end, because there was no follow up story, but I think about him all the time.
I have heard it said that people are like pianos. If you beat on them long enough, they will go out of tune. I wonder if he toughed it out. I wonder if he got his song back.
Why do I care? Because his story is my story and, like him, I spent much of my childhood out of tune. As the Civil Rights Movement began, getting an education was a priority for most blacks. By the time it was over, it was viewed in many parts of the African American community as a liability. It was seen as drinking the white man’s Kool-Aid. Swallowing their propaganda and trying too hard to assimilate.
A sellout. An Uncle Tom. I fell solidly into that category.
Like the author Richard Wright, I fully expected white people to hold me back.
“I knew that I lived in a country in which the aspirations of black people were limited, marked-off. Yet I felt that I had to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive. I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the south had been rigged to stifle.”
But I did not expect to find resistance from my extended family and the larger African American community. And resistance is putting it mildly. My despair sometimes felt unlimited. When I was academically tracked and placed in advanced classes with mostly white kids, I made friends there. Because of that, blacks treated me even worse. Like the little boy from the projects, I was battered and abused, physically and mentally.
In the jargon of the times, I was young, gifted and black. But the critical question of my life centered on the issue of whether or not I was black enough. Were it not for my immediate family, I am sure I would have lost the battle.
At one point I tried to talk more about it within the African American community, but I was shouted down. Boy, keep that mess to yourself. No matter how bad it is, you keep that in the family. White folks need to see a unified front. And if I just stopped trying to act white, it would all go away anyway. Talking about it brought me almost as much pain as being a good student.
When I was in my early twenties, I had lunch with a co-worker who was an African American female. She was new and I was getting to know her. She’d been to a highly respected college, spoke like me and was extraordinarily well read. I had a feeling, so I took a chance and began to tell her my story. Before I could get halfway through it, she began to cry. Through many tears and halting speech, she matched my story pain for pain. At least I knew I wasn’t alone.
I didn’t stay at that job long and eventually lost touch with my colleague. I tried again to share my story with other blacks, but it was met with outright hostility. I was told to stop trying to call out black people when the problem was me being a wannabe. So, I internalized it and carried it with me inside again for years. Until I read the story of the little black boy from the projects.
Then, I started to write. If I had only one story to tell, this had to be it.
But I still couldn’t talk about it, which psychologically, was something I needed. With my old colleague in my rear-view mirror, I had no one to tell about the thing eating at my stomach lining. My life got busy. I was newly married to a white woman who loved me, knew my story and understood as best she good and as far as she could relate. Work and then two children. The literary version of my story was put aside. And truthfully, I think I wanted it that way. Now that I was experiencing a full and uncomplicated life, it was easier not to think about it.
However, as with most untreated emotional issues, it eventually crept back into my life and it affected the way I related to fellow blacks. I went back to dealing with it the only way I knew how – writing.
Recently though, something magnificent happened. A friend posted an article on Facebook entitled The myth about smart black kids and “acting white” that won’t die. And in the company of other sufferers of acting white, an online support group spontaneously broke out. I became ecstatic as I read the Facebook posts.
“In the Cleveland schools I had one or two friends who were raised like me, who did well in school and could be construed as talking white.”
“I wouldn’t even admit out loud around other black students that I loved The Beatles!”
“What was hard was when I had close relatives continually tell me I talked like a white girl.”
“I watched my daughter go through some of the same things having gone to two different high schools, one predominantly Black and one predominantly white. She has become ‘bilingual’, speaking English one way with Black friends, and another way with white friends. I told her that academic failure is not “keeping it real”, or part of Black culture.”
“I understand that this article [The Facebook article] looks at measurements of the so-called “acting white” peer pressure in the aggregate and finds no real impact on black academic performance. HOWEVER, my personal memories, and the memories you all are sharing here, tell me these “anecdotes” should not be dismissed.”
“As you can see, we’ve been dealing with this a looooong time.”
Indeed, like everyone who posted, I have been dealing with it for a very long time. So, you might imagine the great amount of satisfaction and relief I received from watching this conversation play out online. Even though it was public, I felt quite safe around the subject. No one jumped in to shout us down; to proclaim us sellouts or Uncle Toms. There is safety in numbers, I thought.
But for those who are still struggling alone, the war persists, and the casualties continue to mount. Stunningly so. On January 24, 2018, 12-year-old Stormiyah Denson-Jackson committed suicide after suffering through a merciless period of bullying. The bullies, at a boarding school where blacks are ninety-nine percent of the student body, tormented Stormiyah because she loved science and math.
All of this, the tragic history of the past and that being made today leads me to believe that the time is right for this truly unique look at race in America to be shared on a much larger scale. I am thoughtfully prepared to accomplish this with my novel, The Emancipation of Evan Walls.