If I were born black…
If I were born black who would I be?
If I were not white would I still be me?
If I were born black, how could I stand beneath the overwhelming burden of those who died? Died in shackles, died in sorrow, died fighting that my life might be free? How could I live up to their expectations, do them honor and fulfill their dreams?
But I wasn’t born with dark skin. My family, though poor, indentured servants had opportunities to become more. They were not limited by their skin color. Even if they were the ‘dreaded’ Irish or Italians that migrated here in droves, their very skin tone would assure them a chance at a job and a place to live. For them there would be an eventual way out of the slums. They would not be held down, cursed and segregated simply because of the darkness of their skin.
These are the thoughts swirling in my head as I finished listening to the audiobook, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Reading, or listening to books, allows me to experience another time, another place, or another life for a brief span of a few pages. I can’t know what it was like to be black during the forties, fifties or even today. I’ve not experienced prejudices due to my skin color. For the length of this story I can get a glimpse of the anger, the hurt and the fear that often accompanied these brave women, the colored computers of NECA/NASA. I can gain a better understanding and perhaps that is the key. The key to the dream Martin Luther King, Jr spoke of…
I was born in 1964. I did not know about Jim Crow laws or truly understand about segregation. And even though I started school in Hampton, Virginia I didn’t know the battle that was going on concerning the school board at Hampton Roads. Until I listened to Hidden Figures, I had no idea that they’d closed the schools to keep from integrating. In 2017 this seems ridiculous to me, like shooting yourself in the foot because your boot is too small.
Perhaps if I were a black child born in 1964, I would have known about the controversy that existed because of forced integration. Perhaps the discussion around my dinner table would have been about where I would go to school if the school board still refused to open the doors.
As a white child, I vaguely remember comments about being bused from my original school Kristopher Kraft Elementary, which was in walking distance from our house on Avon Road, to Bassett Elementary across town. I was a little scared about going to a new school but I loved both schools. I remember my principal and one teacher being black and I really liked the principal. Unfortunately, that is the limit of my memory of what was an intense racial situation. I was sheltered or oblivious to the turmoil around me, my memories as a third-grader was of a young teacher, Miss Krigger, who instilled in me my love of books. Books became my passion, my escape. They can give wings to dreams and offer hope to the future. They can offer a quiet, timid child a way to express herself.
When we made the move back home to North Carolina, the schools were already integrated. For the first time, I truly experienced what it was like to live with black people. School is where the first seeds of prejudice were planted. The knowledge that we were not all treated the same. Though I struggled against the thorny oppression some of the evil entered in by way of fear. Fear would keep me in my place and divide me from friends and challenges until one wise lady pushed me to make a choice. “You can live in fear and allow others to make choices for you, or you can take a chance and see what happens.” Ms. Glen’s words stay with me today. Whenever I’m afraid to do something, I know that is when I must reach inside me and find the courage to do it anyway.
My parents didn’t teach me to be prejudiced though I’m sure they were caught against the racial line as well. I am thankful they taught me to treat people with respect, no matter their race. Anyone who was older was addressed as mister or missus. I never heard the term “uncle” in reference to black men until I watched a documentary. I didn’t relate Uncle Tom’s Cabin to anything modern after all, it was written more than a hundred years ago.
My father had his own business. He was an electrician. I started working with him when I was ten years old. He told me, while working on a stove for an elderly black widow that she would see he was paid sooner than many wealthy white men, even though they had the money to pay him when the job was completed. He taught me neither race nor wealth made a person good. There was good and bad in all of us and it was important to remember how similar we are versus how different. Looking back, I think that might have been the greatest lesson he ever taught me.
Several years ago, I met a gentleman at a Writer’s Read in Washington. He was in his eighties then. I cannot remember his name but he spoke with eloquence and I bought his book. I lost his book when our home burned and I’ve since tried to find it on Amazon. They Call Me an Oreo, was a memoir. He spoke of the controversy he went through as a black man during the sixties because he had white friends. An educated man with a good standing in the community he was often accused by other blacks of trying to be white, as he described it black on the outside but white on the inside–Oreo. His book also brought out another aspect of the integration difficulties that I never considered: stores that were black only did not prosper during the time of integration. They lost many of their black customers but didn’t receive any white customers to balance it out. There was a movement after integration to buy black or keep it black, but the lower cost offered in the chain stores and previously all-white stores was too enticing.
As a reader, I know the power of words and the passion stories can evoke. I hope, as I write my own stories, than I can capture those emotions and use them to share my thoughts and my feelings. I read different authors. Authors whose experiences differ from my own, and whether it is fiction or non-fiction, poetry or songs, their words allow me to feel, to see and to learn about different cultures, beliefs and life-styles. Their stories give me a greater understanding of the world around me.
I will listen to Hidden Figures again and I will learn something new or experience it in a different way. Like all great books, this one still has more to teach me. I hope to see the movie soon and see how the characters are played out on the big screen. This was a lovely story of strong, courageous women who paved the way for other women, of all colors, to live out their dreams and be respected as mathematicians, scientists, scholars and engineers. Their story is our story. Our history is not black and white, male and female, we each have a story to tell and our unique experiences add to the tapestry of our collective story. Until the history books represent all of our stories it is important to have time dedicated to learn about other races, genders and religions. I challenge each of you to read a book about someone who is of a different race or comes from a different place. Open your hearts and minds to new experiences, new stories, and new authors. Who knows you may learn more about yourself. I guarantee you’ll be forever changed. Education is the true path to freedom. Learn something new each day.
Sherri Lupton Hollister
Southern Romantic Comedy & Suspense