“Mom, Am I a Negro?”

The formation of identity is important for all children, and for African American children, outside sources of prejudice and racism add additional layers to that formation.  The truth is, racial politics in America have not yet been resolved.  Our country is still polarized, as evidenced in the recent one-year anniversary of the race riots in Charlottesville. Considering the history of the United States and its relationship with slavery, one can see that there is a prevalent feeling of mistrust, fear, and prejudice against people of African descent, which has led to the racism, whether overt or covert with which our society continues to struggle.  Positive identity development is complicated by negative messages that come from a white society that is dominant.

As I look back over my life, I feel more than satisfied with who I have become.  I am grounded, positive, confident.  I have good self-identity and good self-esteem.  However, this has not always been the case.  For most of my life, I suffered with feelings of inadequacy, and sometimes inferiority.  One of the sources of these negative feelings occurred when I was eight years old.

In September 1958 I attended a new school in Queens, New York where I lived with my family; father, mother, two brothers.  My older brother and I had transferred from public school to a small Lutheran school some distance from our home.  My mother didn’t drive, and as school hours did not allow my father to drive us, a taxi was hired to take us to and from school each day.  I was in the fourth grade and my brother was in fifth.  It was a small school so even though we were in different grades, my class was on one side of a large room and my brother’s class was on the other side.  There was only one class per grade in the first through sixth-grade building.

After a few months of school, one of my classmates handed out envelopes to each student in our class.  I did not receive one on my desk.  As the envelopes were opened during lunchtime, the students began to talk about what was inside.   They had all received invitations to her birthday party.  I watched as they smiled and talked about the party.  I felt funny in my stomach and confused.  I had been playing and working with the children up to that moment and I wondered what I’d done so that the girl (I don’t remember her name) would leave me out.

While I sat and listened and watched, the birthday girl came to my desk.  “I wanted to invite you,” she said, “but my mother said I couldn’t invite Negroes to my party”.  I was very confused.  I’d never heard the word before and I didn’t know what a Negro was.  I was always a good student and prided myself on my grades and my knowledge.  I couldn’t get a handle on how she knew a word I didn’t know.  I surmised that whatever it was, being a Negro must be a bad thing because her mother said that was the reason why I wasn’t invited.  I heard myself say to her, “But I’m not a Negro”.  She responded, “My mother said you are”.  She walked away and left me to my confusion.

I couldn’t understand how I could be something I never heard of before.  How would her mother know about me?  I didn’t think I’d ever seen her. I don’t remember what happened in school after that.  I do remember feeling ashamed of myself for being something that prevented me from going to the party with everyone else.

A few days later, that next Saturday, my mother was walking me to the dentist.  I had been thinking about Negroes and what they were for those few days and decided to ask my mother to see if she knew about it.  I remember we were holding hands, on our way.  We were on a bridge that crossed the Van Wyck Expressway when I asked,

“Mom?  Am I a Negro?” 

My mother stopped, let go of my hand and said, “Of course you are!”  Her voice was strained.  She wasn’t yelling but she had a tone like she was.  She was frowning, and she looked very serious. I was so shocked!  I said, “Are you?  Is Dad?  Are all of us Negroes?”  She said, “Yes, all of us are.”  We continued walking, now in silence.

That was it.  That was the end of the discussion.  I was left to my own understanding, which was – I am a Negro. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s bad.  I can’t go to the party and Mom sounded weird when she told me.  I didn’t bring it up again.

Somewhere along the line, I found out that Negroes were what we now call African Americans.  I had never heard the word before that day in my class.  I don’t remember how I found out what the word meant, but I became aware that there was a reason that my family members were different colors.  I was the lightest one, and my older brother Skip was the darkest one.  My younger brother was in between us.  I’m not sure why I never asked my parents about it, but I know I didn’t.  I was frightened by my mother’s response, so I might not have wanted to bring it up again. We had some other family dynamics going on in my early years which taught me it was better not to rock any boats.

I remained in that school for one more school year until our family moved to Long Island, New York.  My younger brother and I now attended a different school and I was in sixth grade. My older brother went to the junior high school.  I carried my shame with me, and I was afraid that someone in the new school would know that I was a Negro.  But I never mentioned it and hoped no one would notice.  I must have found something out about skin color because I remember thinking that since my older, darker brother was in a new school no one would guess about me.  Time passed, and I became close to one of the other girls in my class.  One day we were in the schoolyard and I told her I had a secret.  She asked what it was.  I told her I was a Negro. She said she knew that already.  This time I asked another question.  “How did you know?”  She said, “Because I used to live in Texas, so I know what Negroes look like.”  I remember being surprised that she knew and happy that she was still my friend.

In the spring of that year, our neighborhood began a civil rights movement that was to last for the next twelve or so years.  The school district was divided into three villages – two were all white and ours was Black.  Each village had an elementary school that reflected the population of the village.  All elementary schools fed into one junior high and one high school.  The struggle was to integrate the three elementary schools.  Because my parents became involved at first, and then leaders in that movement, my brothers and I all became educated about race and politics.  The adults of our community organized a “Freedom School” where the children met on Saturdays and they took turns teaching us Black history.  It was then that I finally understood what a Negro was.

When I was an adult, I asked my mother why she answered me the way she did so many years ago.  She told me that she and my father had decided to raise us without prejudice. They thought it would be good for us to know people as people, not defined by race, so they never talked about it in front of us.  She said she was upset, angry, and shocked that I had been introduced to the word Negro.  Her facial expression, body movements reflected that shock.

I have told this story before.  Each time, I’ve told it with a humorous tone.  But there is a much more insidious side to the story. When I look at the story from the inside of my self, I see a little-wounded girl who is alone in my understanding, who is fearful of what might be a sad truth about my very makeup as a person.  I was alienated and apart with no clue as to why. 

I am convinced that my lifelong poor posture has everything to do with this early stress.  I hunched over in order to hide myself.  The rejection I felt and struggled with lasted for years after the incident.  Even while I learned of the history and achievements of African American people; even while I came to be proud of my heritage, in the back of my mind was the picture of that pitiful little girl who couldn’t go to the party.

I realize that my reflection on my eighth year of life shaped and formed me.  I was fortunate to have a family system in place that, although perhaps late, managed to give me information that I needed to develop a positive personal identity.  However, that is not to say that my body and psyche did not suffer from the experience.

The takeaway, or wisdom with which I am left is evident in how I have raised my children, how I have taught hundreds of other people’s children.  I have learned to communicate with them through listening to their stories and their questions without judgment.  I have paid attention not just to their words, but their body movements to determine if they are satisfied with my responses.  This reflection has given me a new vocabulary to discuss what I know to be sound practice when working with children.  What I do with that new vocabulary is yet to be determined, but I know that if I choose to share my search for identity story again, it will be from a new perspective that will not simply be entertaining, but instructional.

Reverend Deborah Jackson has a love of history, which was rooted in her work in civil rights and her understanding that as African Americans we have courageous, dynamic, and brilliant shoulders on which to stand has been evident throughout her career.  Her involvement in children’s issues is her life work as both teacher and administrator in public and private schools in Brooklyn, New York.

Rev. Jackson and her husband, Andrew, founded SeaStar Services, Inc., a 501c3 non-profit organization that supports children in need worldwide.  Currently, SeaStar is supporting an orphanage, school, and a community in Leogane, Haiti which Rev. Jackson has visited on more than one occasion after the January 10, 2010 earthquake which destroyed much of the country. 

Of all her accomplishments, Rev. Finley-Jackson has been most profoundly affected by her call to ministry.  She is an ordained Itinerant Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, currently assisting in the planting of Family of Faith AME Church in St. Thomas, USVI, where she now resides.  She also serves as the 16th Episcopal District’s President of AME Women In Ministry, covering fourteen countries in the Caribbean, Brazil, and Europe.

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