That First Encounter

In my teacher book club we are reading Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I find the book club an interesting experiment in who among my fellow corps members are well versed in talking about topics of race and ethnicity and education and who are trying to understand the concepts, and most interestingly, those who are navigating their own known or unknown preconceptions. In yesterday’s discussion we began by sharing stories of our first encounter with race. A few of us braved sharing with the group, including myself, telling a story I’ve shared countless of times: my second year in school, refusing to give up my seat and being asked when did all the African monkeys start getting let inside the school. I recounted how in the moment I was overwhelmed by my feelings. A small girl at age 7, I didn’t know how quite to respond or the entire implications of what he was saying (Africa was a far concept from my mind, as well as the connection to monkeys) but I knew that I should be angry at what he said, and I certainly felt hurt and ashamed at what I could tell even at a young age was something ‘different’ about myself from the rest of those on the bus. I remember then telling my mom about it and watching at how sad she looked as I stammered through the story. Looking back now I can only imagine the length of the work it takes to be a parent in those moments of reaffirming one’s child’s humanity and worth, as well as navigating through the complex maze of race relations, both scientific and social.

But what struck me the most about those who shared in book club was how vivid the memory was for each person. They, like myself, could remember almost the exact date, what they wore, what they ate, the names of others involved, etc. It was like yesterday because despite the fact one may try to write the terrible things that happen or are said in sand instead of stone, one still remembers the process of the writing.

This moment especially stuck with me because of an incident that occurred last week. I was out with my friend Thecla and her friend from home in South Beach. We were enjoying our night, dancing to the music and laughing the night away when a man close to our age barged through our circle. I put my hand on his arm to gently steer him away from running into me. In that moment he looked at me with eyes that were filled with such disgust and hate and sneered at me that he ‘didn’t like black girls.’ I was struck by the slap of words in the face, and had to calm Thecla down from going after him. He wasn’t worth the time nor the pursuit. At almost 25 such human actions sadly do not surprise me nor do they confuse me the way it had that day on the school bus almost twenty years ago. But the words hung in the air hours later because for the briefest of moments he had brought me back to the rush of feelings of younger days. For a suspended second, I was back to that first encounter.

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