The angry eyes and the balled up fists of the boys surrounding me was confusing to me. As far as I knew, I hadn’t challenged them to a fight or insulted their parents. So, why all the hostility?
It was 1955. I was 12 years old, skinny with incredibly big feet and Black. They were white, maybe a couple of years older, and very angry. It looked like they were salivating at the thought of beating me to a bloody pulp.
“What are you doing in our neighborhood, nigger?” their words matched the hateful energy that was pouring out of them. I could almost smell the animosity directed at me.
My heart was pounding, my body was trembling, there was no way out and I felt very, very alone.
Actually, I didn’t invade their neighborhood with malicious intent. I just went to the grocery store. My father had dropped me off because he remembered that we needed to pick something up and he saw the store as he drove past it. There were no empty spaces in the small lot in front of the store. So he dropped me off and said he would drive around the block and pick me up when I came out.
The boys spotted me as I went into the store and they followed me in. I think I felt them before I saw them, because I turned around to see what was stalking me. There were three of them. They were around 14 or 15 years old and they were definitely white. Their angry stares startled me and I started moving faster through the aisle to find what I came for and get out of there. I grabbed whatever it was, raced to another aisle to avoid them and headed for the checkout counter. They headed me off by rushing to the other end of the aisle where I sought refuge so they could approach me head on. When I tried to walk past them, one of them bumped into me and knocked me into a shelf. “Watch out, Black boy,” were the words I heard as they surrounded me.
“Hey what’s going on back there?” The man behind the cash register shouted out. The boys immediately turned and left the store and moved out of sight of the front window. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they’d be there as soon as I walked out the door.
That was my first face-to-face encounter with racism, which in retrospect may seem curious since I grew up in racially mixed neighborhoods, but I never had a physical racial confrontation. I wasn’t oblivious to presence of racism. I could remember my father coming home depressed on more than one occasion to tell my mother that he along with other Black employees got laid off because the white men needed the jobs more, or the boss’s nephew needed a job and his job was the one that was selected. My mother often worked two jobs to make up for the shortfall and she was always warning me not to get too close to the white kids I played with. She’d tell me that one day they would leave me behind when it was time for them to go live their white lives and get their white jobs. And of course there was her mantra, “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they’ve got.” I always naively dismissed her view of the world as unrealistic until life showed me that she spoke the truth.
Of course, I had heard stories and rumors about racially charged situations. I remembered that in one of the neighborhoods where I lived, there was a pond beside the railroad tracks that froze in the winter. The Black kids would skate there in the mornings, but when afternoon came, the whites from the other side of the pond would come. According to some unwritten agreement, the Black skaters would leave. Since I wasn’t interested in seeing what would happen if I violated the rule, I always left when the other Black skaters left.
When I was in the 6th grade, I was a student at a brand new school, Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary. It had been build as part of a new housing development which of course was all white. I lived in the temporary housing project a couple of blocks away on the other side of a wide street. As it turns out the part of the projects where I lived fell within the school boundary. That’s because there were plans to demolish the project and expand the new development, but that was a couple of years away. So, I, along with a few other Black students attended the new school. I was the only Black student in my class.
There was a rumor that a couple of the boys in my class planned on ambushing me if I lingered too long after school. It seems they didn’t like the fact that my grades were better than theirs, that the teacher always selected me for special projects, and that the prettiest girl in class who had with red hair and freckles always seemed to go out of her way to talk to me. They never confronted me and I never stayed after school to find out if the rumors were true. I always left as soon as the final bell announced that the school day was over.
But this time in front of this little grocery store, I was trapped. There I was being stalked by 3 gangly teenage boys who felt it was their duty to maintain the white purity of the neighborhood. Peering through the door, I couldn’t see my father’s car and if he drove by, he wouldn’t be able to see me if I remained inside the store. So, I needed to get out to the street where he could pick me up. I walked out the door and quickly headed towards the street. Of course, my stalkers were waiting just out of sight of the store front. When they saw me, they immediately ran up to block my escape.
“I just needed to go to the store,” was my explanation as to why I had violated their territory.
“You don’t belong here,” was the reply as they began to advance upon me with their fists at the ready. I desperately tried to remember what my mother had told me about fighting a larger foe, “Grab something and smash the “bleep” out of them!” I quickly looked around but there was nothing to use as a weapon.
“Is there a problem here?” My father’s voice came from out of nowhere. He had parked the car and saw what was happening. So he walked over to rescue and protect me. I almost broke down and cried in relief when I saw him approach.
He stood looking down on them since he was a full grown man who stood a foot or so taller than the biggest of the boys. His arms were muscular because of the manual labor jobs he was forced to accept instead of the jobs he was qualified to do and he weighed nearly 200 pounds. He was an intimidating presence especially to teenage boys. I remember the girls in my neighborhood always swooned whenever they talked about him. They thought he was sexy because he was good looking, well built and personable.
In response to his presence, the boys immediately backed off and said they were just trying to get to know me. My father smiled and told them, “He won’t be here long enough to get acquainted. So you can go on about your business.” Then he took my arm and led me back to the car as they stood and watched their prey slip away.
It took a while for the memory of that incident to fade, though it never completely went away. There were too many others piling on to reinforce it. Soon after that, our world was rocked by the news of the Emmett Till murder down south. Then there was the steady flow of media broadcasts portraying Black people as either criminals or lazy or dumb or all of the above.
Soon I was in high school where I was again isolated. Hyde Park High School in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s was a highly rated high school and strongly influenced by the University of Chicago only a few blocks away. The school was set up on a 5-track system (technical, remedial, standard, accelerated and double accelerated). I, along with a number of other high achieving Black students, was placed in double accelerated college prep classes. Most of the other Black students were shunted off into the non-accelerated curriculum tracks. I remember that there was always this underlying attitude that Black people were inferior to white people and dangerous. So my white classmates (with the exception of one who became my lifelong friend) were afraid to be in the presence of the Black students and were even somewhat wary of me. Though I was often the unofficial racial translator when it came to issues of what Black people think.
So even though I was smart enough to be with the elite white students, I always felt somehow outside of their world, always not quite good enough. The Black students were from Woodlawn which was predominantly minority populated. The white students were from the Hyde Park neighborhood (home of the university) and many of their parents were associated with the University of Chicago. Needless to say, there was very little social interaction between us.
That uneasy feeling of being the “other” followed me for a number of years. It followed me into the military where I was passed over for promotions even though I scored higher and was more qualified than my white colleagues. Eventually, I was forced to rebel to gain recognition, which surprisingly got me promoted instead of disciplined.
That “otherness” followed me into my civilian life where I even when I won jobs or projects because of my qualifications, the issue of race always seemed to pop up. I even had to go to special training classes for Black people to get accepted for a copywriter job in an advertising agency. It became a regular drumbeat during the Civil Rights Movement, the exhilarating rise of Black Power, the broadcast of the TV series “Roots” and the so called War on Drugs.
I hated being Black when the police light flashed behind me while driving because I knew that I have to be extra careful not to frighten the man with a gun. I hated being Black when invited to and walking into an all-white country club and seeing the stares and altered behavior. I hated being Black when I was told that I shouldn’t be writing ads for white people even though I was winning awards by doing it. I hated being Black when people would assume I was the help instead of the man in charge.
Then as I moved through my years of training in mystery school to become a minister, I began to examine and analyze why I was so deeply angry. Mainstream white America had succeeded in convincing millions of innocent Black children that we were the problem. This has been a tactic of the power structure since the early 1500s to justify the mistreatment and enslavement of Africans by dehumanizing them. That dehumanization was backed up by bogus “scientific” studies to “prove” us inferior. That has continued since then.
The steady bombardment of disparagement and belittlement has conditioned so many of us into believing that there is something wrong with Black people and that whites are inherently superior. I had expended a great deal of energy to prove that I was not inferior. That required me to be “twice as good” to prove it. Since I was often the first Black person to achieve the positions I held, I found myself carrying the extra weight of knowing that my behavior and performance determined whether or not other Black people would be hired after me.
It finally dawned on me that I had been looking at this all wrong. Black people are not the problem. Black people are a very powerful people. An examination of unaltered history proves it. But, in truth, history has been altered to make us invisible. However, for many of us, there is an internal knowing that we are indeed a powerful people. That is why it was so important to continue that negative narrative to convince us that we are not powerful. We are like the 12,000 pound elephant harnessed by a mere rope because it has been tied to his leg since infancy when he didn’t have the strength to break it. It is a way to keep us under control.
Black people have been denied our birthright of full humanity because those who seek to suppress us are afraid and they perpetuate that fear through the rest of the population! They perpetuate that fear through hate, disdain, disparagement, cruelty, discrimination and many other negative means of expression. They maintain it through racist policies that blind and mislead the population and keep us at odds with each other. So, billions of dollars have been spent on propaganda to convince us that Black people are inferior and that white people are superior. But it is not true! We are, in fact, all the same – human!
My aha moment brought me to the realization that the trials heaped upon me because of my blackness had made me stronger, more versatile, more resilient. I’m now better able to handle crisis situations and perform at a high level when others may panic. So in that window of awakening to the truth, I began to change my perspective. I started looking at my life and the situations in which I found myself from the perspective of power rather than shame and guilt.
The extra attention I got when in an all-white environment was no longer uncomfortable. My spiritual training had taught me that the act of looking at someone or something sends energy to that person or object. What the receiver does with that energy is up to them. I realized that being the center of attention because my blackness could actually empower me. It could give me the opportunity to use that position for good. There is a belief among some public speakers regarding audience acceptance that 20% will like you and 20% will hate you no matter what you do, while the other 60% are waiting for you to impress them!
I also realized in order to have a positive effect on people around me, I needed to let go of the anger that was residing deep inside me. It was a deep, dark energy that had accumulated through my parents and their parents and their parents. That deep anger exuded its influence even when I didn’t consciously feel angry. What I didn’t know then was that science has shown that anger, frustration, guilt, shame and anxiety cause stress which fills your body with destructive chemicals that can actually make you sick which explains why the death rate among Black people due to hypertension and stroke is higher.
So, I took a deep breath and I began the work to forgive myself. I forgave myself for believing all the falsehoods that had been heaped upon my consciousness since childhood. I released and let go. I forgave myself for feeling guilty and ashamed at not aggressively seeking out the truth of the history of my people and finding out how truly powerful, inventive and creative we are. I released and let go. I forgave myself for entertaining the self-doubt that had sabotaged me and held me back from all the success I deserved. Basically, I forgave myself for being Black!
It was almost like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Suddenly I could breathe more freely. What others thought of me, or those who were offended by my very presence was no longer of any consequence to me. Their negatives feelings towards me had the unintended but marvelous effect of feeding me energy and uplifting me rather than diminishing me.
As I have continued to move forward, the clarity of self-forgiveness continues to feed me and fuel me. I have forgiven myself for being Black. I can now dedicate myself to lifting the veil of deception that has plagued so many and filled so many of us with a hatred of ourselves. Interestingly enough, that sense of inferiority and unworthiness is not limited to Black people. It afflicts the majority of people. We are a nation of self-doubters! I forgave myself and now I teach others to forgive themselves. Whether Black or white or red or yellow, I urge all of us to forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for accepting the hypnotic conditioning of this egregious lie that we are inferior or that others are inferior because they are different. I urge us to forgive each other for participating in this ever present falsehood. I urge us to forgive those Black people who are so angry that it is destroying their health and their lives. I urge us to forgive those white people who are brainwashed into believing that people of color, especially Blacks, are dangerous, animalistic, stupid and lazy.
The road to peace in this world is forgiveness. It is letting go of the pain, anger and stress that plagues us all so that we can open our minds and hearts to reality. We are all human. We are doing the best we can with whatever we have available to us. These misconceptions about the value of people of different colors are diminishing our access to the real value of our lives. We are all one. We all originated from the same place, Africa. So the color of our skin doesn’t really matter. The truth, which may be upsetting to some, is that we are all Black at some level. Our genes prove it.
So, I welcome all my brothers and sisters of the world. We are one! I forgive you! Isn’t it time you forgive yourself?