For more than half a century, that’s been my go-to story to describe my first awareness of racism. The events are true. The pretense is claiming that I didn’t know racism until I saw it played out by these wary adults. In truth, my first racist memory was from a couple of years earlier. I was the racist.
My grandmother owned a neighborhood grocery store in a racially mixed area just a few blocks from downtown Wilmington. When I was six or seven, I would hang out there after (all-white) school … sweeping the floor, straightening the shelves and precociously chatting up her regular customers. One day I hid in the bushes on the vacant lot next door and threw rocks at a group of black girls as they walked by on their way to the store. I remember giggling at first and then bursting into frightful tears when they tore through the bushes and confronted me. We all ran to the store to tell our side of the story to my grandmother, who ended up spanking me while they watched. It’s a tale I’m not proud of, except when I remember my grandmother’s righteous example.
We all have an innate need to see ourselves in a favorable light. While I’d like to think the “campout-that-wasn’t” was the day I decided I was for racial justice, there are plenty more entries in “My Black History” archive. Even in support, I’ve been judgmental, gratuitous, condescending and too proud of myself.
So why this personal reckoning now, other than the fact that February is Black History Month? It’s been weighing on my mind that this impotent rage over our current political climate isn’t new at all to people of color. Where was my passion when African-Americans were killed by police, when mosques and synagogues were vandalized, when Latinos were stopped for their papers? Clearly I waited until they came for me. Now I’m left with the gnawing conviction that I could have done something to stop this, and didn’t.
*I recognize that one could take offense to the timing of this post, that the spotlight this month rightfully belongs to African-Americans whose accomplishments have been diminished or even erased. Your criticism is valid. In the end, I decided that hesitation over speaking out had already cost too much.