I was reading a “Powerless: Why I Can’t Ignore Trayvon Martin” and something he wrote struck me:
White people think I’m a nuisance. Black people look at me with an equal mix of hope and disdain. Hope because I represent for all the people who couldn’t make it out of the same situation, and disdain because…there’s usually only a handful of representatives. If I made it out, they were likely the ones who didn’t.
I identify with the last 2 sentences. Two things pop into my mind. The first is many years ago visiting some relatives in St. Ann once and being forced to play school with some cousins. It was one of those holiday visits with my grandparents to the country. I looked forward to those trips because it was fun being in the car with Grandma and Grandpa listening to cassettes and playing a game with Grandma of who could spot the most cars of X colour. I even looked forward to a little babying that I received: I travelled car sick so Grandma’s remedy was to put folded sheets of The Jamaica Gleaner against my chest and back; I crinkled when I leaned back in the back seat of the car. (Don’t know where she got this remedy from or whether it actually worked or was just meant to set my mind at ease.) Anyway, I remember my cousins’ father stood over me waving a book and yelling at me to play school now and to teach, teach, teach. I didn’t know these cousins well and though I was known to be precocious (sometimes known as “nuff”) I could (and still tend to be) quiet around people until I get comfortable. Don’t think we played school that day. At the time I was just frightened and wondered why this man was being unkind…and I also wondered why I was being made to feel as if happily enjoying school and being smart was a bad thing…? To this day that is my most profound memory of him. In hindsight I realize that there was family politics at work, things I wouldn’t have known about at the time…and it had to do (sort of) with who had the advantages or opportunities versus who didn’t. I guess I was perceived as having and actually did have the former.
Different manifestations of this attitude have greeted me in other aspects of my life…and sometimes I’ve been ashamed of being smart or good at something or speaking up about something, and sometimes I have been obnoxious…but I have learned to be proud and not to be complacent or conceited. Proud because I’ve learned not to let people pull me down (or whatever) to make themselves look or feel better. Even folks you call friend may try to do it…don’t let them. That I have been afforded many opportunities through the hard work of my parents and grandparents is not lost on me…all the natural ability or intelligence in the world wouldn’t count for much were it not for their early molding, encouragement, and support. I have learned to be grateful for their contributions as well as for my intelligence….no shame!
Contrast with the other thing that popped into my mind: during my time in law school when I was feeling low or stressed or overwhelmed, it was always the black members of the staff who had a kind, encouraging word for me. Folks who worked in maintenance, security, and food service were who I talked to…and not any big “therapy session” but just a hello and how are you doing. They tolerated my indecision at lunch time or questions about which ingredients were in what dish. They knew that I tried not to drink stuff with high fructose corn syrup. If I said that I was tired or something like that they often took the time to say a few words of encouragement…small things. Once I even fell asleep in the cafeteria and they let me sleep and when I jumped awake they just joked about how tired I must have been and how it seemed that I’d fallen asleep in my food and books (because I was multi-tasking by having lunch and reading for classes…ha!). Only one member of staff ever said to me – and even then not in so many words – that my being in law school was heartwarming for him to see, that it made him proud…that it was a step forward for “us.” And, yes, here “us” means black people. I sensed the same from other members of staff…though they never said…
Tonight I am reminded to BE grateful and my heart is full. So, a reminder to you: BE grateful. And don’t let anyone try to dull your shine…