There was a moment when I was forced to face my "blackness". That moment astringed my racial innocence like the violent splattering of bleach onto dark denim. If anyone took one long calculated look at the pre-teen me, they would have thought that I was avoiding this definitive "blackness". My chemically-treated pin straight hair hung below my shoulders. I knew only of white authors, either old or dead. I loved their works. Anyone might've found me anywhere at anytime with one of those beloved books either open in front of me or waiting patiently in my bag. My words were carefully enunciated, as if I were absently correcting anyone I met who pronounced "street" as "shcreet".
I was thirteen when my mother, my brother and I began to attend a small church in downtown Memphis, TN. It was a sweet place, very Southern Baptist. Every Wednesday night the pastor fed the homeless. Every Sunday he invited them into the moldy sanctuary that leaked every time it rained.
Though the majority of the people this church ministered to were black, its "southern-ness" remained obstinately unadulterated. Tight smiles and well-meaning invitations lingered in the air like an unbroken silence, like no one ever truly said what they were thinking. Like everyone wished that that guy with the dreads would cut his hair. Like everyone wished that the little poor kids didn't smell like pee. Like everyone wished that that big woman with the shiny, red weave would stop asking the church for money and humming during the sermon. Of course, those people only came a few Sundays and never again.
It was a church that claimed “internationality” with pride. Of the twenty people that attended regularly, there was an el salvadorian woman and puerto rican man and his gorgeous white wife and ethnically mixed family. The rest were all mississippian and western tennessean white people. When we started to attend, we became the native memphian black family.
The aforementioned "moment" happened on a Sunday when an important seventy-five-year-old woman stood to speak. She leaned on her cane. Her eyes were sad. She said,
“I love our church the way it is. I wish it would stay the same. We don’t really have to grow, we can stay just as we are and serve the Lord together.”
She then looked at my mother, my brother, and at me.
I don't know that I can talk about how painful this experience was, since I didn't really feel any pain. My point is not that it hurt, but that it happened, and that my eyes were opened. I'm unsettled by the idea that people might sometimes wish my skin were a little lighter. I wonder what kind of friendships my friendships would be if there were no racial barriers; if I could see past the absent disregard, and they could see past the color of my skin, my "blackness."
Think about it. Have you ever had a moment so jarring that you realized that the world might see you in a light that you would have never thought to see yourself? Did you have a source of encouragement? What was it?