When I was 5 I asked my daddy for a pair of roller skates. I had seen the big roller skating rink in our town and I had seen the boys and girls who went there every Saturday. I had also watched roller derby and admired the fast sassy ladies who battled and elbowed their way around the rink every weekend night. I wanted to learn to skate. Daddy ignored my plea. One day after my incessant harassment my dad told me I could not go to the skating rink. He told me he would buy me a pair of skates but I was not allowed to learn at the skating rink. He sadly told me the color of my skin refused my admission. It was that day my daddy had to explain to his 5 year old black daughter the state of affairs in the country where we lived. I was 5.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence; a time of play and make believe. It is supposed to be a time when all is possible and everywhere is explorable. At 5 I learned for little black and brown children in America that was not the case. I learned I had to be aware. I had to be careful and I had to know where it was safe for me to go.
My parents became my parents in the era of Jim Crow, a time when black citizens were restricted and denied freedoms allowed to whites. It was a time when the back of the bus was reserved for those with dark skin; a time when the closest restroom was on the side of the road behind a tree. It was a time when restaurants denied service solely based on skin color. It was a time of fear. The day of my birth my daddy knew I needed to be educated to my reality at an early age. He had to keep me safe. That was then and this is now.
I listen as friends with young black sons are facing this reality in a new time. They are now giving the speech to their young sons and daughters with different but similar realities. Yes we are now free to eat in restaurants, sit anywhere on a bus, seek opportunities that are more available and we are allowed to learn to skate. However, our sons and daughters continue to be marked. My black friends are telling their young sons and daughters how to dress, how to speak and how to act in a world that has already determined who they are because of the pigment of their skin. My friends are not telling their children of the kindness of “Joe” the corner police officer but they are now telling them how to keep their hands in plain sight if they are stopped by “Joe” the corner policeman. They are telling them how to say sir or mam. They are telling them by all means Don’t run. Some things change but some things remain the same.
I once had a very close friend ask me why I had to write about race. I thought about his question for months. When one speaks of priviledge that word comes to mind when I try to formulate an answer to my friend’s question. A white face in America can disguise itself anyway that it wants. No one knows if it is the face of a liberal, conservative, gay, straight, or any thing else. A white face can hide and be anonymous. A white face can go into a store and not be followed by a clerk. A white face can go about its day and usually does not have to wonder if a slight or mistreatment is racially motivated. As a friend once said “I don’t think about being black when I am lying in my bed or in my home but I better damn well be thinking about it when I step out of my front door.” For myself as well as others, we do not have the priviledge of not thinking about or writing about race as it is a part of who we are and necessary for our survival.
For many black boys and girls there was a joy watching Barack Obama become the first brown president. It made the thought possible that maybe all is possible and the world has changed. If only for that moment it seemed a reality. As America shifts and struggles with its desire to fight change at all cost, to make America great and to close borders to the many wanting to search for their piece of freedom, the feeling of Jim Crow remains very close on the periphery. Someone once said if we do not remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it. So yes I write about race. I talk about race so the skating rink will remain a possibility for all.