This I Believe

Andrea - Oakland, California
Entered on June 12, 2007

I thought I was black growing up. To understand why this was a problem, you’d have to see me in the middle of winter. My legs turn a ghostly shade of pale that not even stockings can hide.

But back then, I didn’t know this was relevant. Black is what I was.

In my predominately African American elementary school, when we learned about Black History, Black Culture, Black Literature, Black Art, we always learned it in first person. It was OUR history, OUR culture, OUR people. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t part of the plural.

At least not until one afternoon at home when I was reading my Ebony Jr. magazine. Students had submitted poetry, and the winners had their pictures glossy and posed next to their writing. I imagined my class photo sitting next to my latest poem; my elementary school’s name boldly typed underneath mine. My classmates would pass the page, then flip back, stunned at my familiar face waiting patiently to be found. I would surprise everyone, not say a word until my publication replaced the newspaper clippings smugly displayed in the glass case in front of the school library. I needed some adult help, though. So I told my dad the plan.

I’m not sure when, during the course of the conversation that followed, he realized that I hadn’t associated the whiteness of my skin with race. He flipped through the pages of Ebony Jr.; smiles, folded hands, turned heads, one after the other. He asked me again and again if I saw any difference between me and the kids in the pictures. As each page turned, I tried to come up with the right answer. He was so earnest, so puzzled, and I wanted desperately to show him I was smart – but I couldn’t figure out what he wanted from me. Until, finally, my stomach folded in on itself. I was too stunned to even cry. I distinctly remember wondering who I was, for in that moment, I realized I wasn’t black.

I didn’t know how to go back to school. I was embarrassed at how presumptuous I had been. I was overwhelmed with the loss of what I thought was “my people.” But mostly, I was lonely.

This I believe: nearly the entire school was black and I was an average student, yet I was always placed in the highest reading, math, spelling, and everything-else group. This I believe: when I went to the drug store across the street the clerk never noticed me. He noticed my classmates. He watched them. This I believe; that when I lost my library books, I was considered scattered. When my classmates lost theirs, they received lectures on stealing.

This I believe: I got over feeling lonely, but I think my fellow alumni are still being followed in stores.