This writing is by the request of my granddaughter, Tristan Day, who is 23 years old. She asked me to write about what it was like growing up Black in America.
I was born Jan. 5, 1945, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Up to 10 years of age, I remember playing with my friends, going to church on Sunday and being around my grandparents.
It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I started to understand what it meant to be Black. I think I was in the third or fourth grade when I heard about 14-year-old lynching victim Emmitt Till.
I did not really understand what happened – other than some white people killed a Black kid. I heard people talking about how bad it was, I also remember my friends and I talking about it.
I think it was that year, 1955, that moved me to get a better understanding of what being Black in America meant.
Before the Till incident, I heard white people calling me “Nigga,” “Coon” and other names. I remember sitting in the back of the bus, not being able to go into a restaurant and sit down.
I then started to realize that everything around me was Black. My church was Black, my school was Black, my teachers were Black, my coaches were Black, my cultural circle was 100% Black.
But by the time I was 15, I understood hate.
Hate was being called “Nigga,” “Coon,” “Monkey” – and having watermelons thrown out of a car at you. It was apparent that what was happening was for no other reason than you were Black.
I remember getting on a bus with my grandmother.
We paid our money and went to the back of the bus, where Black people had to sit because that was the law.
After awhile, the bus filled to the back door, where my grandmother and I were sitting.
A white woman and her
two kids walked up to my grandmother and told her to get up and let her and her kids sit.
My grandmother squeezed my thigh hard and said, “Yes ma’am.”
I didn’t know how old my grandmother was, but I knew she was too old to let this white woman and two little kids take her seat.
“It was the law.”
During this period, I was also getting an education.
From kindergarten to graduation I never went to school with a white person. I never had a white teacher, I never played sports with or against a white person.
School and education was one of the things that molded me for the first 19 years of my life, from kindergarten to graduation.
The teachers in Armstrong Elementary and the “mighty, mighty” Dunbar High School made me who I am today. The teachers were educators, they were great teachers of the textbooks, but they were greater teachers of life.
They taught you mathematics, algebra, chemistry, English grammar, English literature, history, French, Latin, Black history and government.
They also taught life, they taught you to be proud to be Black. They taught you that you were as smart as anyone in the world, that you could accomplish anything you set out to do. They taught you to stand up for what you believe.
When I graduated from Dunbar High School in June 1964, I felt I was a proud and well-educated Black man. I had come through 19 years of Jim Crow, 19 years of “Nigga,” 19 years of pure racism, but I knew my grandparents, my neighborhood, my friends, my teachers and my church had prepared me to be Black in America.
Now, here we are. I have a 55-year-old son with a 32-year-old son and a 30-year-old daughter; I have a 54-year-old daughter with a 24-year-old daughter; I have a 52-year-old daughter with a 32-year-old son, a 27-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son; I have a 48-year-old son with two daughters 24 and 22 years old. I also have seven great-grandchildren and a wife of 50 years.
We still have the Rebel Flag. We still have Black people called “Nigga.” We still have Black people shot down in the streets by white police officers.
At 75 years old, these last three years of living Black in America feel like it felt between 1945 and 1964.
I am starting to feel as angry now as I felt during the first 19 years of my life.
Granddaughter, its your turn to understand what it’s like being Black in America.
The motto of the Dunbar High Class of 1964 still rings true: “Our glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”