“Nigger!” I had heard the word before, but never hurled at me out of anger. I had heard it at home, mostly at my grandmother’s house when she referred to black folks who she decided didn’t work hard at anything, were undereducated and those who sounded ignorant on television. To be fair, she was also generous with the use of the word “cracker”. My grandmother was a classist to her core. I had also heard “nigga” being used in a friendly tone when older cousins sat around joaning one another, and uncles would shuck-and-jive late at night around my grandmother’s kitchen table. But never in my formative years had anyone called me the “n-word” to my face.
At Lindley, there was a white male student who I was typically pretty friendly with. He and I had taken an accounting class together where we learned how to write checks, balance a budget, etc. I enjoyed school and learning came pretty easily to me. He struggled a bit more and asked for help on occasion in class. For all general purposes, I would have considered him a friend.
One day in gym class we were all playing different games in our own groups. Again, the details are fuzzy having to reach so far back, but I remember having a ball . . . maybe a basketball . . . that he wanted and that I didn’t want to give to him. I’m not sure if I was being selfish, protecting it for my friends, or if I was showing off. Both of us being the same height, I am sure also triggered our competitive natures. To this day, I get a thrill in competing with male friends even when I know I have no chance of winning. It was even worse when I was younger. Anyway, whatever happened between us escalated and I think I remember chucking the ball that he wanted clear across the gymnasium just to prove my point. He turned bright red and in a fit of rage and slapped me in the face with word “nigger”. Feeling the blow, I immediately wanted to fight (mind you, I had never been in a fight in my life outside of the occasional wrestling with my boy cousins). I tried to run towards him but my friends pulled me away and his friends did the same. We were both dragged away hot, mad, and crying.
When things calmed down, he did apologize for what he said but we were never friends after that.
I left Lindley after that seventh grade year and went to the high school that my mom graduated from, which was 99% African American. There, I played basketball for two years; was a member of a performance group called America’s P.R.I.D.E.; joined the Northstarettes (fast forward to 49 seconds); I was in the fine arts talent center; took AP English; joined the work program, where during my senior year of high school I was able to leave school early to work at Crawford Communications; and eventually was chosen as homecoming queen by my peers. In high school I never had to prove myself. Every opportunity was available and I tried to take advantage of as many as possible.
During my senior year of high school, my mom and I fell on hard times and had to leave our home. Ironically, at the same time, my grandmother lost the ability to use her legs temporarily and we moved in to take care of her. It was a very strange time for the family. When it was time to decide where to go to college, I knew I wanted a new experience away from home. I also knew I wanted a school that had a solid reputation in the arts, but one that would give me other options in case I changed my mind about being an artist. Finally, I wanted a racially diverse experience, so I chose a college that had diverse ethnic numbers in the faculty and student body. I applied everywhere . . . to at least thirty schools. My guidance counselor made sure that our students were not shut out of being considered for any school because we couldn’t afford application fees. Students who wanted to apply and met application requirements were given fee waivers. I don’t know if that would have happened had I not attended a school where teachers who knew my family history and were excited to help shape my future. I was accepted everywhere and was then able to narrow my search down to scholarship offerings and degree programs.
My mother, cousin, and one of her high school students took a trip up the east coast to visit my top ten schools. When I made it to Syracuse’s campus, I knew I had found the college experience of my dreams. But like most middle class American families, we couldn’t afford the dream.