I was a painfully shy child growing up in Connecticut in the late 1960s. I preferred sitting with my mother as she watched her afternoon soap operas to going outside to play. When it came time to enroll in kindergarten, my parents weren’t sure public school would be right for me. They were concerned that because of the large class sizes, I would retreat further into my cocoon. They decided to enroll me in a private, parochial elementary school instead.
On the first day, I remember my mother dressing me in a brand-new plaid jumper, color-coordinated knee socks and Buster Brown shoes and leading me by the hand to my classroom. I climbed onto my seat and found comfort in the friendly faces that surrounded me. I gradually formed friendships. After a few weeks, I was raising my hand freely and was playfully called the teacher’s pet.
We began each day with devotion and religion. On Wednesdays, we walked over to the church for chapel. One such afternoon, when I was in the third grade, we made our usual stop at the water fountain after leaving the church. Over the sound of chattering, one of my classmates blurted out in an angry voice, “I wish all the black people would go back to Africa!”
I knew that I had African ancestry, but I didn’t know why someone would want me to 'go back' to a place where I’d never been.
All conversation stopped. A hush fell over the line of students as her words lingered in the air. I instinctively searched the faces of the few classmates who had features like mine, brown skin and thick, textured hair. They looked as bewildered as I felt.
It was 1970. I was 8 years old. I knew that I had African ancestry, but I didn’t know why someone would want me to “go back” to a place where I’d never been. I lived here, in the United States, with mom and dad, just as their parents had and their parents before them.
When I got home from school that afternoon my parents sat me down and told me that my classmate most likely heard that remark from her parents and simply repeated what they had said. This troubled me even more. We children had been around each other’s parents at parent-teacher nights. My classmate’s parents seemed like nice people. I couldn’t imagine why they would say something like that or feel that way about black people.
Even though I was hurt by what my classmate said, I’d had enough religious training to understand the importance of forgiving her. School went on as normal the next day with no mention of her remark by anyone.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the incident wasn’t isolated, that whole sectors of society were in agreement with the sentiments my classmate expressed or felt similarly about other groups of people based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity or other criteria.
I didn’t know when I entered kindergarten that my parents, who grew up in the South and moved North in the 1950s because of restrictions Jim Crow laws put on their lives, were not only protecting their shy child by choosing the small, private school, but had constructed an invisible wall around me with society’s failings on the other side. They wanted me to have a carefree childhood like other children and only learn about the real world, with its biases and prejudices, when I was mature enough to understand. But because of my classmate’s outburst, that life lesson arrived earlier than anticipated.
My classmate taught me that skin color was all the reason a person needed to feel anger and hatred, a reality that has never gotten any easier for me to accept.
I never forgot the incident. I preserved it in my memory as a significant event, refusing to dismiss it as just an insensitive remark. As I got older I saw that moment as the beginning of my preparation for the world I would face, a world I now understand as a place where a police officer — one of the authority figures my parents had taught me to respect when I was growing up — could use excessive force against unarmed black men and then not be held accountable for killing them.
In the 1980s, not long after I’d graduated from college, my car was nearly run off the road as the driver of a car riding my bumper screamed racial slurs at me. When I was a television reporter in the 1990s in a Northeastern Pennsylvania community with very little ethnic diversity, I got anonymous messages from an angry viewer, shouting, “You’re ugly. You’re ugly. Why don’t you go back where you came from?!” Having once endured my classmate’s “Go back to Africa” taunt helped me to steel myself against such encounters.
I learned many lessons at my elementary school, some taught by the teachers and others by my peers. My classmate taught me that skin color was all the reason a person needed to feel anger and hatred, a reality that has never gotten any easier for me to accept.