D.C. Burned, but a Sense Of Identity Was Sparked

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

The principal's voice crackles through the intercom at Powell Elementary School, a surprising intrusion on a sunny April morning: We're closing the school. Run, don't walk. Go home. Now.

I run-walk through the streets of Northwest Washington, my head to the sky, looking up at the yellow-green leaves forming patterns of lace in the trees above me. I hurry along, because that is what they told us to do, but I don't really understand the urgency, can't grasp the importance of what is going on: Martin Luther King Jr.? Shot? Dead?

Never heard of him.

April 5, 1968. The day after. I am 6.

At home, life is put on mute. The phone rings, and my mother jumps. My dad hasn't made it back yet from his medical school assignments at D.C. General Hospital. Worry rides her. I hear her talking to her friends, about how female teachers at her school were warned to stash their cash in their girdles before heading home. Just in case. Because you never know.

She hangs up the phone, brings in our cocker spaniel, Blackie. Just in case. Because you never know.

Minutes later, I spot a looter dashing through our back yard, fleet of foot and sporting a do-rag. His arms overflow with clothes.

Such is my introduction to the civil rights movement: King, with whom my family in Atlanta had more than a passing acquaintance, had just been taken out by a sniper's bullet. And the streets of my birthplace have gone up in flames.

Pretty confusing stuff for a first-grader who'd yet to grasp the concept of race.

Images of King flashed across the screen of our black-and-white TV: We listen to speech after speech, especially that one, given just two days before, the one about how he's been to the mountaintop but might not make it to the promised land. My mother, home from teaching French to pupils at elementary schools in Georgetown and on 14th and V, sits watching. Silent. I take in her grief, the fiery speech of the slain man on our TV. I sit behind her, peppering her with questions as I brush her hair: If he's dead, how can he be on TV? Does he get back in the coffin after he makes his speech? Who is this guy, anyway?

"I wanted you all to understand what [the riots] were all about," my mother, Yvonne, remembers. "So that you would fully understand his importance and the role that he had played. That what was happening around you was unusual -- it was people's reaction to having lost something that was so important to them."

The next year, by the time we'd moved to Staten Island for my father's residency, and I listened to a nun tell my class that King was a communist, I would have a much better grasp of who King was and why he mattered. And that the nun was wrong, very wrong.

But on this day, I am clueless. Until this point, I see colors, but not race. My family came in all shades, from ivory to beige to tan to milk chocolate. Sure, my dance teacher at Art Linkletter Dance School was white; so was Jackie, in my first-grade class. But mostly my little world -- bordered by 16th Street and Rock Creek Park -- was comfortably wrapped in various shades of black.

As my mother now tells me, I attended the March on Washington. In a stroller. My father, Phillip, and his brothers would go to hear King speak at Howard and would leave, as he put it, "all fired up." Inspired. "He had vision," my dad remembers. "No doubt about it. He made you want to go out and protest for better conditions."

Back in Atlanta, my mother's father was the King family's doctor; he even performed a tonsillectomy on a young Martin. That same grandfather attended Ebenezer Baptist Church and picketed outside segregated department stores in the '50s and early '60s. Right before they arrested him, the cops always asked him, "Dr. Jackson, do you need to make rounds first before we take you in?" As a kid, my light-skinned mother and her even-more-light-skinned cousin would ride in the front of the bus, snickering and silently daring the white passengers to say something. They never did.

My parents met and married in grad school in Manhattan; when my father was accepted at Howard's med school in 1960, they moved to the District, even though my mother harbored dreams of being an interpreter for the United Nations. My father's two brothers soon followed suit, enrolling at Howard's dental school. For the first few years of my life, we all lived in the same apartment building on Lincoln Road NE, my Uncle Charlie and his family right across the hall, my Uncle Fritz and his crew right upstairs.

Ours was a tight-knit life. I attended Little Jack Corner Nursery School, a French-speaking preschool for bourgie black kids. I didn't know that, as my dad puts it, "D.C. wasn't a liberal place." That my Uncle Charlie, while out with his wife, Vivienne, nearly got jumped by a group of angry white guys. They'd taken one look at my biracial aunt and assumed my uncle was stepping out with a white woman.

My dad dropped out of med school and then dropped back in, finishing up his final year in my first year of elementary school. The year King was killed. Our extended family scattered, one uncle to Los Angeles, the other to Chicago. We settled into our rowhouse on Taylor Street, the corner house with the tulips in the front yard and the back yard access to Rock Creek Park. The one with the back alley where my cousins and I would light sparklers on the Fourth of July. The one where a looter felt that it was perfectly okay to use our little lawn as his escape route.

That day, by the time my father returned from D.C. General -- way past curfew -- we sat as a family (my 2-year-old sister long asleep), stuck to the TV, watching scenes from a city in chaos. Like the young boy who ran through the plate-glass window of a store, only to be carried out by two white cops. He waved to the camera as they led him away.

"That's my student!" my mom gasped.

Life in the aftermath was eerie. I remember smoke-clogged streets and a feeling of loss. Of riding through D.C., car headlights on in the middle of the day to show respect. I remember my parents clucking at the destruction, how we destroyed our own, black businesses taking the hit for black rage. I remember military vehicles moving in and a white soldier winking at me in a card shop. My parents remember being sad. Angry. Scared. It was hard to know if, or when, things would get fired up again.

They didn't, but resentment and rage still simmered underneath. Sometimes it would erupt. Little black girls in my class surrounded Jackie in the bathroom, yelling, "Trash!" I stood on the sidelines and yelled it once, too, just to fit in. Our teacher took a switch to the main perpetrator's legs. I stood in front of the room and told Jackie that I didn't think she was trash. She seemed to appreciate that, but I still felt bad. I still do: The memory shames me.

Then, too, black pride was blossoming in the city, and one of its early adopters were two twin girls in my class -- whose natural hair was cropped close in soft, round, nascent 'fros. My parents bought me a comic book detailing King's short life, and I read every word. My father graduated from medical school, and we moved to Staten Island, where my black idyll abruptly ended.

Staten Island was a sea of white, Manhattan's far less tolerant cousin. My father tells me that the KKK was still burning crosses when we moved there. He had a hard time finding a place for us to live. It's the same old tired story: vacant apartment miraculously fills once the African American tenant shows up to claim it. Staten Island was a place where Irish kids, mistaking me for Puerto Rican, would shove me. Hard.

There, far from my Washington cocoon, I learned that having brown skin was a liability, no matter what my parents told me at home -- that I was black, and that I should be proud. I'd look at my honey skin, and then at that of my Irish/Italian/Hungarian classmates, and wish fervently that I'd wake up to find out that it was all a bad dream, that I'd wake up one day, white and blond, like Twiggy, or Marcia on "The Brady Bunch."

My parents, though, worked on me, hard. We watched documentaries about the civil rights movement: the dogs and the hoses turned on the protesters, who stayed cool and serene as could be. Singing "We Shall Overcome." They took me to Broadway plays featuring all-black casts, and Alvin Ailey dance concerts. I watched "Soul Train" and "Julia" and "I Spy." By the time I turned 11, I was scrawling "BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL" on the back of my jeans jacket and rejoicing when my hair showed signs of kinking up, too.

We moved to Atlanta, my mother's home town, when I was 12. And every year, come Jan. 15, King's birthday, my mother would pull me out of school, and we'd join the ranks of others, marching through the streets of Atlanta in remembrance. Singing.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company