Just Us/Kwame Salter

Kwame Salter

What About Me?

Incident

“Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked

His tongue, and called me, “Nigger”.

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.” 

by Countee Cullen

Recently there was a big fuss among many about the teaching the real history of slavery and the subsequent role that systemic racism has played in the lives of Black Americans. More specifically, some have maintained that the young white children of today don’t deserve to be traumatized or made to feel guilty about something their forebearers did.

In fact, the state of Florida insists that the curriculum should emphasize the “benefits” of slavery. Even more outlandish is the demand that any so-called controversial topics being discussed be subject to a counter argument. For example, if the topic is about the Holocaust, then Holocaust deniers have a right to counter the facts. Every time I hear or read about this sanitizing of history and the concern about how telling the raw truth about our history would impact white children, I swallow hard. I keep thinking about what I experienced every day of my life as a young Black boy.

Was I traumatized by these lived experiences? Hell yes, I was! From first grade through eighth grade, I attended Catholic Schools in Milwaukee, WI. Straight outta of Louisiana, my sister and I arrived at St. Rose of Lima parish and elementary school. I was seven and my sister nine-years-old when we started at St Rose. These were very impressionable ages when one didn’t have the experience to make sense out of why people would, for no apparent reason, call us names or attack us.

St Rose was a predominately Irish American Parish with just a sprinkling of Black parishioners.  Counting my sister and I, there were two other Black kids in a school of about 200 students. While we were generally accepted as part of the Parish (Irish) community, we still experienced what is called today, micro-aggressions. In other words, questions about the texture of our hair and our pigmentation were routine inquiries daily.

Occasionally, in a fit of anger at losing a playground game some kid might resort to using the N-word. It wasn’t like they shouted the word. No, it was more like they spat the word out. I can never forget how their faces were contorted and flushed red with unbridled anger. They acted as if the N- word was a lethal weapon that would put me back in my place.

Thanks to my parents’ strong sense of Black pride, my sister, brother and I were prepared. In addition to the “sticks and stones….and words will never hurt me” speech, we were told to ignore taunts — unless someone got physical with us. In that case, we were instructed to defend ourselves. For the record, at least once a week, I had to defend myself.

Early in my pre-teens, I was more than capable of resolving conflicts with my fists. However, little did I realize that name-calling was just the tip of the racial iceberg.  I didn’t comprehend how deeply embedded racial profiling and hatred were in America. As I matured, it became evident that I could not beat up every racist or bigot. This awareness made me aware of what today we call “systemic racism.”  In other words, name-calling and other acts of bigotry were simply by-products of this elaborate and intricate system of apartheid.

To use a British expression, I am gobsmaked, every time I hear some say we should not teach the true history of our country because it might upset, confuse or even traumatize young white children. Well, for the record, it didn’t appear that anyone cared about this little Black boy’s feelings back in the day. Not one school counselor tied my acting out to the lived experiences of racism I faced — but did not understand.  Now, it is imperative that America come to grip with its unglamorous past and the extreme durability of systemic racism. How in the heck can teaching about hate create more hate? We must teach the Truth. As Gloria Steinem once said, “The Truth Will Set You Free — but first it will piss you off.”

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