Color of conscience

Growing up black in a country that never wanted me



In the days after Ferguson, when the tear gas clouded the city, I burned with an anger I knew too well.

"Here goes another one," I told my roommates.

Amadou Diallo. Trayvon Martin. Kendrec McDade. Oscar Grant. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Now Michael Brown’s name had been added to the list of stolen black lives.

As I watched the footage of protesters staring down the armored vehicles, I could barely sit still. I was angry at the police for shooting down another unarmed black teenager and leaving his body in the street for four hours. At TV commentators for calling Brown a thug. At myself for feeling powerless, for not getting in my car and driving to Missouri to join the protests.

Every time I got on Facebook and Twitter, I encountered white people who would never understand. They said that a black man’s election to the White House proved that racism was over in this country. They insisted that Brown’s death was not racial, that the protesters shouldn’t be complaining.

How dare these people dictate to us what was and was not justifiable rage?

“Walk 400 years in our shoes,” said a friend of mine, “and then see if you have to ask why our feet hurt.”

***

The two sides of my identity are at war.

I’m an American, so the justice system is designed to protect me. But I’m a black person, too, which means that same justice system is killing me.

For years, I have struggled to reconcile this dual identity.

W.E.B. DuBois called it double consciousness. In “The Souls of Black Folks,” DuBois puts it like this:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Where, then, does that leave me?

I’m 20 years old, and I’m already tired.

***

My backstory is not tragic. The fact is, I grew up in a bubble.

I was born and raised on the west side of Indianapolis, in a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood, not far from the Speedway, nestled safely between the suburbs and the hood.

The bubble wasn’t just geographic. My mother, whose dad was in the Army, had spent much of her life outside of the continental United States and had barely experienced the racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s. As I grew up, race wasn’t a huge part of the family dialogue. Mom told me that on a military base, folks rarely saw color. They were all too busy just trying to get by.

That was the way I learned to see the world, without the need to divide everything into black and white. I was proud of being African-American, but it didn’t define me. I knew that I was more than the color of my skin.

My real education on how the rest of the world saw race began during my senior year of high school.

I was 17, and my best friends and I were hunting for prom dresses. We drove to a nearby neighborhood, cushier than ours, to visit a shop called Bare Necessities Bridal . We walked in, the only customers in the store, excited to be together and to try on fancy dresses. I was determined to find something that made me look like Gabrielle Union. I didn’t usually dress up, but when I made my entrance at the prom, I wanted to be a dime – a 10, you know. That was my end game.

A white-haired woman, super old to my teenage eyes, sat on a stool near the back. She didn’t greet us. She didn’t speak a word until 10 minutes later, when I picked up a white dress that looked just like the gown Hilary Duff wore in “A Cinderella Story.” The woman walked toward me and eased the dress out of my hands.

“Don’t you want to try on something else — something less ?expensive, maybe? You wouldn’t want to get it dirty, after all.”

I didn’t know what to say. My friends and I walked out.

My next lesson came the following summer, just before I left for college.

I played on an ultimate frisbee team with my big brother. It was fun. Every week, Jon and I made the half-hour drive to practice on the southern outskirts of Indy.

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that we were the only two black folks out there. Not just on our team, but in the entire league. Coming off of my senior year at Ben Davis High, I was used to being a black face in a sea of white. I had won trophies in debate, performed in show choir and played varsity tennis for four years straight.

Like ultimate frisbee, none of these ranked high on the list of stereotypically black activities.

I didn’t care.

One day on the ultimate frisbee fields, a man in a pickup truck drove by and shouted out the window at me and my brother. Just like a sportscaster announcing a score, he yelled “Niggers!”

Nobody else on the team seemed to hear it, or maybe they were too scared to say anything. Jon and I just looked at each other. We didn’t stop the game. We didn’t head home early. We didn’t even talk about it afterward. The moment got filed away, never to be spoken of again.

This was the first time I had ever been called that word. I wish I could say that eventually it stopped hurting. I wish I was strong enough to never think back to what that woman said to me in that dress shop. But once these judgments were slung at me, I couldn’t unhear them.

There was no returning to the bubble.

It never goes away, that knowledge that to some people, my brother and my friends and I will always be subhuman. And that is a feeling I can’t shake.

***

Once I woke up, I began to think back to other things people had said to me since I was a little girl.

All my life, some of them had been calling me the N-word without ever really saying it.

Every time someone told me I “spoke well” or told me that I was “pretty for a black girl,” I was being handed a compliment shrouded in prejudice. Qualifiers always hung over my success.

I couldn’t just be the smartest kid in the room; I was the smartest black kid in the room. I wasn’t beautiful. Again and again, I was told I was beautiful in spite of my skin color.

These thinly veiled insults came from folks who should have known so much more about me than my race. The pastor’s wife. Friends from kindergarten. That guy in my junior year AP English class who was surprised that I’d actually read the assigned chapters.

“Ugh, black people are the worst!” he said. “Not you, though, Leah. You’re not like the others.”

Getting props for my speaking skills stopped feeling good. Being pretty for a black girl stopped being cute. And when I started telling these people that their compliments weren’t compliments at all, I became the bad guy.

It wasn’t until I listened to Kanye West’s last album that it really started to click. He has this record called “Blood on the Leaves.” The track features an eerie sample of a Billie Holiday song from 1939 . The name of it is “Strange Fruit.”

One day I got on Rap Genius and learned that “Strange Fruit” was inspired by a poem about a lynching. One that had happened in Marion, Ind. , less than a two-hour drive from where I’d grown up.

In 1930 , three young black men were accused of robbery, rape and murder. That evening, without trial, two of those boys were beaten to death, their bodies dragged through town and strung up as the town of Marion stood and watched. One ?was spared.

His name was James Cameron. A woman called out over the crowd, pleading for his life and stopping the execution.

Later, Cameron proclaimed that it was the voice of the Virgin Mary.

The next day, photographs of the lynching were sold on the courthouse steps for 50 cents a piece.

***

It’s been months since Ferguson, and the story has stopped being sexy.

At some point after Michael Brown’s death, we decided another life claimed in a string of police brutality wasn’t important enough to cover anymore.

Your best friend stopped retweeting the social justice bloggers and your cousin started pressing mute when the evening news came on.

And at some point, I was supposed to stop being so angry.

Another black man was killed three weeks ago , and I couldn’t even work up the will to cry. His name was Vonderrit D. Myers Jr. He was shot eight times by an off-duty police officer. His story, like so many others, will fade with time.

I sat behind my computer and read the 101st comment telling me to get over it and the 6001st post reminding me, once again, that Obama sitting in the Oval Office meant that racism is over.

The cycle of ignorance never seems to end.

For the rest of my life, I will be fighting for my right, my children’s right and my children’s children’s right to be treated like a human ?being.

We should be further along than this. The list should have stopped growing. Another funeral for another teenager shouldn’t have just come and gone.

I shouldn’t have to wake up every morning and worry for the survival of my family, my friends and myself because our only crime is being black in a country that fears us.

But I do.

Nothing in this world ?exhausts me more.

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