I went to the 1963 march, in a baby stroller. I had just passed my first birthday. To my parents, there was no other choice: "Of course Elizabeth will go to the march." Today, though in actuality I don't recall a thing, I like to fancy that I remember every single word of King's speech. I have constructed a special memory of it for myself.
I would also like to construct a vision of a world wholly different from the one that a 21-year-old black person would have lived in, in 1963. I would like to think that what my grandparents hoped I would never need to face is gone, that the ideals embodied in that 1963 march have become the reality of our country today.
But they haven't.
There is the subtle and then there is the not-so- subtle. Trying to pinpoint the subtle is frustrating: "You don't (fill in the blank: 'look,' 'speak,' 'act') like 'the others.'" Do 26 million people ever look, speak or act a single way? "Why do you always think/ talk/write about 'black things'?" If only I lived in a world where I did not feel the duty and the urge to; fortunately, I happen to enjoy celebrating the accomplishments of my race. "What do blacks think about X, Y and Z?" Is any one person a spokesman for an entire race? And anywhere I go, from schools to jobs, the perennial insinuation: "You got in because you are a black female."
There is some reminder every day, and one can only keep a ready supply of retorts, avoid the blaze of obsession, and cherish the fortification of friends and family.
These subtleties are the stuff of day-to-day racism. Taken individually, they seem small, and whites may wonder why the fuss--why the big deal? After all, they're not racists, are they?
We look for reasons, we look for explanations, but, finally, there is no justification for the kind of insensitivity these statements demonstrate.
Let me not forget the realm of the not-so-subtle:
1. At school, a creative writing teacher threatened to have me kicked out of the class for my "insistence on writing about black stuff."
2. Two young women go to Ocean City, one black and one white, and are turned away from a boarding house with an unctuous, "We don't take colored girls here."
3. At an event in Virginia that I was covering for this newspaper, the word "nigger" flowed freely, and racist jeers were directed at me. After my account of this incident appeared in the paper, the letters and calls told the story: perhaps a quarter of those who communicated were kind souls expressing their concern. The rest included, "Your thin skin should make you question your chosen profession," and "If you are a nigger, why do you mind being called one?" (Those people never telephoned and rarely signed their full names.)
What is most revealing is not that these sorts of things still occur but rather the reactions of presumably right-thinking whites. They are shocked that "racism still exists" in arenas where colleagues have cultivated civility over the years. Racism should enrage us all, but to assume it no longer exists negates any possibility of useful thought and action. This ingenuousness keeps whites from seeing that racism must remain an issue of concern to all, not just something to be worried about by blacks.
Yet even thinking all of this, I still am struck by how lucky I am--how lucky so many of us are. None of these events has caused me bodily harm of the sort I might have encountered were I a black girl in the "wrong" place in the past-- "wrong places" including colleges in Mississippi and churches in Alabama. None of this has changed my conviction that, as corny as it sounds, I can do and be anything that I want to; I am lucky to have a job, and to have the support, sometimes sanctuary, of a loving family.
How many of me are there? Black youth unemployment hovers near 50 percent. And, remember, I am only 21 and not yet old enough to have bumped my head on too many ceilings.
I was at the march on Saturday precisely because I know how lucky I am, and because there is so much to change.