MY DEAREST Daughter:
Something's been troubling me for the past two years. I jokingly call it the "Post-Integration Blues." Actually, it's no laughing matter.
I get it every time something happens like last month when I said to you, "Martin Luther King's birthday is coming up and we're going to do something special like attend a memorial service." You looked at me with total disdain and said, "Momma, that's the only day I'll get to sleep late."
When you say things like that, I take them personally. I know I shouldn't, but I hurt. I take it as rejection of all that my generation of blacks fought for, yet I know that's not how you intended it.
I don't want you to let King's birthday go by without remembering what he stood for. Although you are 16, I want you to fight racism. I want you to march at the South African Embassy, and even if you can't, I want you to be aware that someone else is marching.
We've discussed this. You told me just recently, "Just because we don't march doesn't mean we don't know it's Martin Luther King's birthday." Still, I hurt, and wonder: What happened to my little girl who could barely print, but wrote the governor of North Carolina to ask him to "free the Wilmington 10"?
See, at 35, I come from a generation of marchers. I do not understand inaction.
In fact, it frightens me. I do not trust it. You think my distrust is paranoia; I understand. It is because you have not seen what I have seen. At my segregated school in Beaufort, S.C., everything -- our buses, books, desks -- was hand-me-downs from the white school. On cold days we wore our coats in class because the heat didn't always work. The white children passed us in their new buses, on their way to their new school.
You have never known such. You ride a shiny school bus to a 9-year-old school that is thoroughly integrated. "Momma, we just don't put the emphasis on black and white that you do," you told me the other day, adding, "But when we are in school, I do end up hanging with my friends, who just happen to be black. Everybody does the same thing, so that black people end up on one side and white people on another."
That wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear either, believe it or not. I was part of a busing plan that helped integrated DuVal Senior High School in Greenbelt, just a couple of miles from your school. I suffered at that school. I felt like a stranger in a foreign land because I was one of 50 black students out of about 2,000 pupils. Some of the black students adapted well; I did not. I pacified myself by imagining I was a sacrificial lamb, being used so that generations of blacks after me would receive benefits I had been denied.
My payback, I figured, would be the lives of those black children who came after me. They would ride new buses and go to new schools. They would not sit in unheated classrooms. They would do all of this because of integration. They would do all of this without assimilating, without becoming like the people we were fighting, or in other words, "They would never act white."
You would probably say I am overreacting. I wonder if what I want isn't impossible. You think that you don't "act white," and mostly you're right. But changes can creep up so slowly and in such small ways.
For instance, you watch music videos for hours at a time and seem pleased at what you see. When I look at them, what I notice is that the black women who are featured as lovers are light-skinned black women with long, straight hair -- women who look like they're white.
My generation watched television shows that seldom showed blacks. We fought hard to get blacks on television; then we fought harder to get all shades of black people shown: dark chocolate, saffron, cinnamon, blue-black and ginger. I don't see these colors in your videos -- certainly not the ones meant to be physically attractive.
What bothers me is that you don't seem to miss the shades of color. To me, to not miss them is, in a way, to not act black. It is like returning to the days when only Lena Horne, with her light skin and narrow nose, was considered a beautiful black woman -- by blacks and whites. It is like returning to days when women like Cicely Tyson, your grandmother and your great-grandmother, with their ebony skin and wide noses, were considered ugly because their features were different from those of white women. To not accept all of the shades of black beauty is one step from "acting white."
I don't know when I first caught this Post- Integration Blues. It was around the first time I heard strange music coming from your room. The door was closed, but I knocked and you allowed me to peep in.
"What is it?" I asked, pointing to the stereo.
"I like that song," you said, hardly looking up from your book.
"Who is it? Sounds like somebody white."
"It's Cyndi Lauper," you said, explaining that she was a new rock 'n' roll star.
"Cyndi who?" I asked.
You mumbled something, but by that time I was blue again. I was thinking about a time when black people listened to music that had what I call a definite beat, a time when you could really tell a black recording artist from a white one. I left the room floating on memories of songs by Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, Ben E. King and James Brown. Soul music.
While music and marching and television seem insignificant, they are not. It is the tiny threads of life that weave a whole history of a people. As far as I am concerned we are dealing with the continued existence of black people. I want you to know this without knowing the pain. I wish I could push history into you simply by pressing the palm of my hand against your chest.
Everytime I think I might suffer a total breakdown from the Post-Integration Blues, something happens to give me strength. This strength comes in ironic ways, too, like last November when you got called "nigger" for the first time.
You should have seen your face when you told me about it. You said you were working at the drive-in window at McDonald's and this man was at the window, waiting on his food and staring at you in a strange way. You asked if you could help him and he said, "No, I'm just looking at a nigger about to give me my food."
You threw the food in his car and the young black woman working with you, who had not heard the man, screamed, "You're going to lose your job!"
"Momma," you told me, "I didn't care about the job. But I was too stunned to say anything to him."
In the old days I would have been ready to find the man and shoot him, but here I was thankful and slightly amused. "I am just amazed that it took 16 years," I said. "The first time somebody call me nigger I was too young to understand what they meant."
Sure, the fact that it took 16 years for you to be called a "nigger" was a sign of how some things have changed for the better. But it gave me strength for another reason: I also couldn't help feeling that it won't hurt your generation to get called "nigger" at least once to your face.
Everytime somebody called me "nigger," I became more determined to not let up, to keep on coming, to march, to fight, to succeed. In your generation, I don't see that determination to march or fight. I think you need some reminders of what this country could easily return to unless we all fight daily.
I thought about the difference in our worlds on the night last July when your cousin Christopher was born. He struggled to come into this world on the very night that Jesse Jackson spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
I was in the delivery room with his mother and I went back and forth from wiping her brow and telling her, "Okay now, breath, l-2- 3; that's good," to crying over the fact that I had lived long enough to see a black man considered a serious presidential candidate.
When I think of Christopher now, I wonder: What will life be like for a young black boy born into a world where a black man has already run for president?
I first assumed Christopher's life would be better, then the Post-Integration Blues set in, and I looked at my blue self, who has marched and picketed, and said, "Do not assume anything." That is what frightens me about your generation. I sometimes think you take too much for granted.
I am torn. I don't want you to live on the razor's edge as I did in South Carolina, when I couldn't enter certain doors, drink from certain water fountains or eat a meal sitting down at any restaurant downtown. But I don't want you to forget either. I'm afraid if you haven't lived on the razor's edge you forget you can bleed.
I am encouraged by incidents like whenyou came home a couple of weeks ago and in a disgusted voice said, "My history teacher didn't even know who Louis Farrakhan is, momma."
Maybe my words aren't just flying around your head. You have caught some of what I've been saying. Anyway, it's not just you that triggers my blues, but a lot of black children.
For instance, remember when I took my friend's 10-year-old son, David-Askia, to the movie? Well, while we were sitting there waiting for the film to begin, I started telling him about how when I lived in Beaufort, S.C., in 1962, black people could only sit in the balcony of the theater.
"We used to throw popcorn and ice from our sodas down on the white kids," I said. "There would always be two empty rows just under the edge of the balcony, since none of the white kids wanted to sit there and have to duck all the time."
"That was dumb, to throw things down on people," Darryl said.
"It seems dumb now but it wasn't dumb if that was the only way you could get back at them," I said.
"Anyway," he said, turning to give me a puzzled look. "You can see better in the balcony."
"True," I told him. "But you only know that if you have had the chance to sit everywhere in the theater." He's so young, I'm not sure he understood what I was saying.
I hope you do.