In answer to the Day 1 Question “When Did You First Realize You Were Black (or X)?”
I currently live in a suburb of Atlanta, GA.Like the majority of ATLiens, outside of work, most of my interactions are with people who are either like me or cater to my needs/culture. As my Uncle used to say, we work together but we don’t play together. My doctor is a Black man.My dentist is a Black man. My financial planner is a Black Muslim. My ophthalmologist is a Black man.My insurance agent, until recently, was a Black woman. I attend religious services weekly at one of two Masaajid (Mosques) that are predominately Black: one is primarily immigrants from the west coast of sub Saharan Africa and the other is primarily African American.The manager of my grocery store is a Black man. My martial arts instructor is Black man as are the vast majority of my fighting classmates.Of course, my barber is Black, my auto mechanic and most of my current friends.I attended two HBCUs (Howard U. and North Carolina A&T State U.) but to be fair, I also attended two majority universities as well (U. of New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico U.).From an initial reading you might get the idea that I am a bit of a racist or at least very shy or conscious of my interactions with non Black people.You would be *almost* completely wrong on both accounts.
New Mexico provided a unique microcosm to grow up in the 1970s.It was one of only two states that did not have a majority white population (Hawaii was the other state).New Mexico’s population breakdown when I lived there was approximately 1.5 million people, of which:
- 43% White or Anglo
- 42% Hispanic (though I suspect this was an under count due to counting only legal US citizens)
- 12% Native American
- 2% Black/African American
- 1% Others (mixed race/Asian Pacific Islander, etc.)
Half of the population of New Mexico lived in one city: Albuquerque. My hometown was much smaller. With no Black radio stations, few Blacks on TV and the outdoor, western, rural attitude of the people, we jokingly referred to my home as ‘the land of Cowboys and Catholics’. Then again, anything you grow up with , seems normal.
I do not wake up each morning thinking, ‘I am a Black man in American.’ I consider myself an ever evolving consciousness progressing in this human experience.
However, by the time I go to bed each night, I’m usually acutely aware of my race and all its trappings, both positive and negative.I am forced to consider my race in many of my daily interactions. It is undeniable that there are both conscious and unconscious racist elements in American/western culture and without some continuous active effort, it is easy, no, inevitable that we absorb some of these ideas and behaviors deeply into our psyche.
I clearly remember my first ‘consciously’ black moment. I discovered my ‘blackness’ at the Roswell Community Sickle Cell* Screening Day event.I was approximately 5 or 6 at the time when my mother drove me across town to the free testing clinic.As I sat next to my mother, I soon began to notice something was different than ‘normal.’ The Doctors, the nurses, the volunteers and all the people being checked had similar skin tone/racial characteristics as mine. Until that moment I had never been around so many Black people who where not either directly related to me or who attended my church.
I asked my mother, “Why are we here?”
She answered, “To let the Doctor check you out. Make sure you are not sick.”
I followed that question with, “Well, who else gets to come to this?”
My mother’s one-size-fits-all answer was, “Everyone in Roswell.”
Being a budding philosopher-engineer, I quickly deduced that everyone in Roswell was Black and therefore every non black was just visiting my hometown.The entire remainder of the day, each time I saw someone who was not Black, I would shout to my mother, “They ain’t from Roswell!” In the grocery store, in the car, on the street, no matter what the situation or conversation was, I took each opportunity to point out the ‘visitors’ to my hometown. After what I’m sure was an enormous number of interruptions and untold amount of aggravation, my mother finally inquired as to how I knew all these people are not residents of Roswell. I proceeded to give her my well thought out, perfectly logical explanation.She didn’t correct me, but the look on her face said enough to let me know I was wrong. I had not yet assigned any positive or negative relationships to race, but like most my age, I did notice it. And I continued to notice it with increasing regularity as I grew older.
This brings me to my 20 year High School reunion.This was a chance to catch up with old friends and associates that I have known for over 30 years: some since pre-kindergarten! One of my old partners was Ray who I have known since 2nd grade elementary school.He was always one of the tallest kids in our class and he happens to be Mexican. Another old friend was Mick.I have also known him since elementary school and he is White.He was a very good basketball player in our younger days. Standing around chatting at our class banquet, Mick reminded me of a time around 5th grade when we somehow decided to play ‘Whites vs. Mexicans’ basketball. This was not nearly as racist as it sounds.In truth, we only had a 30 minute morning recess and wanted to get in as many games as possible.Using race was the quickest way to divide up the teams and start playing. (I am guessing the idea of shirts vs. skins had not yet been introduced to us.) Ray and Mick were the team captains and in retrospect, it was quite humorous to watch them loudly argue over which team got Bobby and I, the only two Black males in our grade. Again, this was not nearly as racist as it sounds, as Bobby and I were good, but despite the as-yet-unknown-to-us-stereotype, not necessarily best ball players in our class.We somehow eventually decided that the teams would trade the Blacks back and forth depending upon what day it was. Humorously, there was also one Mexican classmate who was always lobbying to play on the White team; not because he was a sell out, but because he wanted to play forward and the Mexicans already had a good forward. (Doesn’t this whole thing sound a little like American race politics?)
We happily played this way for a few days until one of our teachers, Mrs. Dinkins, noticed that we were a little too efficient getting on the court during morning recess. She stopped the game as inquired what exactly we were doing.Like a cheer-leading squad, in unison we announced, “Mexicans vs. Whites Basketball! Blacks are optional™ We didn’t try to hide it and felt no shame in our announcement. After a puzzled double take, Mrs. Dinkins left and we resumed our game.Moments later, Mrs. Dinkins returned with our principal, Mr. Ceasley. He inquired as to what we were doing. Matter-of-factually, we again proclaimed, “Mexicans vs. Whites Basketball! Blacks are optional ™ He immediately informed us that we could not play this game any longer. “Everybody line up! You will choose teams if you want to continue playing! Mick! Ray! Come over here and choose teams!” stated Mr. Ceasley. Ray chose all the Mexicans. Mick chose all the Whites. Blacks were optional. And we continued to play as a defeated Mr. Ceasley, looked on.
It wasn’t racism, it was just recognition.We all sat and played together in school and outside of school.Both Ray and Mick spent time at my house, as I did at theirs.Though we didn’t remain as close throughout High school, we did frequently came in contact with and follow each others exploits as we grew up. Both Mick and Ray amazed me with their recollections of good old Roswell High School at the reunion. I would still consider both of them solid, men of integrity and important influences on my preteen life.Ray even invited me to his home to meet his kids and reminisce Ultimately, it is interesting to take notice of how different the paths our lives have taken. And I wonder how much of that is affected by race and racism.
I do not think we were racist then and I did not get any indication that any of us are now, but I wonder about the subconscious effects of TV, radio and just culture in general.How did I wind up in such in overwhelmingly different environment than that in which I was raised? Ray wound up back in Roswell with his wife and kids, after spending significant time in Texas. He has done well for himself in the medical field. Mick lives in Arizona and is the consummate bachelor. He seems to have also done well for himself in the telecom industry.And me? Well, I chose the deep South to be my home.
Ultimately, where and how I live was and is a conscious choice, but not a racist one.I enjoy my culture but can appreciate the culture of others. I tend to shop in my neighborhood which is mostly Black. Most of my professional associates come from referrals from other Blacks and are usually Black as well. It makes good sense to support those who support you. Finally, I guess I do use the fact that we are from the same racial background as a buffer against racism. Fortunately, Atlanta is relatively cosmopolitan so I can reach out to other cultures when I so feel like it. Being Muslim and generally nosey, this does happen pretty regularly. But like everything else, this lifestyle has it pluses and minuses.Sometimes, I just miss the ‘Cowboys and Catholics.’