IT WAS A TYPICAL Sunday evening. My mother, older sister and brother and I were watching "60 Minutes" on the television set in the living room. Bored with the program -- it was a repeat -- I started scavenging about the house for a good book to skim through, perhaps something on football or boxing or animals.
I, then 12, loved flipping through encyclopedias, looking at pictures and reading those nice, brief paragraphs that summed up all a kid needed to know about anything. But the book I found that evening, 14 years ago, was unlike any I had seen before. It had been left at my house in far Northeast by a friend of the family. It wasn't fancy -- it didn't even have a copyright -- but what I read and saw in it riveted me like nothing I had ever experienced.
It was a scrapbook. A big, thick one, about as thick as an unabridged dictionary.
I went into the dining room, set the heavy thing on the table and admired the neatly typed paragraphs on the title page, which explained that the scrapbook was about "Negro History." It had been done as part of a school project.
"Mmmmm," I said. "Maybe this is about my favorite sports figures."
The first pictures, which were of woodcuts that depicted blacks wearing shackles and being beaten by cold-hearted-looking white men, took me by surprise. They were so graphic and horrible that they began to make me feel uneasy. My throat dried.
I swallowed hard and flipped a few pages of narrative until I came to a picture depicting a black man with his hands and feet bound, curled into a knot on the ground. His back had been lashed into bloody, open sores. One white man stood over him, ready to snap the whip again. Standing nearby, huddled together in fear, were black women and children being kept under guard by another white man who had a shotgun.
I looked at that picture for what seemed to be an hour, examining the fine details of the antique woodcut. My eyes finally focused on the face of one of the youngest slaves who was clutching his mother's dress as he watched the man being tortured -- whipped like a beast. I felt sad for him and his father. I kept staring at the picture until my eyes started playing tricks on me. I saw the features of my face in the boy's. We had the same innocent, round black countenance. It was as if I were looking at myself.
I looked again at the black man on the ground, then at the white man with the whip, then the white with the gun and finally at the other slaves in the picture. For a split second, I was transformed. I felt as if I were really there, physically. I could hear the whip cracking and the woman sobbing and the children crying. I could feel myself wanting to snatch the gun, kill those white men and set the man free.
By this time, I was breathing heavily and shaking. My imagination had gotten the best of me for a moment there. I felt a knot in my stomach and my jaws clenched as I continued staring at the picture. I realized that I wasn't there and I grew angry that I hadn't moved the characters around. I had to accept what I saw.
The picture made me think for the first time about the responsibilities I had as a descendent of slaves. I began to see freedom as something precious, not to be taken for granted. I was suddenly coming into contact with my own history and my mind was being transformed. If life is a canvas painting, then the past was but a dark, stormy background on which I and other blacks could place bright strokes of achievements, if we acted wisely and in unison.
The first questions that came to my mind after staring at the pictures in the scrapbook were, "Why did I have to discover this in this way? Why hadn't somebody sat down and explained what slavery meant? People had told me that long ago, blacks were slaves. But only now, through these pictures, was I brought in touch with that nightmare called slavery. Apparently, older blacks had mistakenly tried to protect me from such an experience.
I remember closing the book, standing up, turning and looking in the mirror on the wall behind the table. My face was contorted and I was sweating. Suddenly, I felt a throbbing pain in my forehead, probably the first headache of my life. I turned and looked down at the book. I've had enough of this terrible stuff, I thought. I should've stuck with the football, baseball and animals. Leaving the dining room, I rejoined the family in the living room, but I quickly became restless again.
I kept my thoughts to myself, trying to sort them out. I tried to get lost in the television program, but the images of whites smiling and talking as they advertised fancy cars and color TVs kept reminding me of the whites in the scrapbook pictures. My brain exploded with more questions. I ran back into the dining room and opened the scrapbook, again. Was what I was watching on television connected to these pictures?
"What's wrong with you, Edward? Why did you run out of here like that?" my mother's chime-like voice rang out from the living room.
I heard her, but I was so wrapped up in this weird experience I was going though, I forgot to respond.
"Dwayne?" (my middle name, which she uses when I've done something wrong), "do you hear me talking to you?"
"Oh, yes. Nothing's wrong, Momma. I'm just looking at this scrapbook on slavery," I said, irritated.
I remember talking to my mother about the book later, before I slept that night. I didn't tell her how angry I was and how much I wanted to avenge our forebears.
She told me me that slavery was over and we had progressed to a new period. "We are no longer in bondage," she said. Lincoln freed the slaves and Martin Luther King made the country recognize its injustices. And now, society was being made anew.
Her words didn't cool the anger or clear up the confusion inside me. How could those white folk be so evil? And why should I believe that they'd changed? These thoughts were too heavy for my tender mind. But, I was forced to deal with them. I started wondering where the slaves came from and how had they lived before slavery. I didn't see myself as a boy any more. I was a black boy, descendent of slaves, a second-class citizen. All blacks were ex-slaves. Whites were children of slavemasters, not to be trusted.
I wanted to know everything that had happened to my people, from creation to slavery to today. Why did God allow this to happen? Does he have a special reward for those who have suffered so much? Why was the black man in the picture beaten so badly? What had he done? What would slaves think of the world today? Have blacks made real progress or are we still slaves in some sense?
White heroes were no longer heroes to me. How could men the likes of George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Hancock and Ben Franklin be considered great men when they reveled in a country where slavery was condoned and in many cases partook in the ghastly practice themselves? How could I salute a flag that was flown as a symbol of liberty in a country that held my people in slavery?
It was my first taste of unpatriotic, alienated feelings. Later, as months and years passed by and I learned in schools about the great developments of the "free world," the more I felt cheated. Where was the apology, the justice, the remuneration to the slaves and their descendants? Where was my great- great-grandfather's 40 acres and mule that Lincoln promised?
The great benefit of my anguish was that I was motivated to search for myself, using black history books and literature as my guides. I pored over the thoughts of great men and women of action like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Harriett Tubman, Mary McCloud Bethune, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and others.
I had a superficial understanding of who these figures were because I'd seen their pictures and read short biographical sketches. But upon studying them, reading books they'd written, they seemed to come to life and speak to me. Most wrote about the need to rebuild the race and restore dignity and self-reliance in the black personality. Some of the history angered me, but much of it inspired me and gave me a deep appreciation for the freedom and opportunities at my disposal which so many before me had wanted so badly.
Much of white people's wealth, I came to understand, was tied to slave labor. So, when I saw banks, I thought of slavery; when I saw a limousine, I thought of the suffering of black families, working from dawn to dusk, like driven animals. I couldn't get these thoughts out of my mind. Growing up in Washington didn't help. The patriotic symbols -- the Monument, the Capitol building -- all these things represented the excellence that whites achieved at the expense of millions of blacks who were taken from Africa and treated with less regard than one would a dog.
The Lincoln Memorial, named for the man who freed my people, was not appealing to me after I realized that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation not to improve the lot of my people, but to "Save the (white folks') Union." Why was there no monument to the countless slaves who built this damned country?
Luckily, I found my real heroes in men like Douglass and George Washington Carver and Charles Drew. They were smart, honest, black, hard-working and courageous men of mission. I wanted to be like them. No longer were sports figures the only black achievers I knew. No longer did I have to look to whites for role models of educational and intellectual attainment.
Typical joys of childhood began to lose their appeal with me. Sure, I still played football and did mischevious things, but I started spending less and less time at these activities and more time reading and searching for ways I could somehow show my dead ancestors that I was grateful for the suffering they endured.
While I had always been a good student, I became a better one, as a result of my sense of black history. I began to notice that my public-school teachers very rarely mentioned black contributions to the sciences, math and other areas of study. They obviously lacked or for some reason failed to use the information that I was rapidly absorbing during my trips to the library. They never talked about ways blacks could collectively use their education to solve the great economic and social problems facing the race.
My mind was undergoing a metamorphosis that made the world change its texture. Everything became relevant because I knew blacks had made an impact on all facets of life. I felt a part of things that most blacks thought only white people had a claim to. Knowing that there is serious speculation that Beethoven was black -- a mullato -- made me enjoy classical music.
"Man, why do you listen to that junk? That's white music," my friends would say.
"Wrong. Beethoven was a brother."
I was now bicultural, a distinction most Americans could not claim. I could switch from boogie to rock, from funk to jazz and from rhythm-and-blues to Beethoven and Bach. As Baltimore's Rep. Parren J. Mitchell said recently at a dinner, I moved from thinking of myself as disadvantaged to realizing that I was actually "superadvantaged."
By the time I left junior high school, the idea that I was a newly freed slave began to seep deep into my mind. After all, black Americans have been free fewer years than they had been enslaved, I thought. With this perspective, freedom was, for all practical purposes, a brand new, precious jewel.
This attitude saved me from being pressured by my peers to do things like steal cars, shoplift, use drugs, chase girls and "hang out." I knew that if caught, such activities might lead to modern-day shackles -- prison, dull-mindedness, premature fatherhood and idleness.
On several occasions, I refused to fight another black, though I was being "chumped." Though I was punched in the chest and shoved, I couldn't bring myself to strike back because I felt that it was against tradition for blacks to fight each other. History taught me that black people loved each other and saved their energy to fight against whites. Unity was a constant theme among my people, from slavery to recent years. So, while the violent, repressive personality of the oppressor had been adopted by some blacks, I was not going to allow it to poison me.
Reading and writing and doing homework became my favorite chores. These were the tools to make emancipation work, black heroes had said. Before freedom, slaves sometimes risked their lives trying to learn to read and write. Some, like the man in the scrapbook picture, were beaten harshly if caught with a book. Those slaves who lived to see freedom desperately tried to get "some learnin'" as soon as they could.
Knowing this caused me some distress. Sometimes I would psych myself up so much -- thinking about what great responsibility I had to make a big contribution to my race -- I'd cry myself to sleep at night, asking God to help me, to make me worthy of freedom. I wasn't emotionally unstable. I just was so anxious to make my mark, to be somebody special.
Previous feelings of intimidation when around whites no longer existed. I had thought that they were just born smarter and more genteel than I. Now, I had my facts together. I knew that countless blacks had become scholars, artists, inventors, but just had never received credit. And I even read how some scholars believed that white folks' ancestors were heathens, living in the Caucusus Mountains, when black missionaries found and civilized them. Other scholars pointed out that even Solomon and Jesus were dark men with wool-like hair.
Though they had been relegated to ghettos and ridiculed in literature and left out of recorded history, my people were a great people. From the universities of Timbuktu to the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico to the start of the American revolution, blacks and other dark-colored peoples had left their marks upon the world. These revelations let me know that Europeans and other light-colored peoples did not have a monopoly on intellectual capability. I discovered a liberating truth: Intelligence is colorblind and competence is colorless.
I wanted to share my good feeling with other blacks. For a while, whenever I saw a "brother" or "sister," I'd give the clinched-fist black power sign and say, "Right on."
But, I was still a kid and in my eagerness to demonstrate my sense of pride and freedom I did some strange things that were irresistable to me at the time. Like running whenever I saw white police officers in cruisers. The officers reminded me of the oppressive slavemasters and I loved to tease them. They always gave chase.
When they'd catch me, they'd ask: "Why are you running?"
I'd cross my arms in front of me, smile and say, "I'm free."
"What's in your pockets?"
"I don't have to tell you that. Where's your search warrant? I know my rights, man."
After they saw that I was just being a smart-assed kid, they'd shake their heads and warn me to "never do that again or I'll take you in."
"Always trying to make a black person a slave, right?" I'd ask.
On at least one occasion, a white officer actually answered, "Yeah, you got it."
I was naive, then. I didn't know that I could've gotten shot by some cop who might have mistaken me for a suspect who had just broken into a house or robbed store. Once, at night, I saw a police cruiser and ran before checking the race of the officers. I ran down an alley. The black officer at the wheel used his loudspeaker to order me to stop. I tried to explain that I was free and had a right to run whenever I felt like it, whether the police liked it or not.
"Son, you've got a problem," he said, getting out of the car.
He and his partner handcuffed my hands behind my back and took me to the youth division. When my mother arrived, I was handcuffed to a chair, in tears. I felt so ashamed, I never pulled those shenanigans again.
After years of wrestling with what being black was supposed to be all about -- I still am not sure I know -- I finally settled down. I don't try to prove anything, per se. I just do my best work, act intelligently and try to stay aware of what's going on.
My "blackness" is expressed in my awareness of my heritage and membership in black journalistic organizations that advocate that black people's aspirations and problems be clearly understood and exposed in the media and that more blacks be brought into the profession. I feel a camaraderie with other blacks, but that doesn't stop me from covering blacks with fairness and toughness -- just as two black boxers wouldn't pull their punches in a bout against each other.
Now, that I've wrestled with the complexities of my race, I have concluded that I am simply a human being. Like anyone else, I should be given every opportunity to develop and express my creative talents and abilities.
I'm often reminded of how lucky I was to have stumbled onto that scrapbook and subsequently start my independent study of blacks as a youth. It was like stumbling into my own salvation. Unfortunately, educators and parents force most black youths today to rely on similar good fortune to get in touch with themselves and their heritage.