The Beautiful Black
Holding onto my innocence as I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was difficult. I began to recognize the injustice of segregation around me. There were restaurants with signs that read, "Whites Only" and "No Coloreds Allowed". Blacks could only drink from water fountains and use restrooms that were labeled "Colored". My brother and I didn't run into any real trouble with the white kids, but there were times when we were called "nigger" and asked to leave certain neighborhoods. We didn't experience the same violence that many blacks did in other parts of the South, but Louisville was segregated. It was strange going out into a world that looked at blacks as second-class citizens while being raised with pride and self-awareness at home. Although my parents tried their best to shield us from the cruelties of the world, some problems were inevitable.
One of my first encounters with prejudice happened when I was too young to remember, but I've heard my mother tell the story. She and I were standing at a bus stop. It was a hot day and I was thirsty, so we walked up the block to a small diner , where she asked if she could have a cup of water for her son. The man said he could not help us and closed the door in our faces. I can only imagine the pain my mother felt when she tried to find the words to explain why the man would not give me a glass of water. Even during these times my mother would say, "Hating is wrong, no matter who does the hating. It's just plain wrong."
When I was a little older, I saw a newspaper with a frontpage story about a boy named Emmett Till. He was a black boy about the same age as me, who was brutalized and lynched while on vacation in Mississippi, supposedly for whistling at a white woman. A picture of him in his coffin was in the newspapers. It made me sick, and it scared me. I was full of sadness and confusion. I didn't realize how hateful some people could be until that day.
At that early age, I could see that something was very wrong. I didn't understand it. When I looked in the mirror, I thought that my skin was beautiful and I was proud of the color of my complexion , but there were many black people who didn't want to be black anymore. Indeed, nothing good reflected our image. Superman was white. Santa Claus was white. They even made Tarzan, king of the jungle in Africa, a white man. I noticed that Miss America was always white, and the President living in the White House was white, too. We didn't have any hero who looked like us. Even pictures of Jesus Christ and all the angels were always white. In contrast,everything black was considered bad and undesirable . Like black cats bring bad luck. Devils' food cake was the dark cake, and angel's food cake was the white cake.
These may have been subtle messages, but the effects were profound. Every day these messages shaped the images that I and other nonwhite children had of ourselves. I didn't know how, but I knew that I was going to help my people. Somehow, I was going to make a difference in the world. The more injustice that I saw, the stronger my feelings grew. It made me feel that I was here for a reason. Despite the fact that my heart could harden in a world with so much pain, confusion, and injustice, I knew that if I were going to survive, I could not become bitter. I would have to love even those who could not give it in return. I would have to learn to forgive even those who would not, or my soul would wither away.