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Black in America:  What’s It Like?

Everyone’s experience with race in America is as different as each individual.  However, as many of the situations we experience as Black people are similar, it is possible that many of the affects can be similar as well.  Compared to my mother’s generation and those before her, I have no reason to complain; and I’m not.  I’m simply sharing how things have been for me. Below you will read a little of my own personal experience, as well as excerpts from “Black Like Me,” the story of a 20-year-old White-American adolescent male who chose to see for himself, what it is truly like to be Black in America in 1994, and how he accomplished this.

I was born in 1962, and I don’t have many memories of my father before I was six years old. Much later in life I learned that he wasn’t around much, because he spent most of that time in the U.S. Army.  When I was three, my mother took my two brothers and me to Arkansas to stay with my grandmother, where we were later joined by my newly born baby brother. Finally, when I was six, my parents came to retrieve us all, and we moved back to the city of my birth:  Michigan City, Indiana, a small town about 50 miles east of Chicago, Illinois. Together, my parents purchased a house where we lived happily until my father left us, just shy of my 10th birthday.

Thanks to affirmative-action, my mother was allowed to sit for a test that landed her a job at Bethlehem Steel, working as a Mechanical-Helper, after she successfully passed that test. She was the first Black, and the first female in her department.  She was horribly harassed by the men on her job who not only made sexist and racist comments, they also occasionally made subtle and not-so-subtle death-threats as well.  My earliest memory of her horror stories began when I was 10 ½ , in 1972 and helped to explain in my mind, why a warm and loving mother had become so terribly abusive, both emotionally and physically to all four of us, by the time I was 11.  But we were lucky.

Because of Bethlehem Steel, we were spared from becoming a bigger statistic than we were already.   My father had completely disappeared from our lives, and we children didn’t know if he was dead or alive until I was 16.  However, one thing was very clear: he was not paying child support, which, in those days was not something demanded or enforced by law.  Under the circumstances, but for affirmative-action and Bethlehem Steel, we could easily have grown up in poverty; especially in those days.  Instead, we grew up with plenty of everything we needed to thrive, and my mother eventually advanced to being an electrician, and still lives in the home initially purchased with my father, nearly 50 years ago.

As a child, and well into my adolescence, I was well shielded from racism, and therefore have no memories it.   My mother involved us in a very strict but loving religion that welcomed all races, and taught that God loved all of His Children equally.  That was my world.  It would be many years before I would learn that it was not everyone’s world.  In the meantime, any negative experiences I had, came from children of my own race.  Until my mother cleverly put an end to it, I was often bullied in elementary school because of the way that I spoke, and the grades I earned.  Shortly after returning from Arkansas, I remember my mother correcting both my grammar and my diction.  “It’s thh-iss way, and thh-aat way.  Not dis-away and dat-away,” she said.  I was only six, but I remember that her correction of made me wonder why I had been taught differently in Arkansas.  I started consciously paying more attention to how everyone enunciated around me, and I began listening to Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters; imitating their diction, because it sounded more like my mother’s.   I was in the 4th grade when I heard the expression: “You’re trying to be White,” for the first time; a very confusing expression that I have continued to hear from fellow Black people throughout my lifetime.

I only began to feel that being Black was a “problem” after I left my hometown for a few years, and came back as a young adult in need of employment.  At 24, I had two children and had just separated from my husband.  A high school graduate, I applied for jobs in banks, grocery stores, small offices; hospitals; everywhere that I could think of, but no one would hire me.  It took a while for me to realize that “We’ll call you,” meant that I would never hear from them again.  It was during that time that I began to notice that there were no Black faces in any of those places I applied, nor in the places I frequented regularly.  That is; there were Black patrons, but no Black faces working behind the counters or desks. Okay, I thought, so where do the Black people work?  I didn’t see anywhere. Out of desperation, I decided to try to do what my mother had done: get a job at Bethlehem Steel, something I thought I would never do because…I was a “girly girl.”  I would never go to work in steel toed boots!  I went to Bethlehem Steel to get an application, but I left there in tears, along with a new level of appreciation for my mother and what she had accomplished.

From the moment I stepped out of my car, until I left the grounds of Bethlehem Steel, my nostrils were filled with a very heavy, tar-like air that made my eyes water.  I couldn’t imagine how my mother had endured 20 plus years in such a toxic environment; and I hadn’t even gone inside the plant itself!  When I got home, I wiped out my nostrils with white tissue, and discovered that they had been blackened inside, by the air I breathed at Bethlehem Steel!  No, that was not for me.  I didn’t pursue it any further.  I ended up working part-time at a Black-owned fitness center, where I taught aerobics and weight-training for the next few years while attending classes at Purdue University.

I started out strong at Purdue, but the pressures of being a single parent with no support; financial or otherwise, made it impossible for me to continue, and I was forced to quit.  As a result, I was 40 years old when I finally got my BA, and just a few weeks shy of 53 when I completed my Masters.  My initial intention at Purdue was to major in Psychology.  During my very first Psych class, Psych 101, the professor stated that scientific evidence proved that Blacks were not as intelligent as Whites.  A few minutes later he separated us into groups for an assignment.  Based on their immediate comments, it was clear that my team-mates were uncomfortable with the professor’s statement.  

I was the only Black person in the class, something that had been normal for me since I entered 9th grade, and I was also the only student in the group that was currently earning an “A” in the class, a status shared by only two other students in the classroom; and everyone knew it, and they were not shy about letting me know that they knew it.  Although it was unexpected, my professor’s statement did not come as a total surprise.  For many years I had noticed that just before school started every year, there would be something in the news stating pretty much the same thing.  I wondered why it was done every year, why it was being done just as school was about to start, and why it didn’t seem to be my own personal experience.  That is; the average White person I knew did not appear to be any more or less intelligent than the average Black person I knew.

After receiving my BA, I began hearing new reactions from the White people I encountered. Inevitably, sometime during a long conversation I would be asked about my degree and major. When I’d tell them that one of my majors was English, the following response became typical: “Oh” they would lightly laugh out loud, “that’s why you speak so well!”  What’s funny to me, is that as difficult as it may be to imagine, I hadn’t noticed before their making that comment, that they were White.  My upbringing had taught me not to see color.  Sure, if I was asked to describe someone, I could tell you if they were Black, White, Hispanic, etc. but color was never the first or second thing I noticed about them.  I only started to notice color first, after earning my BA.

Over the years, I have traveled through or lived in many of the United States.  At the time that I traveled to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribean, I didn’t need a passport.   I needed a passport for the first time, when I planned to go to Malawi, Africa to teach English.  When my passport arrived, I immediately took a look at it, and was struck by the fact that under “Nationality” it simply read:  American.  I unexpectedly became very emotional, and was surprised to taste the tears that somehow got that far down my face before I realized they were present.  Every official document I had ever seen with my name on it, clearly identified me as Black.  Every application I had ever filled out, wanted to know if I was Black.  It had taken many years for me to realize that the reason for insisting on identifying my race was neither benign nor for my benefit.  Although it was nothing I could easily articulate, I had come to understand what it meant to be, and be labeled as Black in America.  Now, at nearly 40 years of age, for the first time in my adult life, I was holding in my hands, an official government document that clearly acknowledged something that, being born here, I always thought I should have been able to take for granted: that I…am…an…American; not a Black American, just; an American.

While living in Malawi for 13 months, I enjoyed the company of people from all over the world. But my favorite people were those whom I met that were from America.  The Americans I met who living there as well (all White), welcomed me like family.  They didn’t hesitate to give me their contact information and encourage me to spend more time with them.  They didn’t watch my lips to see if I pronounced “th” like “ph,” nor did they expect me to “entertain” them due to their momentary fascination with being in the presence of a Black person.  And when my year of teaching ended, they connected me with other Americans who could employ me, after I told them I thought I’d like to stay in the country a little longer. Not one person seemed surprised or commented on the fact that I spoke “so well.” It felt as if I had stumbled back into the world I lived in as a child; a world in which, the color of my skin truly didn’t matter.

Recently, I moved to the D.C. area, and went to the Lincoln Memorial for the very first time. I’m still trying to process everything I saw.  The first thing that caught my attention as I walked a little over a mile from to get to the Memorial, was the Obelisk.  I had seen many pictures in history books, etc. but I had never seen it with my own eyes.  I was stunned; really taken aback, when I instantly noticed how much it resembled the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.  I never knew that there were blinking lights at the top of the Obelisk that resemble two eyes. My whole life, I have only associated the Obelisk with America; a symbol of its origin and a monument of strength; a landmark; similar to the Statue of Liberty, etc.  Never have I ever associated it with racism, as I do the confederate flag.

St. Jude Childrens Research Hospital

By Donna R. Turner, MPH, CHES

While living in Yucaipa, California (1997), a little White girl spat in my daughter’s face, because, as she openly admitted; my daughter was Black.  When a little White boy stole a uniquely matching pen to that same daughter’s calculator, the White teacher refused to entertain the possibility that the boy had stolen it from her.  Only after the boy’s conscience got to him weeks later, did he finally admit to the teacher what he had done.  While I appreciated the apology the teacher gave to both my daughter and me; the damage had already been done.  If only apologies could undo that kind of emotional damage.  Latent apologies may be able to temper resentment, but they cannot undo the damage caused.

In Jr. High in that same town, the following year, my other daughter was tormented by two White boys who would enter the classroom daily, turn to the confederate flag and shout, complete with gestures: “Heil Hitler!”  In each case, despite my efforts, as far as I know, nothing was ever done about it.  In recent years, when the debate arose about getting rid of the confederate flag altogether, I was all for it.  I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, where I had experienced more racist attitudes than anywhere I had ever lived.  But I really didn’t that mind so much.  I’d rather people let me know up front how they feel so that I know to stay away from them, than to hide how they feel and hurt me much worse; over time.  

As for the confederate flag, I thought, after the war was over, didn’t the Supreme Court rule that the confederates were illegal?  Therefore, why are we subjected to its flag and forced to acknowledge people like Robert E. Lee every year?  Although I realize that like the swastika, the confederate flag represents more than racism, racism is all I see and feel when I see it. That has never been the case with the Obelisk.  I am not saying that the Obelisk and the hoods of the KKK are related.  I don’t know if they are or not.  I’m simply saying that the instant I saw the Obelisk, I got a strong, sick feeling in the pit my stomach, as I saw KKK hoods in my mind, the very same instant.  Still, I can’t see myself wanting to get rid of the Obelisk.  Although my opinion remains unchanged, I do now have a different perspective on the arguments to keep the confederate flag.

The next thing I saw that caught my attention, was a bronze statue made up of three soldiers. One of them was clearly Black.  I thought:  Only three soldiers depicted here, and one of them is Black?  I didn’t understand.  The implication to me was that at least one third of the soldiers that served/serve our country was Black, and our county was acknowledging their contributions and their sacrifices.   In school, when it came to the subject of Blacks in history, I only heard mostly of slavery and the cotton gin.  I certainly never got the impression that as a group, Blacks had done anything at all to be recognized by our government.  

I continued to walk toward the Memorial.  When I got there, I was surprised to see how massively large Lincoln is.  But the biggest surprise came when I looked to his right, and saw a huge mural with a group of Black people in the center, and an angel with wings spread, looking over them.  I had never seen this in any history book, nor had I ever heard of it being there.  I wondered when that mural was commissioned; maybe it was new.  I found out later, that it was dedicated in 1922!

I left the Lincoln Memorial and quickly came upon yet another unexpected sight:  a Wall made of granite with the faces of men and women who served in our nation’s military.  This massive wall had many sections, and with one or two exceptions, each section had at least one Black face etched into it.  Many sections had three or more Black faces.

This was an extremely confusing experience for me.  Collectively, what I was seeing was quite a contradiction to my knowledge of the history of Blacks in America, as well as my personal experiences.  If I had been a foreigner, coming to this country, or even if I had seen this during my youth; I would think that America loves and honors its Black people. However, my ears were still ringing with the words spoken by a White male on NPR, in response to Jada Pinkett Smith’s protest of the Oscars in 2016: “Why are we still talking about them?  Why do we care?  They’re only 10% of the population!” he said with great passion.

That comment made me wonder:  Why are we only 10% of the population.  We have been here since before slavery officially began.  The Black men I know, take pride in their ability to reproduce and the ones less mature or educated (boys), seem to regard reproduction as proof of being a man and a reason to be proud; whether or not they are married, and whether or not they take care of their offspring.  Why then, are there so few of us here?

As I began to research it, I discovered that abortions and Black-on-Black crime contribute most largely to our low numbers.  Mass incarceration, which prevents reproduction, is another. Low on the list is killings by police officers.  I learned that the population of Blacks in America is closer to 13% than 10, and that it has been as low as 9% and as high as 19%.  It was at its highest shortly before the Haitians massacred all the French people who enslaved them in, 1804.  The only people who were spared were the French women who agreed to marry the Black men.  All others, including children, were killed.  When that happened, fearing that the same could happen here, the Whites started killing Blacks in record numbers.  By 1940, our population had been reduced by nearly 50%, and went from 19% down to a mere 9%.

It has taken 77 years for our numbers to creep back up from 9% to 13%, and I strongly suspect that in truth, our numbers, percentage wise, are much lower than that.  The U.S. Census Bureau categorizes us as “Black or African-American.”  That description fits all people with black skin who are known to descend from Africa, including those who have recently immigrated.  Although it distinguishes between those who are native born, those who are naturalized and those who are not citizens, those who are descendants of natives from 1862 and those who are the first or second generation etc. are all grouped together, unfortunately. At least 90% of the people I have met since living in the D.C. area are clearly African.  They are so new here, that they still have very heavy accents.  “Where are you from?” I asked the mother of a family who wanted me to take their picture at the Lincoln Memorial.  “Canada!” she proudly exclaimed in her heavy African accent.

I have heard my fellow Black people complain that there are not enough Blacks in movies and on television; but as far as I can see, the number of Blacks in various forms of media is disproportionate to the number of Blacks in America.  That is, by looking at the number of Blacks in commercials, movies and TV. and print, one could easily think that the number of Blacks in America is much larger than it actually is.  I wonder why that is.  Why are we being fed the perception that there are more Blacks in America than there really are?  Or is that just my perception?  

Let me be clear:  when I say Blacks in America, I mean those of us who are descendants of other Blacks who were in this country prior to 1862.  When I did my Internship at Habitat for Humanity-NCG, nearly every family that got a house, had black skin, and on the wall of those who had received homes prior to my arrival, were pictures of families with black skin who were clearly not natives of America.  Not one of them was Black.  That is, the families with black skin were all Africans.  I can’t help but wonder, if the U.S. Census Bureau added a separate category for people like me, that is; people who are Black and are descendants of other Blacks who arrived before 1862:  how many of us would there actually be?  My guess is that we are less than 8%, a lower percentage than we were in 1940.

Last year, a co-worker; a black-skinned woman from the Caribbean whom I was attempting to befriend, spewed racist remarks to me about Blacks in America.  “I don’t mean you!” she exclaimed after seeing the look of shock and disgust that I must have had on my face.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  The same negative ideology that I have read and even heard Whites say about people like me, was actually coming out of the mouth of a foreign black-skinned woman, who had absolutely no idea at all of the true experience of Blacks here, how it came to be this way, or why it still is.

What is it like to be Black in America?  I cannot tell you what it’s like for my brothers or for my Black neighbors across the street, or even for my children and grandchildren.  We are all unique individuals and are impacted differently.  Further, it is impossible for me to express in a way that anyone who is not Black in America can fully comprehend, what my own personal experience has felt like thus far, and how it has shaped and molded me.  It’s akin to trying to explain what the process of childbirth feels like to a male, or to a female who has never been pregnant.  Sure, you can read about it or study about it.  You can even walk side by side with a pregnant woman every day for nearly 10 months as she goes through the process from start to finish.  You can hold her hair back while she vomits during the first few months, and hold her hand while she’s in labor, or take a few short steps to see the baby’s head as it crowns; but until you actually give birth yourself, you just can’t “know” what it’s truly like.

In 1994, one courageous and perhaps, foolish student decided to turn his white skin black, so that he could experience what it was like to be Black for himself.  I say perhaps foolish because he was warned by his doctor that taking the medication that would allow him to do this could shorten his life; yet he chose to do it anyway.  His name is Joshua Solomon, and you can read his story in his own words and in their entirety at: http://www.mdcbowen.org/p2/rm/white/solomon.html.  Below, you will find excerpts from his account, along with a video of his appearance on Oprah’s show.

…derivative of the drug Psorlen to change his skin from white to brown. He [the doctor] also explained that it was suspected that Griffin's early death in 1980 was partially due to liver damage caused by the medication. I told the doctor that I'd had a heart condition since birth, that I was used to the dangers of potent medication and to life-and-death choices.

…That's what I told Lerner. But there was something else-I'd sympathized with my friends, and I wanted to support them, but secretly, inside, I'd always felt that many black people used racism as a crutch, an excuse. Couldn't they just shrug off the rantings of ignorant people?

…I began to cry as I recounted the events of the last two days, the drip-drop of indifference and fear from the white people I had encountered. Their lack of patience, their downright contempt.

I anted up, took a seat at a table not too far from the black family, near an obese white woman, hoping to spark some sort of conversation.

"Hell-o," she sang, real friendly in a sweet Southern strain. "Are you enjoying the festival?" she asked.

I told her the barbecue chicken was great and that I was from Washington, D.C.

She asked where I was going next.

"Forsyth County?" she repeated, a look of disbelief crossing her face. "Why would you go there? You looking for trouble?"

"Of course not," I said. I told her that I was sure it couldn't be as bad as people said. On top of that, I said, "I'm an American citizen. I can live anywhere I want to."

She snorted. "Well, not there," she said. "They'd make you leave."

"How could they do that?"

"They'd make your life miserable. Nobody would give you a job. They could change your mind, trust me." The tone of her voice, her argumentative posture, was frightening.  "Well I think I'll just go and check it out for myself," I said.

Her face turned even redder. "You people never get it," she chided me. "Some folks just don't like living with you people. Look what you do to your neighborhoods. You make everyone leave. You ruin everything. You think . . . "

Across the street someone began calling: "Ma, Ma! Are you all right?"

She looked over at a young, overweight boy, waved her hand, raised herself off the bench.

"Well, goodbye," she said. "Don't be stupid now, you hear?"

The next morning I took refuge in a church. I entered the stately blue doors only to find a room empty, save for a homeless guy, blond-haired, blue-eyed. I asked him about the church's shelter in detail, leading him to believe I was homeless too. His name was Chris. He'd been living on the streets for five years.

I asked Chris if he had ever lived in Forsyth.

"You don't want to go down there," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because you're black. Simple as that."

After all of two days, the experiment was over. Maybe I was weak, maybe I couldn't hack it. I didn't care. This anger was making me sick and the only antidote I knew was a dose of white skin.

I called my mother and told her I was finished with my journey. All the hurt, all the anger, all the inhumanity. I started to cry.

On the way to the bus station I saw Chris across the street. I called and waved. He motioned me over to the sub shop where he was standing.

"I was trying to get a cup of water, but they can't help me. Do me a favor and ask for one, they might help you because they don't know you."

I went in and got him a cup of water. I asked him if he wanted anything else.

"How about a steak and cheese, and make that a lemonade instead."

I paid with a $20 bill. Chris's eyes bugged out. I told him I was leaving town and, wanting company, asked him to walk me to the bus station. He resisted, saying he was tired and didn't know his way around that part of town well. I reminded him that I had just bought him lunch.

We walked down Butler Avenue. This time I noticed the pawnshops, cheap food and liquor outlets, the standard ghetto businesses, all of the town's vices packed into this small black community. An old wrinkled black man, his mouth full of gold, sipping on a bottle of Mr. Boston's Gin. We walked on, past black children at play, women hanging wet clothes on makeshift lines, bass music thumping from an open window.

"Lazy niggers," Chris spat.

My body quivered, my spine tingled. A shadow must have come over my face, for suddenly Chris became apologetic. I guess he thought I was ready to kick his butt.

"Oh not you, I didn't mean you, you're different," said this guy who carried all his possessions in a tattered green duffle bag, who wore every article of clothing he owned on his back.

"Of course," I said, "I just bought you lunch."

We walked in silence after that. When we got to the bus station Chris asked if I would walk him back to his part of town. "See you later," I said. I thought: Sink or swim, white boy. The bus came into Gainsville at about 3 p.m. The quiet ride ended in Atlanta at about 4:30. I took the subway back to the airport. A young black woman leaned against the seat next to me. She dozed off occasionally. In her arms she cradled a sack of books. Around her neck hung a stethoscope. Why hadn't she given up? I could return home to my comfortable world. I could wait for my skin to turn white again. She would have to endure.

Love, Sex, & Men:

What Every Girl Should Know

Love, Sex, &  Men: What Every Girl Should Know