A strange thing occurred in 2006 when I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be among “Salt-of-the-Earth” Americans, dyed in the wool patriots, and some of the kindest people you’d ever want to meet. They were also largely unfamiliar with non-White people. In quick order, I learned the difference between racists and people who simply had no frame of reference.
It was a regular occurrence to have strangers stare — and these were adults who should know even if I had a unicorn’s horn protruding from my forehead, to divert their gaze. Once it became clear that I was no visitor, but firmly living among them, White people routinely approached me and asked if they could touch my hair or feel my skin. What would have been grounds to assert that D.C. “homegirl” posture, instead impressed upon me the sheer, naked ignorance of my neighbors. I chose to address “a false supremacy” — the one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks of in a recently surfaced, lost speech from 1962.
Everything became a “teachable moment” that would later inform my historical research into identity formation and eugenics. One student at the University of Nebraska, scheduled an appointment to meet with me so that he could introduce his father to his “pure Black” teacher. A very nice, but ill-informed gentleman politely asked if he could touch my hair (which was in Senegalese twists) and delighted in surprise by its softness.
“Did you believe my hair would not be soft?” I asked him.
“No, I heard someone say that Black women’s hair was so sharp that it could cut you and that’s why you all wear scarves on your head and won’t let Black men run their fingers through it.”
I stopped short of laughing in his face.
“Who told you that?” I asked him total shock.
“That comedian, Chris Rock, who said it during a stand up I went to see.”
Needless to say, we had a long talk about Rock and a few others.
Cornhusker dad, who was easily 50-plus in age, also admitted that he and his family enjoyed dressing in blackface for annual pageants and gatherings — which had begun when he was in grade school. Sure enough, there were pictures from yearbooks, religious socials, and fraternity parties he shared with me of his family blackened up with boot polish and mimicking the stereotypical behaviors of imaginary Black people. He never understood why it offended people when it was merely a bit of “fun.”
I was very kind in explaining the offenses to Cornhusker Dad. I showed him archival clips of little Black children being hit in the face with baseballs at state fairs as part of the African Dodger games and other children being dropped into vats of water for the amusement of carnival-goers in the African Dip game (later simply called the Dunking Booth). Turning Black people into things which you could take pleasure in harming and win prizes to boot, was racist, demeaning, and savage. By turning Black people into “things” no one had to take their concerns — their housing, education, feelings, or lives — into consideration. It also meant that should someone you’ve hit in the head with baseballs or dressed up to mimic for Halloween earn a position as your supervisor, you would feel angered. It would likely convince you that it was good form to fall over yourself to meet your son’s professor, the “pure Black.”
Fortunately, Cornhusker dad and I became good friends and much of what I discussed with him traveled into his home and community. Sixteen years later, I count them as transformed people, card carrying members of the NAACP, and staunches supporters of civil rights.
Dr. King wrote that “by burning in the consciousness of white Americans a conviction that Negroes are by nature subnormal, much of the myth was absorbed by the Negro himself, stultifying his energy, his ambition, and his self-respect. Inferiority as a fetter is more subtle and sophisticated than iron chains; it is invisible, and its victim helps to fashion his own bonds.”
As The Washington Informer celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we ask our readers to take a bold stand against inequality and teach our fellow Americans our truths. Let’s break apart the chains of inequality that bind us by checking (and addressing) our own biases.
Read, Learn, Grow.