During my eighth grade school year, I fancied myself a militant. This was my third year as a student at Deer Park Middle School, which I (perhaps inaccurately) remember as about 40% Jewish, 50% Black, and 10% White and “Other” (shout-out to Jason Chang!).
These were my first years dealing with significant racial difference. Until sixth grade, my schools were predominantly Black (all three of them). In retrospect, I took racial acceptance as a matter of fact. Before Deer Park, I didn’t know anything about people scooting away from me on a picnic style lunch bench so as not to be mistaken for sitting with the Black kid(s) or watching girls practically draw straws to see which unlucky one of them would have to share a double bed with the Black chick on the overnight student council conference field trip.
These days, I know I was fortunate. Deer Park was evenly mixed. I could’ve been like my friend, Tab, who grew up in upstate New York and was one of about 10-15 kids classified as Other throughout her entire pre-college tenure.
But at the time, I could recognize no such good fortune.
I commandeered the backs of school buses, in my quiet way, spouting off conspiracy theories about how The Man “didn’t like to see Black folks succeed” and ticking off the names of Black inventors, all, “Know your history, fam.”
Then, Spike Lee’s X opened in November of that year and our school rented a local theatre to screen it for the entire 8th grade class. My friend Earl’s mom chaperoned and at the end, when many of the girls were weeping and sniffling as Denzel dropped in a blaze of glory, she handed out tissue to us all. I wasn’t crying, though. I was scowling.
Was I angry at the white kids who’d squirmed uncomfortably, as the Black kids applauded when Malcolm told the enthusiastic blonde there was nothing she could do to further his cause? Nah. I hadn’t even joined in the applause. I think I was angry I’d just watched a reenactment of a man’s assassination at the hands of his own people. I was angry he’d shut Betty down with a, “Don’t raise your voice in my house!” I was angry at how little I knew, how little we all knew, about our very complicated past. There were no easy fixes, and I was beginning to suspect that anger, in the long-run, would be pretty ineffective. And that made me angry, too.
When my run at Deer Park ended, so did my armchair activism. The following year, I landed at Milford Mill Academy, a 90% Black high school if ever I saw one. All was right with the world again. My college was about 60% Black and it was in DC. After that? Four years in predominantly Black Baltimore and two tripping through the deliciously eclectic boroughs of New York***.
It wasn’t until I moved to Grand Rapids in the August of 2007 that I had to contend with that angry, defensive, silently militant part of myself again. I’d forgotten how tiresome she was and how exasperating it is to be perpetually reminded of your race, through the callow stares of gaping-mouthed five-year-olds unaccustomed to the sight of Blacks outside of Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite.
Before I moved here, I didn’t have to think about the pervasiveness of White flight in 2009. (Moving to the deliberately homogeneous suburb of Rockford because you *want* your kid to be so ignorant of difference that she can’t hide her shock when I announce myself as her professor on her first day as a college freshman? Not. Cool.)
I don’t like being side-eyed. I don’t like small children ducking behind their mothers’ skirts when my six-foot-seven uncle walks by. I don’t like when their parents shush them when they say things like, “He’s so BLACK!” (as though they can’t imagine where the kid learned to use intensifiers when discussing race). I don’t like feeling defensive or wondering if I should attribute seemingly run-of-the-mill rudeness to racism. (Fortunately, though, I’m slightly better equipped to handle these things now, than I was as an eighth-grader.)
Hyper-vigilance is so wearying. I’m growing sicker of myself and race and offense with every sentence I type—but as long as I live in a city where Blackness makes me not only a minority, but noticeably unwelcome, these kinds of musings will make their way to print.
Be glad I’m not thirteen anymore, or else I’d be subjecting you to a comprehensive biographical sketch on Jan Ernst Matzeliger.
*** I should note that my years at SLC were actually the precursor to Militant Stacia’s reemergence. Bronxvillean white folks are a real trip….