Pass the soul food, not for the Super Bowl party, but for Black History Month. This celebration began in February 1976 when I was in fourth grade at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
Back then we had a mix of kids in our class: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Haitian. It was kumbaya I tell ya. Back then we fought over so-called boyfriends/girlfriends, who had the best handwriting and bad trades of oversold lunches. (I once traded a huge Italian hoagie for a never-before-tasted PB&J. I ended up in the principal’s office that day.) Kumbaya.
I could never imagine what racism looked like then. I remember having a “boyfriend” who was mixed and his mother telling me we could never “be together” because he was white and I was black. We didn’t get it. I wasn’t black. Was she blind? I was brown
. And he wasn’t white, he was Crayola nude with shades of brown. So we just went on about our innocent grade-school lives. We all thought parents were nutty anyway.
My parents didn’t immediately share what they went through coming up pre-1970s. We would hear them say about us kids: “They just don’t know how good they’ve got it” while shaking their heads. My Dad was a World War II Army veteran, born in 1925, who graduated from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania with a social work degree. My Mom was a creative, free-spirited artist in Rockford, Ill., who loved to sculpt and sketch.
I did eventually hear their stories of segregation in the North. I listened with shock that they didn’t talk or bemoan about it regularly. Both said: “That’s just how it was back then.”
They told me that I could never escape my skin color. They told me there would be people who would always see my color first and not hear my voice or see my intellect or talents. I was told to be wary of those who would “smile in your face while stabbing you in the back.”
So much comes from experience, history and instincts. My parents wanted the best for me and didn’t want my color to limit me. They told me that passing or honor roll grades would never be enough for me because I was black. “You have to go one step further just to get your foot in the door,” Dad said. I also had to have community service, church work, extracurricular activities and awards to show that I was a hard worker and wanted to succeed.
My parents didn’t want us to use our skin color as a free pass, but as a prod to excel. Their experiences with segregation and racism, which I may share later, made me cry when I first heard them recounted. They wanted to motivate me without burdening me. Such is a parent’s love. Thank you Mom and Dad.